10 Best Movies Where Humanity Gets Its Comeuppance
Humankind’s intelligence combined with our unrelenting desire to live longer and dominate the planet is, ironically, our fatal flaw. Pop culture forever reminds us that we are disgusting creatures with deplorable habits that will ultimately be the end of us, and fortunately for fans of the apocalypse, cinema in particular loves to depict our agonizing deaths in vivid, epic color.
The latest movie to do so, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, shows how animal cruelty—combined with advanced science—could lead us all to early graves. The film follows a team of scientists working on a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, who develop an experimental retrovirus that imbues chimpanzees with human-level intelligence. But when one of the chimps breaks out the stungun, there’s hell to pay—and the ultimate end of humankind, at least over the course of some sequels. (For more on this, with spoiler alerts, read Sarah Jaffe’s funny Tumblr post.)
Since there are a thousand ways for humanity to die, here are some of the more creative films in which terrible, irresponsible humanity gets its final comeuppance. Our end may be imminent, but at least we get to watch some awesome stuff beforehand. Enjoy!
1. The Day After Tomorrow
This recent-classic film about the effects of global warming is so terrifying it should be shown before Congress. The plot: paleoclimatologist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) is drilling for core samples in Antarctica when an ice ridge, spurred by rising temperatures, cracks and pulls apart, leaving a huge crevice. Hall freaks out and tries to convince a UN panel that the shit is seriously about to hit the fan, but they poo-poo him and send him on his way. Turns out that was a dumb idea, because uh-oh, rapidly melting polar ice is totally making ocean levels rise while dropping their temperature, causing complete weather havoc across the world. That little earthquake on the eastern seaboard this week was nothing: try a massive tsunami washing through Manhattan, and super-sized tornados crushing Los Angeles skyscrapers like twigs. The CGI is awesome! (Amid all this death and destruction, though, perhaps the scariest part is that the guy who winds up being president is disconcertingly Dick Cheney-esque.)
Granted, Day After Tomorrow’s vision of climate change coming home to roost is pretty extreme—an accelerated depiction of what might eventually happen to us if we continue on our path. It’s hard to imagine giant hurricanes whose eyes freeze everything in their path, Sub-Zero style. But after the spate of recent devastating earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, and droughts around the world, it’s a little easier to imagine such a blown-out scenario in 2011 than it was upon the film’s release in 2004. Which brings us to....
The crux of 2012 is not man-made per se, but based on the theory of the Mayan Apocalypse, which says the world will end on the day the ancient Mayan calendar ends: December 21, 2012. But the film certainly doesn’t waste a chance to scold humanity for its misdeeds to its backdrop of elaborate apocalyptic visual effects, like redwoods-obliterating solar flares and, awesomely, a giant crack in the Sistine Chapel separating God’s finger from Adam’s. Ultimately the film becomes about the race to reach secret arks in China, created by world leaders to save at least a fraction of humankind in order to propagate the species. Along the way, though, our worst qualities—greed, avarice, selfishness—pop up and threaten to keep the protagonist family, led by ever-likable John Cusack, from surviving. So while it’s a movie based on ancient Mayan prophecy, they still managed to sneak in a little Judeo-Christian moralizing. Touche!
In the 1990s, slash-and-burn agriculture was one of the issues at the forefront of the environmental movement, as forests across South America and Africa were being decimated by logging and ranching. Deforestation worried climate scientists, but it also alarmed biologists, who argued that the dense rainforest likely contained organisms we’ve never identified—not just animals and insects, but viruses as well. Enter Outbreak, a cautionary tale against clearing uncharted territory.
The setting is Congo, 1967. A monkey or monkeys carrying a deadly virus has been unleashed in a village. The US, instead of developing a vaccine or cure, opts to completely destroy the infected with napalm (obviously). Fast-forward 30 years, and the virus wasn’t gone, just sleeping... and it’s soon transmitted to the US by an illegal exotic animal trader who ships an infected monkey to California (sub-moral: don’t illegally trade exotic animals). The trader is infected, and spreads it around to several others, including his girlfriend, all of whom die gruesome deaths in which their eyeballs bleed out of their skulls and their internal organs melt like cheese in a microwave. (Clearly, the virus was based upon Ebola, which emerged in the mid-’70s before experiencing a brief renaissance in the 1990s.) Who will save us all? Why, Dustin Hoffman, of course!
4. Children of Men
One of the most profound and best-made films on this list asks a philosophical question: if we knew we were soon to become extinct, how would we behave? The answer is deplorably—our instinct to survive is only dwarfed by our instinct to dominate each other. We are all just piddling animals with tools too advanced for our tiny brains. In Children of Men’s grim near-future, it is 2027, and no person on earth has been able to reproduce for two decades. Our end is imminent, and we have become a planet of nihilists. Governments are collapsing, terrorism is rampant, and Britain has devolved into martial law, with troops that hate everyone, but immigrants in particular. There is one hope, though: Kee, a beautiful Ghanaian immigrant (played by Clare-Hope Ashitey, now a real-life anthropologist), who is the first human on earth known to be pregnant in 20 years. Obviously, humans have on the whole lost their compassion, but Theo Faron (Clive Owen) vows to save Kee from crazed revolutionaries, mentally deranged mobs and the British army. Another question: can one child save all humanity?
This is also a good time to point out that Chiwetel Ejiofor, a great actor, is also a veteran of the end-of-days film, having starred in this, 2012, and the reality apocalypse movie Tsunami: The Aftermath. Hopefully there are more in his future!
5. Battle Royale
This Japanese cult classic is a microcosm of what could happen if we all continue procreating willy-nilly... and a warning to children never to trust adults. At the turn of the millennium, amid dire global overpopulation, a group of teenagers embarks on a class trip. As their bus pulls away, they are gassed to sleep, and when they wake up, the once-happy schoolmates have been dispatched to an island and fitted with electrical collars, which will explode if they are tampered with. They are instructed by an impossibly joyful TV host that they have been randomly selected to compete in Battle Royale: a scheme concocted under the “Millennial Education Reform Act,” which is in fact a survivalist fight to the death. Each schoolchild is given a random weapon and instructed they must murder each other; the final kid left gets to leave the island, but Japan has become simply too populated to sustain all of the children being born. Creative population control! The cruel game pits best friends and lovers against one another, while others opt for suicide, and portrays humanity at its basest (and goriest). It also casts adults as spiteful, cowardly bastards so cold they would dupe happy teens rather than come up with a more humane way to keep population down. Like, say, birth control? Let this be a lesson to you, conservatives!
Interesting anecdote: Kinji Fukasaku, Battle Royale’s director, translated the novel to film because it reminded him of an experience that made him distrust adults forever. In 1945, when he was 15, his class was forced to work in a World War II munitions factory. After the factory was attacked and many of his classmates died, the survivors were made to clean up the bodies, and he realized the Japanese government had been lying about its involvement in WWII.
Oh, Nicholas Cage, how wonderful and over-the-top you are! He should probably star in every end-of-days film from now until... the end of days. When his sweet, deaf son begins going into trances and writing down indecipherable numerical sequences, Cage’s character goes on a mission to figure out what they mean. Telling too much of the plotline would involve multiple spoilers—barring the fact that this film is the second on this list involving the dread solar flare—but let’s just say this guy can now predict the dates of disasters, humanity has been messing up, and whomever gave us all this wonderful technology we’ve got (starting from the pyramids, clearly) is about to take it away since we cannot play nice. Also, Christians are not feeling it!
7. Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
A Cold War-era classic, it’s nice to know that after the Cuban Missile Crisis there was room for a little gallows humor in America. Directed and written by the genius Stanley Kubrick, the film follows crazed Air Force General Jack Ripper as he tries to start a war with the USSR over fluoride in the water. (Hey, countries have been bombed for less.) Meanwhile, a coalition of rather more sane military leaders and, um, the president (who’s been duped out of red-button jurisdiction thanks to an obscure rule that transfers powers to the military in wartime) attempts to stop Ripper—but his main roadblock is the Russians’ “Doomsday Device,” which will obliterate all life on earth should the Soviets be bombed. Kubrick, plus genius actor Peter Sellers, really put the nuclear establishment to the needles with this one, ridiculing the arbitrary rules of war and the stupid power-hunger of the government—while transforming the nation’s fear of end times into a real laugh riot. If there was a remake (there shouldn’t be), Dr. Strangelove should make his grand exit to Lenny Kravtiz’s “It’s Not Over Till It’s Over.”
8. Soylent Green
Before Nicholas Cage, there was Charlton Heston. Try to separate yourself from his politics and imagine this dystopia: the world is overpopulated, violent, struck by famine. New York, of course, is the garbage dump of the world, and in 2022, the population of the city has skyrocketed to 40 million. Solar flares (again!) are imminent. But before the world ends, Heston’s character, an NYPD detective, must discover why a wealthy businessman was killed in his apartment... and how he was able to obtain so much pricey food. Another classic example of how we are vile.
9. The Day After
As the Cold War entered the 1980s, this little TV movie was the first to depict the horrors of nuclear folly in any close-to-accurate terms. If the Soviets finally decided to unleash the big ones, it asks, what would happen 24 hours later? If you’re unfortunate enough to be far away from ground zero, the answer is: gross radiation poisoning, looting, severe grotesque burns, painfully slow death. Et cetera. As a kid in the early 1990s, I accidentally saw on satellite television a video of an anti-nuke protester getting his legs severed by a train carrying nuclear weapons (he survived, thankfully). Shout out to that guy for keeping us from worse.
Reportedly, Ronald Reagan watched this film before it aired and it forced him to change his concept of nuclear war—proving culture really does have an impact.
10. The Happening
Mother Nature is pissed at us. We have become a "surface nuisance,” as George Carlin once put it, and “the planet will shake us off like a bad case of fleas.” Only in The Happening, instead of shaking us off, the earth induces us to off ourselves. Spurred by a ripple in the trees—an electromagnetic current, perhaps, or an imperceptible soundwave?—people across the Northeastern US begin killing themselves, one by one. A girl in Central Park shoves a pencil into her ear, impaling her brain. Dozens of hapless suits climb to the roof of a building and leap to their deaths. (Its release date was seven years after 9/11, but that one felt a little too soon.) Turns out, after centuries of mistreatment, the planet is releasing a deadly neurotoxin to eradicate us so it can save itself. Can protagonists Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel lead their family to safety?
Frankly, this is probably the worst movie in this list, and certainly the most painful M. Night Shyamalan film, which is saying a lot. But it’s worth watching for the sheer creativity of the concept—just one more way to visualize humanity going down, not with a bang but with a very pathetic whimper.