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Best End of the World Movies, From Dr. Strangelove to Mad Max – Collider

Well, it’s been fun!
Movie-going audiences have always had a morbid fascination with the demise of civilization. Whether it's a deadly contagion, nuclear war, catastrophic climate events, or giant asteroids headed toward earth, we can't seem to get enough scenarios of how the world could end. There are dozens to choose from, but we've narrowed it down to some of the best. Here are the 17 best end-of-the-world movies.
The great auteur, Stanley Kubrick, and his satire about the cloud of fear hanging over America because of the Cold War in the mid-1960s was ahead of its time. Starring Peter Sellers in three different roles (including the titular Nazi scientist, Dr. Strangelove) and George C. Scott, Kubrick's only real foray into politics rips the absurdity of the nuclear scare and incompetence of the political players that pull the strings. It's one of the master filmmaker's earliest films and is also considered one of his finest.
With strong performances by Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee (Power of the Dog), The Road is a grim look at a world following an unspecified, catastrophic event. Following the travails of a man and his young son as they venture across a bleak and desolate landscape, the two struggle to make a go of it in what remains of an apocalyptic world. It's a daunting look at the dangers of a lawless and sometimes brutal existence where scoundrels and scavengers lurk at every turn.
The world is being invaded by human-looking robots in director, Edgar Wright's humorous take on an attempted alien takeover of Earth and the five ill-equipped Englishmen that have to stop it. Starring Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Paddy Considine (House of the Dragon), childhood friends reunited 20 years later have their nostalgic pub crawl interrupted by an army of artificially intelligent E.T.s hell-bent on assimilating the human race and taking over. Only the half-drunk group of friends stand between them and world domination.
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Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin are thrown together in a battle with the undead as a strain of mad cow disease has turned most of humanity into flesh-eating zombies in this dark comedy directed by Ruben Fleischer. The unlikely group of strangers must band together if they are going to make it to the zombie-free haven of Hollywood while facing scores of undead and other problems along the way. The film cashed in over 100 million at the box office and spawned a successful sequel, Zombieland: Double Tap, a full decade later.
When an innovative cure for cancer has unintended, horrific side effects, military scientist Robert Neville (Will Smith) is stranded in an overgrown Manhattan crawling with both wildlife and bloodthirsty, mutated humans known as Darkseekers that hunt for fresh meat at night. With only his German Shepherd, Sam, for companionship, Neville races to find a serum that will reverse the mutation process while also searching for any signs of other human life. The somber account of isolation and survival features one of Smith's most well-rounded performances and was well-received by fans and critics alike.
This character-driven drama is led by Jane Alexander (who earned an Oscar nomination for this performance) as a mother of three in the small town of Hamlin, California. Testament is the account of a regular American family dealing with the aftermath of nuclear war and the deadly subsequent radiation fallout. With their lives suddenly turned upside down, Testament is a brutally grim examination of the realities and atrocities that would most certainly occur if such an event were to ever take place in real life. As the number of deaths piles up, this film is a slow burn that capitalized on the nuclear fears of the 80s and is a cautionary tale that struck a nerve with its frightening authenticity.
Shh! Don't make a sound. A Quiet Place was a surprise hit from John Krasinski who directs and stars opposite Emily Blunt (the couple are married in real life too). The tense action drama studies a frightening world patrolled by mysterious creatures that hunt only by sound. The Abbott family has learned to adapt to a world where even the tiniest noise can lead to a quick death. The novel concept that included almost no dialogue riveted audiences to the tune of 334 million dollars at the box office and is regarded as a highly innovative tale. It was followed by a sequel in 2021 with the addition of Cillian Murphy to the cast.
A massive asteroid is on a collision course with Earth in less than a month and Steve Carrell is a mild-mannered insurance salesman named Dodge who's got problems. After his wife drops him upon the news of the impending end of the world, he has a month to kill and no one to spend it with. Enter Penny (Keira Knightley), his fearless neighbor who picks up Dodge's spirits and inspires him to spend his final days searching for his long-lost love. The two throw caution to the wind and embark on a quest to fulfill their dreams in the little time they have left.
Perhaps the most underseen and underappreciated of all the entries on this list, Melancholia is Lars von Trier's poetic vision of two sisters and their very different approaches to the end of the world. Justine (Kiersten Dunst) battles a severe depression that renders her more or less apathetic about the planet hurdling towards Earth while her tightly-wound, nervous sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), slowly becomes unraveled. Trier's perfectly paced character study executes a wonderful dichotomy of two very different tales that examine what it is that we really value and how we peace with ourselves in the face of impending eradication.
Similar to Testament, and released the same year, The Day After capitalizes on the Cold War panic of the Reagan era. When nuclear missiles strike a small town outside of Kansas City, the lives of its residents are thrown into turmoil. Jason Robards (Once Upon a Time in the West) leads an ensemble cast as Dr. Russell Oakes. Serving as one of the leading physicians in the community, he is left to deal with a hospital overrun with people wounded from the blast and those suffering from radiation poisoning. This characterization of the chaos and upheaval that would result from nuclear war hit home for its eerily grounded portrait of the horrors of a nuclear winter.
Where to begin with an angry fellow named Max. Perhaps the seminal post-apocalyptic character, his name and franchise have become synonymous with the wasteland that is the result of a world-ending event. George Miller's Australian-based series has produced Mad Max (1979), Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985), and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). A prequel to Fury Road, Furiosa, is coming in 2024. We could write a dissertation on the merits of the Mad Max franchise and which is the best film (Fury Road won six Oscars…just sayin') or who is the better Max (Mel Gibson or Tom Hardy), but alas, we don't have the space for those debates here. But I think we can all agree it's the gold standard for the post-apocalyptic genre.
Even the biggest of A-list actors want to get in on the apocalyptic craze. Starring Leonardo Di Caprio, Jennifer Lawrence, and Meryl Streep, Adam Mckay's Don't Look Up is a satirical look at a jaded society so preoccupied with day-to-day banalities that it can't even take the time to confront its own impending demise. DiCaprio and Lawrence are tasked with bringing the perilous news that there will be a catastrophic planetary collision and convincing the President (Streep) and the public that it is more than just, "fake news." A biting commentary on our multimedia obsession and political fatigue, McKay's take on the end of the world is a dark comedy that is extraordinarily self-aware.
Wait, how come we haven't been using super fast, voracious zombies all along? 2002's 28 Days Later… broke new ground on the end-of-the-world formula by replacing slow-moving, less-threatening zombies with hordes of lightning-quick, virus-infected zombies that attack at breakneck speed. When Jim (Cillian Murphy) awakes from a twenty-eight-day coma, he is greeted with an empty London and a society that has almost entirely transformed into feral, bloodthirsty mutations that carry a deadly contagion. Director Danny Boyle's vision of a new, more terrifying zombie scored big with audiences and was a surprise hit earning more than $82 million at the global box office. The film also spawned a sequel, 28 Weeks Later.
Produced by the ubiquitous J.J. Abrams and directed by Matt Reeves (The Batman) Cloverfield burst onto the scene in January 2008, taking the end-of-the-world formula to the found-footage subgenre. On a budget of only $25 million, the film about an alien invasion in the heart of New York City raked in an impressive $171 worldwide and planted the seed for two more Abrams-produced movies, 10 Cloverfield Lane and The Cloverfield Paradox. A bit of a surprise hit, Cloverfield follows the perilous travails of a group of young New Yorkers as they deal with a gargantuan alien creature and its little alien parasites that take to the streets of the Big Apple that has been reduced to a chaotic demilitarized zone.
Amidst the concern surrounding climate change, The Day After Tomorrow presented a world paralyzed by rampant freezes and copious amounts of ice and snow. The outlook is grim as this 2004 thriller stars Dennis Quaid as environmental scientist Jack Hall who, despite his best efforts, can't get the authorities to buy into the threat of an impending "superstorm" that will usher in all kinds of natural disasters. Natural disaster epic master Roland Emmerich directs an ensemble cast that includes Jake Gyllenhaal, Ian Holm, and Emmy Rossum in this daunting picture of a society overwhelmed by a climate run amuck.
Considered by many as the godfather of the end-of-humanity movies, the original Planet of the Apes was ahead of its time and terrified audiences all the way back in the 60s. Written by the sultan of spooky, Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone) and Michael Wilson, the film follows three marooned astronauts who believe that they have stumbled upon a brand new, desolate world only to find out that they have arrived at a future earth where intelligent apes are now running the show. Humans are now the minority and rare "animals" on this planet and are forced into slave labor as the apes see human beings as a less evolved, tractable species.
American audiences were relatively unfamiliar with South Korean director Bong Joon-ho when he helmed Snowpiercer almost a decade ago. But after his Oscar win for Best Director in 2019's Best Picture winner Parasite, he is an unknown no more. With Snowpiercer, the director masterfully presented the study of class separation aboard a train that runs perpetually around a climate-destroyed planet. Disparate class systems is a theme that Joon-ho explores with great aplomb. A film about the "have" and "have nots," it's a terrific thriller about a group of second-class citizens who are jammed into the rear of the train. Tired of being held down, they embark on a dangerous car-by-car uprising making their way to the front of the train to battle their evil oppressors. The cast boasts Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, and Ed Harris.
Jeffrey Speicher is a Features Writer for Collider. A film and television buff, he lives in Dallas, Texas and his novel, “The Snitch” is available on Amazon.

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