8 movies about the end of the world you may not have seen

Contributed by
Apr 20, 2017

We’ve all seen The Day After Tomorrow because it’s sort of a hilarious romp through a natural disaster.

Dr. Strangelove is a classic comedy about a nuclear apocalypse on almost every “Best Film" list.

The Matrix, Armageddon, 12 Monkeys -- all of these movies that we associate with the end of the world have a good deal of merit to them.

But, in an entirely unscientific binge, we took a look at some of the lesser-known movies about the end of the world; here, chronologically, are eight we had a good time watching.

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When Worlds Collide (1951)

It’s hard to find a movie where the world ends that doesn’t also involve human beings as the direct cause. In 1951, director Rudolph Mate gave us When Worlds Collide. And it’s actually a pretty good movie. The idea is that an errant star has been hurtling itself through space and is now on a collision course with Earth. The good people at the United Nations hatch a plan to build a giant Noah’s Ark spaceship that will launch some of the world’s best and brightest to safety. You can imagine how that goes when the world’s worst and dimmest get wind of the plan. There’s something great and inventive about this one, notably that the spaceship is headed for the one planet that’s orbiting this killer sun. Any guesses if they land safely?

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On the Beach (1959)

Starring Ava Gardner, Gregory Peck, Fred Astaire (!!!) and Anthony Perkins, On the Beach is based on the 1958 Nevil Shute novel wherein Australia quietly waits out the coming nuclear winter apocalypse that’s rolling towards them. The northern hemisphere is gone, and the only inhabitable places are near the Southern Pole, and even then people are beginning to die of radiation poisoning. Like most movies of the era, the characters have some surprisingly calm conversations about love while the world falls to pieces around them. But it’s fun to see Ava Gardner play a late-50’s alcoholic. And Fred Astaire killing himself in a garage is as bleak an image as you’re gonna get.

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A Boy And His Dog (1975)

We’re not going to lie to you, this movie is super weird. And a ton of critics in the 70’s went bananas for it. The basic plot is that in 2024, after World War 4, an 18-year-old kid named Vic (played by Don Johnson) and his telepathic Dog (yes) named Blood (yes) travel a post-apocalyptic countryside. Mostly, Don Johnson tries to get laid a lot. It’s actually the thing he’s after, pretty much throughout the story. Ultimately he’s captured and dragged underground where everyone wears clown makeup and pretends it’s the 1950’s. There’s no better way to describe it than that. It’s exactly that. Um, then they hook him up to a machine to take his sperm? And it gets even weirder from there. It’s one of those movies from the 1970s where you watch it and think, “what IS this?” And sometimes, that’s a good watch with friends.

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The Day After (1983)

This was a TV movie made by ABC that terrified more than 100 Million Americans in its first airing. The movie has a star-studded cast including JoBeth Williams, Jason Robards, Steve Guttenburg, and John Lithgow. It’s a BLEAK telling of a nuclear war that posits a Russian invasion of “West Germany” that escalates pretty quickly and destroys all of America. The survivors mostly die, and it’s not pretty. And then it’s over. The film was incredibly successful at creating a national dialogue. Ronald Reagan wrote in his diaries that he watched the film, was super depressed by it, and later credited it with informing his policies on nuclear arms. It’s interesting to note that ABC ran a PSA telling parents not to let their children watch, OR to watch with their children. Following the airing, Ted Koppel hosted a televised discussion with Henry Kissinger, Carl Sagan, William F Buckley, Jr., the Secretary of Defense -- and many others. It was a big deal. It’s not the greatest movie, but it definitely looks like the anxiety of 1983. So, it’s worth that.

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Testament (1983)

Kind of The Day After’s sadder sister. Testament is a pretty subdued look at how nuclear war would affect an affluent suburb north of San Francisco. It’s main character, played by Jane Alexander, keeps her family in one place while they wait for their father to get home, and he never does. Meanwhile, she watches two of her three children die of radiation poisoning, including Lukas Haas, who plays her youngest and first to die: Scottie. Kevin Kostner and Rebecca DeMornay also pop up as the neighbors who lose their infant son and leave town. If you’re looking for the real atrocities of nuclear war, this might not be your movie because it all sort of takes place in one woman’s house and everyone mostly dies off-screen. But it’s worth it for the message that in the event of nuclear war, what survives is human connection, courage, and somehow, community theater.

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Wall-E (2004)

It’s not that this movie isn’t well known. It’s that it’s a children movie with a hopeful message about the environment that also posits a future where the world ends in a garbage apocalypse. Within the first act, we learn that the only creatures to inhabit the planet are robots who were made to clean it up. And it is so overrun with trash that human beings predictably up and left, put themselves on a spaceship, and got chubby and boneless. By the end, there’s a nice message and a Peter Gabriel song where everyone decides that the Earth should be savored. But it’s already too late for these Earthlings. If you’re looking for something to watch with the kids on Earth Day that might spark a good discussion, go with this one, eh?

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The Worlds’ End (2013)

This is a delightful and very funny sleeper hit that blew through 2013 pretty quietly. Written by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, (the guys who made Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz), the story features a group of adults trying to finish a pub crawl they started as teenagers, only to be attacked by androids bent on ending the world and assimilating it. Or something like that, but it’s actually hilarious how it all plays out. Look for a gorgeous comedic turn by Gone Girl’s Rosamund Pike, and a pretty great scene wherein humanity is saved by its own stupidity.

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World of Tomorrow (2015)

Sixteen minutes of amazing and weird, Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow is an Academy Award-winning animated short that (sort of) takes place during a future apocalypse. A little girl meets a fourth-generation clone of herself as the world is ending and people are desperate to retain their memories amid the internet, the outernet, and their dead friends raining from the sky in cut-rate botched time travel attempts. It’s absolutely worth a watch, and is currently available on Netflix.

What'd We Miss?
This list is by NO means exhaustive, and we don’t have any plans to stop watching movies -- so we’re curious if it sparked a memory for you? What hidden gems do you have to recommend?