1. The Seventh Seal (1957; director, Ingmar Bergman)
2. Magnolia (1999; director, Paul Thomas Anderson)
3. Donnie Darko (2001; director, Richard Kelly)
4. Children of Men (2006; director Alfonso Cuarón)
5. Tree of Life (2011; director, Terrence Malick)
6. Bird Box (2018; director, Susanna Bier)
7. 12 Monkeys (1995; director, Terry Gilliam)
8. Take Shelter (2011; director, Jeff Nichols)
9. The Rapture (1991; director, Michael Tolkin)
10. The Road (2009; director, John Hillcoat)
One way of exploring the resonance of apocalyptic themes across media and historical periods is to analyse their use in films. In choosing those to feature here, I’ve selected a sample of what are, in my view, the best apocalyptic films in the broad sense of centring on otherworldly visions and end-time scenarios, some of which are dystopian, others of which offer glimmers of hope, however thin. Zombie films, of course, fall into this category as well, but I’ve left them out of this listing in favor of lesser-known films that illustrate a broad range of cinematic expressions of the apocalyptic. I’ve ranked them here without strong commitments of one over another, only as a means of organizing what seem to me to be the most compelling cinematic interpretations of apocalyptic themes.
An “apocalypse” in its iterations in the biblical and pseudepigraphical literature of Judaism and Christianity has specific features: a revelation “mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial, insofar as it involves another, supernatural world” (Collins, Apocalyptic Imagination, 5; cf. Semeia 14). As a social-political movement of Second Temple Judaism (516 BCE to 70 CE), apocalypticism refers to modes of resistance amongst Jews in Roman-occupied Palestine. In modern films, the revelation is secularized such that it tends to originate in the protagonist’s mind and arise from his or her experiences. In terms of social-political critique, modern films use apocalyptic themes to consider consequences of “sin” as it relates to the effects of globalization and climate change, among other issues. The films here make little or no reference to biblical precedents; rather, they provide what Tina Pippin has called “textual afterlives” to apocalypses. The advent of reception theory has lent more authority to these “textual afterlives,” as they form part of an ongoing interpretive process that is critical to understanding how readers understand and apply apocalyptic themes (Pippin, “This Is the End,” 297). In conjuring the subconscious fears of our own day, apocalyptic films explore real and imagined crises and can have a curious cathartic effect, while others leave a vague feeling of dissatisfaction. While each offers a different perspective and, collectively, a range of interpretations, the films listed here attest to both the enduring viability and ambiguity of the apocalypse.
Listed at the top, “The Seventh Seal,” is the oldest film to make my top 10, although there were films of the same period in the running. Considered an Ingmar Bergman classic , it is stark and uncompromising, concerned with the question of why God seems absent while the world despairs. Set in medieval Europe, the film follows a knight returning from the Crusades as he travels to his home with companions who have survived the plague. On the way the knight makes a deal with Death that they can play a game of chess for his soul, a metaphor for humankind’s desire to cheat death by our wits. Approaching the end of his own life, the knight contemplates a picnic in the sunlight with his companions as a sign of goodness and decency still present in the world, as the film concludes with the figure of Death dancing with these same companions. The film earnestly asks the question of how one is to know God in a world so marked by God’s absence and the spectres of death and despair - a question as old as time.
The apocalyptic themes in “Magnolia” are more subtle, but nevertheless point toward questions about how to live in a world that is falling apart. As the lives of its individual characters are woven together, the film explores a range of responses to their desperation, culminating in a dramatic scene of a downpour of frogs, a reference to Exodus 8. One character, Stanley, is nonplussed by the event, understanding it to be just something that happens. The film refuses to moralize and instead demonstrates the salvific force of love and compassion, as well as the role of prophecy and a justice that redeems events of the past.
“Donnie Darko” emphasizes the end times, with a high school student who experience visions of a creature that is part human, part rabbit named Frank. Frank informs Donnie that the world will end in “28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds.” Besides the focus on the apocalyptic preoccupation of numerology, the film is apocalyptic in its depiction of Donnie as a messianic figure, although not one sent as an agent of God per se. After receiving the first revelation, he is saved from death. Later he decides to return via time travel to his original setting, and he dies in acceptance of his fate while saving the world from destruction (Rindge, “Revelatory Film,” 340-41). Another example of messianism is “Children of Men,” which depicts a futuristic world beset with terrorism, environmental destruction, nuclear warfare, and 18 years of infertility. Rather than seeing messianism as an individual enterprise, the film interprets messianism in the collective, one in which humans themselves can save the world from its end by dismantling systems of social control and ideologies of exclusion (Schwartzman, “Children of Men and a Plural Messianism,” 1).
“Tree of Life” explores the theme of creation through the experiences of a middle-aged man, Jack, reflecting on childhood memories. The film moves between Jack as an adult and Jack as a child, culminating in a final scene in which Jack envisions the dead, including his older brother who had died when Jack was a child, returning to life. His parents say goodbye to the brother as he steps into a vast expanse. Jack’s experiences of violence and death within his own family are contextualized within the broader scope of creation, one that contains all as part of an eternal order that is ultimately hopeful. “Bird Box,” similarly, ends on a hopeful note when a woman and her children find sanctuary from a force that has wiped out much of the earth’s population. The unnamed force kills anyone who sees it. For this reason, the woman and her children make a perilous journey to the sanctuary wearing blindfolds, where they find the survivors are blind and are thus included in remnant of humanity that will ensure the survival of humankind.
The film “12 Monkeys” take a different, less overtly hopeful perspective on the future of humankind in the aftermath of a plague. This film features the protagonist, Cole, traveling back in time to discover how to eradicate the virus that has wiped out the population. It becomes clear that Cole cannot save humanity, but the film ends on a cautiously optimistic note, with a suggestion that Cole’s work will continue after he is shot by police in one of the final scenes. Despite the bleak view of the crisis and its aftermath, the film asks viewers to consider that even if we cannot reverse the effects of a catastrophe, we must find some way into a future (Riesman, “12 Monkeys Is the Apocalyptic Movie We Need Right Now”), however provisional and imperfect that way may be. “Take Shelter” is similarly bleak, however this film focuses on one man’s world in which paranoia/schizophrenia convinces him that a storm is coming to destroy the world. No one else experiences these fears, and the film slowly builds to a climactic scene in which the protagonist, Curtis, defends himself against his community who accuses him of madness. Just after this scene, Curtis and his wife awaken to storm sirens and descend to the shelter he has built. Once they emerge, after much difficulty on the part of Curtis, they go to a beach vacation where they spot a threatening storm on the horizon. Curtis’s visions juxtaposed with the real storms call into question whether Curtis’s claims have some merit, particularly because he is so vulnerable and fearful, and is a loving and committed partner and father. Viewers are left to wonder how seriously to take claims of imminent destruction—and what is at stake in them.
The popularity of the “Left Behind” series attests to how the Rapture incites the imagination. While not a term used in the Bible, the Rapture refers to the hope within the New Testament of Jesus’s return to usher in God’s judgment of the living and the dead, culminating in the resurrection of the righteous dead who, with the righteous living, would be united with God. The 1991 film, “The Rapture” is a precursor to the Left Behind series, where a woman, Sharon, leaves a promiscuous lifestyle to become a born-again Christian. She marries and has a daughter. After her husband is killed, Sharon wants to hasten her ascendance to heaven and kills her daughter but is unable to take her own life. While Sharon is in jail the Rapture occurs, and Sharon refuses to accept God into her heart because she blames God for her daughter’s death. The film ends with Sharon left alone in a purgatory-like landscape.
Finally, “The Road,” based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name, pictures a world in which all has been destroyed and cannibalism has taken over those who are still living. A man and his son travel to the coast, encountering such horrors as people held captive as food, as the man and his son collect whatever supplies can prolong their lives. Eventually they abandon their supplies because the man is too weak to carry them, and he dies. A family has been following the boy and the man, and the family convinces the boy to join them. The man and the boy struggle to retain their humanity in an environment of utter desolation and despair. With such a thin horizon of hope, “The Road” does not rush to a triumphant victory or image of restoration but rather considers how life can go on, despite everything being lost.
Whether depicting a real or imagined crisis, affecting individuals or a collective, this sampling of apocalyptic films probes the critical question of the genre; namely, what is the basis of hope when there is no hope? For the most part the films conclude ambiguously, prompting us to think more deeply about our own responses to catastrophic losses and the world-as-we-know-it that is no more. They take us on an imaginative journey, one that never ends.
Lynne Moss Bahr is a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at Fordham University, USA.
Collins, John. The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1998.
Pippin, Tina. “This Is the End: Apocalyptic Moments in Cinema,” in The Bible in Motion: A Handbook of the Bible and Its Reception in Film. Ed., Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016.
Riesman, Abraham. “12 Monkeys Is the Apocalyptic Movie We Need Right Now,” Vulture, November 21, 2018, https://www.vulture.com/2018/11/12-monkeys-why-terry-gilliams-movie-is-so-relevant-today.html.
Rindge, Matthew S. “Revelatory Film,” in Apocalypses in Context: Apocalyptic Currents Through History. Eds., Kelly J. Murphy and Justin Jeffcoat Schedtler. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016.
Schwartzman, Sarah. “Children of Men and a Plural Messianism,” Journal of Religion & Film: Vol. 13, Issue 1, Article 1. Available at: https://digitalcommons.unomaha.edu/jrf/vol13/iss1/1