Getting the Last Laugh

SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD Finds Company with Other Apocalyptic Comedies

By Colin Brown | May 16, 2012
Seeking Amusement

Ever quick to tap into the global zeitgeist, cinema has given us dozens of planet-imperiling scenarios these past few years. The threat of human extinction has provided the existential backdrop to films both epic and intimate: Armageddon, Deep Impact, Transformers, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012, Contagion, The Road, The Book Of Eli, Melancholia, Another Earth, Take Shelter and now The Avengers, to name just some. By turns bombastic and brooding, this catalogue of calamity has amounted to one big Mayan meltdown at the multiplex. But as Heath Ledger’s The Joker might ask: Why so serious? Indeed, with every periodic spate of disaster movies have also come films that find lighter-hearted hilarity, or at least doses of dark humor, in the face of preordained doom and the post-apocalyptic aftermath. The latest is SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD, the directorial debut of Lorene Scafaria, who wrote the screenplay for Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Her new romantic comedy pairs Steve Carell and Keira Knightley as unlikely travel companions who team up to find their loved ones in the three weeks before an asteroid named Matilda hits the Earth. “I feel like I'm getting my mid-life crisis in just under the wire,” jokes Carell’s character while in the background the radio station is counting down “to the end of days –– along with all your classic rock favorites.” Just because the world is teetering on the brink of climactic, economic, pandemic, cosmic and apocalyptic collapse doesn’t mean you can’t go out with a grin. Here’s a look at some of the other classic catastrophe movies that have provoked similar chuckles –– not all of them intentional.

Final Countdown

Sandra Oh in Last Night; One Night Stand poster

Well, what would you do if you knew the world’s going to end at midnight? If you are Duncan, the owner of a power station, you spend those final hours phoning every one of your customers thanking them for their business and reassuring them that their heating gas will be kept on until the very last. The fact that this character in Don McKellar’s Last Night is played by David Cronenberg, the revered Canadian filmmaker hardly known for warm-and-fuzzy sentiments, only adds to the casually comic tone of McKellar’s acclaimed feature-length debut, which won festival prizes in Cannes and Toronto. Released in 1998, Last Night is a decidedly laidback response to the approaching end of the millennium –– and a stunning contrast to the Hollywood histrionics seen that same year in both Armageddon and Deep Impact. “Don McKellar's film is the perfect antidote to those fire-and-fury apocalypse packages in which blazing portents of destruction streak across the skies only to be halted at the last moment by a few stout American hearts,” declared British critic Jonathan Romney. “Only in Canada can you get away with films like this.” And maybe only in Australia would you get John Duigan’s 1984 film One Night Stand, in which four teenagers learn that bombs have dropped in Eastern Europe and decide to pass the time in a deserted Sydney Opera House mixing drinks, flirting and playing strip poker. “It's a nuclear war and they're having a blast!” was one of the film’s taglines –– one that actually belied Duigan’s rather gentle, introspective tone. Variety’s review at the time praised the daring approach and shattering climax. “Duigan seems to suggest that, in Australia at least, the world will end not with a bang nor exactly a whimper, but with a puzzled question-mark.” Not that all American-made doomsday depictions are necessarily heavy-handed. Steve DeJarnatt’s Miracle Mile, made in 1989, won its own admirers for its light touch, eerie atmosphere and an abrupt shift in tone. What begins as a kooky romantic comedy in which Anthony Edwards’ bashful musician falls for Mare Winningham’s waitress promptly lurches into tense roller coaster territory after an intercepted phone call reveals that World War Three has broken out. “From On the Beach to The Day After, depictions of nuclear threat have almost invariably come cloaked in a mood of official warning,” noted the New York Times review. “Miracle Mile is a movie that takes a deep breath and shucks off most of the usual solemnity to wonder again, what if?”

Explosive Satire

Dr. Strangelove

The threat of nuclear annihilation that hung over the world during the height of the Cold War was made palpable in the Hollywood matinee classics that came to define that anxious era. From Robert Aldrich’s film noir Kiss Me Deadly and Sidney Lumet’s melodrama Fail Safe to John Frankenheimer’s political thriller The Manchurian Candidate and Robert Wise’s sci-fi parable The Day the Earth Stood Still, America’s leading filmmakers milked the public paranoia to atomic perfection. But even in the grim midst of all this mutually assured destruction, there was still plenty of room for humor. While American songwriter Tom Lehrer gleefully sang his popular piano ditty “We Will All Go Together When We Go,” Billy Wilder flew to Berlin to shoot One, Two, Three, a frenetic 1961 farce in which James Cagney plays an American expat trying to sell Coca-Cola to the communists in East Germany. The greatest Cold War satire of them all – and indeed among the greatest black comedies ever made – remains Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 doomsday masterpiece Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb. In this scathing spoof of political and military insanity, several of the choicest lines and most memorable scenes have long since become embedded into our cultural psyche. Who can forget the War Room scenes with the hawkish George C. Scott and the fatalistic Sterling Hayden, or Peter Seller’s ex-Nazi scientist with the mechanical arm forever lurching into an uncontrollable Sieg Heil salute? Then there’s the indelible image of Slim Pickens’ character riding the warhead rodeo-style into global oblivion? And, to cap it all, that bombshell of an ending played out to Vera Lynn singing “We’ll Meet Again.” Over-the-top caricatures maybe, but the sheer panache with which Kubrick pulls this all off is undeniable. In Sight & Sound’s once-a-decade poll of film directors and critics, which it last conducted in 2002, Dr. Strangelove was rated the fifth greatest film of all time – the only comedy to break into the hallowed top 10.

Post-Apocalyptic Laughs

A Boy and His Dog poster; Delicatessen

Judging by the ever-growing canon of post-apocalyptic cinema, comedy will happily survive the post-nuclear fallout. Even if the humor may come laced with a morbid aftertaste. Among the more deliciously macabre comedies ever served up is Delicatessen, set in a dilapidated apartment that stands amid the apocalyptic rubble in an unnamed French city. With food in short supply, the building’s landlord posts job opportunities in a bid to lure in victims he can cut up as a cheap source of meat to his tenants. “I’m a butcher, but I don’t mince words,” he says, summing up the droll zaniness of a story that culminates in a battle with a vegetarian sub-group of French rebels. Delicatessen is a feast for the eyes. But if its storyline is hard to stomach, try watching A Boy and his Dog, a 1975 curio that anticipates the ravaged landscapes popularized a few years later by the Mad Max series. Written and directed by L.Q. Jones, one of Sam Peckinpah’s favored actors, A Boy and His Dog stars a young Don Johnson who communicates telepathically with his sheepdog as they scavenge for food –– and sex –– in a future wasteland decimated by World War Four (which lasted just five days). Billed as a “rather kinky tale of survival,” this darkly comic allegory has become something of a cult movie, mostly because of a controversial punchline of an ending. “Well, I'd certainly say she had marvelous judgment,” concludes the Dog, savoring the woman who serves as the film’s love interest. “If not particularly good taste." Just as Delicatessen marked the big screen initiation of co-directors Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (who would later make Amelie), so another dark post-apocalyptic vision introduced the world to Luc Besson, France’s most commercially successful filmmaker and producer. There is no hint of cannibalism in his precocious 1983 debut Le Dernier Combat (The Last Battle) but there is broad humor aplenty in amongst the ruins of a burnt-out world in which devastation has robbed its feral survivors of the power of speech. Once again, sex is scarce. With an opening shot of a hero humping a blow-up doll, which slowly deflates, Besson’s black-and-white visuals borrow much from the silent comedy of Chaplin and Keaton. Science fiction would be a genre that Besson would return to 14 years later with The Fifth Element, by which time the wry whimsy and slapstick inventiveness had metastasized into something closer to tongue-in-cheek camp.

Attack of the Apocalyptic Bs

A shady businessman, his wife and a lawyer go scuba diving in Puerto Rico. When they surface they find that a temporary lack of oxygen has killed off the rest of humanity. They are probably the only people left on Earth: two men and a woman named, yes, Eve. Welcome to the irresistibly absurd world of Roger Corman, the King of B-movies. In his exploitative hands, the end of civilization has rarely been as entertaining or as cheap. So cheap that in the case of The Last Woman on Earth, Corman could not afford to start shooting with a completed script, far less bring a writer with him on location. His novel solution was to ask a budding writer to play one of the film’s young leads. That way, the actor could complete the screenplay at night while he wasn’t in front of the cameras during their two-week shoot. Although credited as Edward Wain, that novice was none other than Robert Towne, who went on to write crucial scenes for both Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather and won an Oscar for his Chinatown screenplay. Ever resourceful, Corman recycled unused footage from Last Woman as the basis for an immediate follow-up flick, Creature from the Haunted Sea, that also co-starred Towne. As critic Dave Kehr noted in his Roger Corman essay The Apocalypse Served Straight Up, the director of such films as Teenage Caveman, The Day The World Ended and Gas-s-s-s was “fascinated by the prospect of end times, of civilizations collapsing and worlds imploding. In Mr. Corman’s movies, the deluge is always just around the corner.” But to Corman himself such allegorical overtones were of only secondary importance. “A lot of people see these films today and ask me if I knew I was being existential,” said Corman. “No. I was primarily aware that I was in trouble. I was shooting with hardly any money and less time.” It helps that Corman has always had such an uncanny eye for fresh talent. Not just Towne, but also Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro and John Sayles all owed their career starts to the Roger Corman School of Filmmaking. “Do a good job on this picture,” Corman would tell them, “and your reward will be that you’ll never have to work for me again.”

Low-Budget, High Camp

Jeffrey Falcon in Six-String Samurai; Melanie Griffith in Cherry 2000

When it comes to science fiction “humor is a very tricky business,” admitted Roger Corman in the book Roger Corman: Interviews. “There is always the tendency, when confronted with both drama and comedy, to go for the comedy. Not only that, but to go for the comedy in a broad way. It’s fun to do. It’s easy to do. But… it also undermines the story.” Other low-budget filmmakers don’t feel quite so constrained. A sub-genre of post-apocalyptic cinema has emerged in which everything – genres, movie references, good taste, you name it – is tossed into the storytelling meat-grinder in a lets-see-what-sticks assault on the audience's funny bone. Needless to say, such mutant films fall in the love/hate category of schlock cinema. The standout example is Six-String Samurai, a midnight favorite of the festival circuit that might best be described as a rock 'n' roll melding of Mad Max and Yojimbo. Against the backdrop of a 1957 American landscape eviscerated by Russian warheads, an Elvis-like musician heads to “Lost Vegas” where he must battle other bands in order to rule this one remaining frontier. Littered with nods to The Wizard of Oz, his journey takes in bourgeois cannibals, fascist Communists, samurai, “windmill people” and a bowling team of bounty hunters. There’s a similarly psychopathic desert wasteland setting for Steve De Jarnatt’s Cherry 2000, an arch sci-fi sex comedy-cum action mishmash made in 1987 in which Melanie Griffiths plays a hard-nosed female mercenary who helps a yuppie find a new body for his robot girlfriend –– which had the misfortune of short-circuiting on him during sex, poor love. If that’s not sufficiently bizarro there’s always Hell Comes to Frogtown. Made in 1988, this cheeseball-deluxe stars Roddy Piper –– the wrestler who also headlined John Carpenter’s sci-fi horror They Live – as the last fertile man in a post-nuke world filled with humanoid frogs. Echoing a familiar post-apocalyptic theme, impregnation is the driving motivation here. For some, though, the funniest aspect is watching journeymen actors trying to keep a straight face throughout the mayhem. There’s even a 1993 sequel. Don’t ask.

Days of Reckoning

Alanis Morissette as God in Dogma; John Travolta in Battlefield Earth

Thank God for Monty Python. The British comedy troupe’s 1979 comedy classic Life Of Brian dared to poke fun at religion on the big screen –– opening the door twenty years later to films such as Kevin Smith’s profane Catholic fantasia Dogma and Hal Hartley’s typically deadpan The Book of Life that explored what would happen if Jesus had second thoughts about The Apocalypse. Of these, it was Dogma that ignited the most controversy. Rather like Life Of Brian, it is more heretical than it is blasphemous, lampooning organized religion as opposed to any particular devotion to God. But times have changed since 1979 –– so much so that Life of Brian’s director Terry Jones told the Daily Mail he no longer believes his film could get safely made now. While Smith’s jokes are cruder than the Pythons’ – Dogma has a rubber poop monster, for Christ’s sake – he manages to take a swipe at far more ambitious theological targets. His film’s premise is that human existence itself will end if God, played by Canadian singer Alanis Morissette, is proved fallible. Which is why She tries to move Heaven and Earth to stop a couple of Fallen Angels, played by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, from exploiting a loophole and returning to the celestial realm. “It started with me asking some questions about my own faith but the flick doesn't attempt to hold out answers to any of those questions," says Smith in the production notes. "It's meant to make you laugh."  Whether Roger Christian, the director behind Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000, had similar ambitions is not known – but he certainly succeeded in provoking guffaws and hoots with his adaptation of the bestselller by L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology. Even though the story revolves around a Final Battle between Good and Evil, the film’s star John Travolta has claimed there are no thematic links with his church’s belief system. It’s sci-fi pure and simple, the story of how mankind, now an endangered species, fights back against the sadistic thousand-year rule of their alien invaders. “After about 20 minutes of this amateurish picture, extinction doesn't seem like such a bad idea,” said the New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell. A Plan 9 From Outer Space for a new generation, he called it, and a candidate for the worst film of the century –– even though it was only May 2000 at the time of writing. Talk about Last Judgment. As it happened, in 2010, Battlefield Earth took home the Razzie for Worst Picture of the Decade – an award that was gamely accepted by its co-screenwriter, J.D. Shapiro, no doubt in raptures at having been spared a complete career annihilation.

Apocalyptic Fairy Tales

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind; WALL-E

Charming and witty as it might be, Pixar’s WALL-E has a vision of the future that is way bleaker than many of the accepted reference points for post-apocalyptic cinema. In films like The Omega Man, Planet Of The Apes, The Day After Tomorrow, I Am Legend and Dawn of the Dead, some semblance of human life has managed to cling on to the planet. In WALL-E, the nearest we get to a last man standing is a garbage-collecting robot and his pet cockroach. The rest has been obliterated by an environmental holocaust. But trust Pixar to find beauty, hope and some wonderfully choreographed comedy in amongst the trash-pile of human greed. Perhaps the only comparable filmmaker to come close to deriving such transcendent whimsy from the depths of ecological ruin is Japan’s manga-master, Hayao Miyazaki. His breakout film, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, in which a determined young world battles against a contaminated world that is coved by a poisonous mushroom forest and inhabited by huge insects, encapsulates many of the themes dear to Miyazaki – and does so with his characteristic touches of quirky humor. No less harrowing –– but also unexpectedly funny –– is another animated delight, Jimmy T. Murakami’s When The Wind Blows, a British film made for MGM in 1986. Based on a graphic novel by Raymond Briggs (better known for that Christmas evergreen The Snowman), it revolves around an elderly couple who build a shelter in preparation for an impending nuclear attack –– blithely unaware that the nature of warfare has changed since their romantic memories of World War II. Inevitably, they succumb to radiation sickness, but this is no excuse for dreary pessimism. “I'll pop down to the chemist when the crisis pales into insignificance,” says one of the characters in response to the unsightly blotches that turn up on their body. Possibly never has the English reputation for stoicism “been sent up with such brutally funny seriousness,” marveled the New York Times review.

The World Goes Ape

Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt in 12 Monkeys; Dwayne Johnson in Southland Tales

What is it about alpha males and the apocalypse? With every new generation of cinema comes another set of macho men to save the world from the dystopic or alien brink. Charlton Heston (Planet Of The Apes, The Omega Man and Soylent Green), Kurt Russell (Escape From New York, The Thing), Mel Gibson (Mad Max), Arnold Schwarzenegger (Terminator 2: Judgment Day, End Of Days) and Bruce Willis (Armageddon, The Fifth Element, Planet Terror) have all had their bare-chested showdowns with destiny. No wonder The Hunger Games seems so fresh: not only is our action-hero female, she uses mankind’s oldest weapons –– her bow, her arrow and her smarts –– to survive and ultimately defy a totalitarian, post-apocalyptic regime.The fiercely clenched way all these male actors have often approached our planet’s twilight –– which even extends to Gibson’s feverishly savage depiction of the collapse of the Mayan civilization in his directorial epic Apocalypto –– just begs for a welcome dose of self-aware irony. Which is where Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys comes into play. The mood is somber, the subterranean setting is dank, and Bruce Willis’ central character is a profoundly damaged soul who is sent back in time from a post apocalyptic future to learn about a plague that eradicated much of the Earth. But within the nightmarish recesses of 12 Monkeys' mind-bending plot are bursts of demented comedy and social satire, many of them crystallized in the loony rantings of a scene-stealing Brad Pitt. “He’s seriously crazy,” says a character, a compliment that could just as easily apply to the film itself. 12 Monkeys is what Frank Kafka might have made of the modern world had he lived to be a filmmaker. “Obviously, this has some pretty dark aspects to it," explained Gilliam. "It's dealing with the destruction of the human race, nature's revenge against man's hubris. But I think people have got to relax with this film. It is very tragic, very serious, but it also has some very comic moments. I really believe in that Hitchcock school of mixing terror and humor. My whole career has been about mixing these different elements." If 12 Monkeys baffled critics – one reviewer talked of designer grimness mixed in with cabaret comedy  – it is nothing compared to Richard Kelly’s first two films, both of which deal explicitly with imminent doom. Kelly’s startling debut, Donnie Darko, is a cosmic riddle in which a six-foot rabbit warns Jake Gyllenhaal’s title character that the world will come to an end in 28 days. His follow-up was rather less metaphysical, trading the teenage angst and time-warp physics for a crazy quiltwork that runs the entire comedic gamut from nihilistic satire to outright farce. The first cut of Southland Tales, set in a Californian police state at the epicenter of a political and environmental disaster that threatens to destroy the world, was so disastrously received at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival it is said to have inspired an entire storyline in HBO’s Entourage series. But shorn of another 19 minutes, Southland Tales has been rescued from its own oblivion and even praised, in Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review, for Kelly’s “funny, audacious, messy and feverishly inspired look at America and its discontents.”

ZomComs

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in SHAUN OF THE DEAD; JUAN OF THE DEAD

Zombie cinema has come along way from its origins in Haitian voodoo. In fact the walking dead have gone decidedly mainstream as film and television’s ready-made harbingers of the apocalypse. And not just in Hollywood: with the whole world believing it is now living in the end times, zombie films have gone global. As the Guardian recently joked in the week that a new Cuban zombie satire JUAN OF THE DEAD was about to hit London theatres (before being released online through Focus World), “Zombie films are becoming like burrito chains, or Olympic games: every nation's got to have one.” The neo-zombie renaissance that began a decade ago with Danny Boyle's nerve-jangling 28 Days Later has now spread like a contagion. There have been London-commuter zombies (SHAUN OF THE DEAD) Spanish zombies ([Rec]), New Zealand zombies (Black Sheep and Peter Jackson’s Braindead), Thai zombies (SARS Wars), Serbian zombies (Zone of the Dead) and Taiwanese zombies (Zombie 108). Even Bollywood can now boast its own zomcom in Rock The Shaadi. Bound up with a wide range of cultural anxieties, zombies offer an easy forum for gallows humor and often biting satire amid all the blood splatter and entrails. “The first girl I let into my life and she tries to eat me,” says a character in Zombieland, the 2009 zombie comedy film about a dysfunctional family unit in post-apocalyptic America that surpassed the 2004 remake of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead as the top-grossing zombie film released in the U.S. While Romero’s own classics were not strictly comedies, they were all seen as social critiques. As was the 1984 film Night Of The Comet. A satire on consumerism, the film follows two Valley Girls whose response to the world being all but vaporized by a passing shooting star is to go on the ultimate shopping spree – and to argue over who gets the last boyfriend on Earth. Until, that is, they come up against a small army of zombified stockboys and a cadre of soldiers that need fresh blood to survive. Such daytime visions of the zombie apocalypse are only too familiar to those who watch their multiplex movies in a shopping mall.

Apocalypse Next

Graphic novel Apocalypse Nerd and BBC series Fallout

Taking for granted that the Mayan prophecy doesn’t pan out this December, there is plenty more apocalyptic guffaws to look forward to at a screen near you. Fans of the Harry Potter movies will be delighted to hear that Emma Watson will appear as herself in End Of The World, a comedy that marks the directing debuts of both Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (Superbad). Based on a short film in which Rogen and Jay Baruchel played themselves reacting to an imminent apocalypse, the expanded feature will include cameos from Jonah Hill and James Franco in whose L.A. apartment they all find themselves. Also poised to start shooting is the provisionally titled The World’s End, the third and final movie installment in what British comedy team Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright have called their Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy. Their previous two films in the series, SHAUN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ, both featured scenes in which one of the main characters buys an ice-cream of the appropriate flavor, red-strawberry and blue-classic. Now, in deference to Polish auteur Krzysztof Kieslowski and his Three Colors trilogy, The World’s End will feature a green mint chocolate variety. And already doing the Internet rounds is a teaser trailer for the pilot of Fallout, a six-part BBC television adaptation of Peter Bagge's Apocalypse Nerd, a graphic novel series for Dark Horse Comics that he set in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest after Seattle is destroyed in a North Korean nuclear attack. This is the story of two male friends, battling their quarter-life crisis, who come home from a weekend in the woods to find the world has come to an end. “Weird, funny, heartwarming and then a bit more weird,” says the BBC’s production notes. “Fallout is to Cult British TV what global annihilation is to human kind: the Next Big Thing." Amen to all that – assuming the new Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un, doesn’t get to us first.

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