A global crisis might seem like the worst time to watch movies about the end of the world. The apocalyptic genre has boomed in cinema since the start of the Cold War, and plenty of classics have set the template for what a ruined, dystopian future might look like. Think of the barren wastelands of Mad Max, the emptied-out cities of The Omega Man, the zombie-overridden Dawn of the Dead, and other classics such as Escape From New York, 28 Days Later, Children of Men, and WALL-E.
But what I’ve always loved about the genre is how it also radically envisions new societies and imagines the best of people, highlighting humanity’s resilience in the toughest circumstances. Postapocalyptic movies are filled with memorable heroes and striking landscapes, and they can offer fascinating insights into life as we know it by conjuring up entirely different modes of existence. Here are some of my favorites, including romantic comedies, sci-fi masterpieces, horror hits, and quiet dramas. Some of my picks fit neatly into the “end of the world” category, and while other selections might be surprising, they’re no less resonant. All are available to watch online.
10 Cloverfield Lane (2016, directed by Dan Trachtenberg)
Originally titled The Cellar, this taut thriller was branded as a spiritual sequel to the 2008 disaster film Cloverfield. But while its forebear portrayed outright destruction, with a monster leveling New York City, 10 Cloverfield Lane is an even better presentation of an apocalyptic mindset. Set in a fallout bunker, it’s about a battle of wills between Howard (played by John Goodman), a survivalist who insists that the city outside has been destroyed, and Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a young woman who worries that he’s invented the whole scenario to keep her captive. The ensuing drama encapsulates both the cabin fever and paranoia that can come from living in lockdown.
How to watch: Rent from various outlets
12 Monkeys (1995, directed by Terry Gilliam)
Terry Gilliam has provided multiple visions of humanity’s future, from the baroque dystopia of Brazil to the dreamy fantasia of The Zero Theorem. My favorite remains 12 Monkeys, a grim and glorious blockbuster adaptation of Chris Marker’s short film La Jetée. The 21st-century Earth of 12 Monkeys was destroyed by a weaponized virus, which James Cole (Bruce Willis) must go back in time to prevent. Some of the film’s best shots are of Philadelphia circa 2035, free of people and covered in snow, with wild animals roaming around while humans try to survive underground. Gilliam can find beauty in the most haunting imagery, and 12 Monkeys is packed with frames that simultaneously horrify and delight.
How to watch: Stream on Showtime
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001, directed by Steven Spielberg)
From the outset, the futuristic world of A.I.—Steven Spielberg’s ambitious adaptation of a long-gestating Stanley Kubrick project—has already weathered catastrophe. Major cities are flooded and civilization is overrun by dilapidated “mechas,” a robot underclass built to serve a dwindling human race. But the film is most striking in its last act, which jumps millennia ahead to depict an Earth populated only by artificial beings that still cherish their extinct creators. The story line follows the robot child David (Haley Joel Osment) on a Pinocchio-inspired quest to become flesh and blood. Though the fairy-tale setup turned off many critics, it’s just gauzy wrapping for a dark fable that presents the ability to love as humanity’s greatest strength and weakness.
Avatar (2009, directed by James Cameron)
Earth is barely glimpsed in Avatar, but the prologue to James Cameron’s sci-fi epic hints at tragic conditions: The planet’s resources have been drained and its lands scoured by warring private contractors. The distant moon of Pandora is an unspoiled paradise, a Day-Glo mix of floating mountains and dense forests inhabited by lithe aliens that exist in concert with nature. So what do humans do when they arrive? Conquer, pillage, and blow things up, making the same mistakes that doomed them to search for new lands in the first place. Cameron’s blockbuster allegory isn’t subtle—his films rarely are—but it is pointed, and despite making America the explicit bad guy, Avatar became the nation’s biggest box-office hit of all time.
How to watch: Stream on Disney+
Blast from the Past (1999, directed by Hugh Wilson)
This bunker movie is an explicit comedy: After a 1960s family’s nuclear fears lead them to hunker down for 35 years, they emerge in 1999 and are bewildered by how much things have changed. Blast From the Past is one of the more underrated rom-coms of the ’90s, casting the square-jawed Brendan Fraser as Adam, a man out of time who falls for a modern gal, Eve (Alicia Silverstone). Christopher Walken and Sissy Spacek give appropriately odd performances as Adam’s frozen-in-time parents. Amid the fish-out-of-water humor is a look back at an earlier era of American paranoia, one papered over with chipper pieces of pop culture such as I Love Lucy.
How to watch: Stream on the Roku Channel
The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961, directed by Val Guest)
Apocalyptic movies proliferated after World War II, with the atomic age and the Cold War fueling decades of dystopian fiction about what could happen next. One of the cleverest, soberest examples of the genre is this under-seen British classic, in which a rash of nuclear testing causes the planet to heat uncontrollably. Val Guest finds innovative ways to depict the horror, with orange-tinged lighting and matte paintings of abandoned cities. But the film stands out because it’s set mostly in the offices of a London newspaper, where a group of reporters attempts to make sense of its collapsing circumstances.
How to watch: Rent from various outlets
Delicatessen (1991, directed by Marc Caro & Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
A breakout debut for its French directors, Delicatessen laid out an aesthetic that would dominate movie design throughout the ’90s, a steampunk future with a ramshackle DIY quality to its technology. What happened to the outside world, which viewers see as a sulfurous wasteland, isn’t explained; the action is confined to a crumbling apartment building, where a cruel landlord butchers his tenants to sell as meat. Delicatessen is anarchic, violent, and bizarre, but it also contains an achingly cute romance between the landlord’s daughter (Marie-Laure Dougnac) and his next victim (Dominique Pinon). It’s an eschatological comedy that acknowledges how brutality and optimism can thrive side by side.
High Life (2018, directed by Claire Denis)
Though Claire Denis’ latest movie has a sci-fi setting, the French director has called it a prison film, given that its characters are mostly inmates sentenced to a future of hard labor on an interstellar spaceship. High Life follows Monte (Robert Pattinson), a convict who becomes the last survivor of a mission to explore a black hole. The film is primarily concerned with how he’s managed to retain his humanity and empathy, both in space and on the bleak, industrial-looking Earth he came from. High Life is an alienating experience, but it’s one of Denis’ best works, a vision of an even more stratified future built on the backs of the most vulnerable.
How to watch: Stream on Prime Video
Interstellar (2014, dir. Christopher Nolan)
To depict the end of the world, Christopher Nolan reached into history, creating a futuristic version of the Dust Bowl and using footage from Ken Burns’s documentary about the disaster to explain it. Interstellar is loaded with jarring visual touches, including a cornfield incongruously surrounded by mountains and the New York Yankees playing in a high-school baseball stadium. Though much of the action is set in space, Nolan takes time to build out the parameters of his struggling Earth. The director tells an apocalypse story that’s centered on the family of the astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), thus investing the audience in Cooper’s mission to pull humans back from the brink of extinction.
How to watch: Stream on FX
Oblivion (2013, directed by Joseph Kosinski)
Visual-effects technology had advanced enough by 2013 that Oblivion could delight in portraying an empty Earth, with scenes of a high-tech janitor (Tom Cruise) zooming around famous landmarks on a planet abandoned after an intergalactic war. Joseph Kosinski (who also made Tron: Legacy and the upcoming Top Gun: Maverick) excels at visual tableaux, and Oblivion unfurls its dramatic landscapes with aplomb. Though the twists of Oblivion’s sci-fi story are routine, the aesthetics of Kosinski’s sparse future, in which every piece of technology looks like it rolled off the Apple assembly line, are eerily resonant.
How to watch: Rent from various outlets
Princess Mononoke (1997, directed by Hayao Miyazaki)
Though Hayao Miyazaki’s dark fantasy film is set hundreds of years ago, during Japan’s Muromachi period, this environmental epic has a sharp message about humanity’s doomed present and future. Many of Miyazaki’s movies obliquely explore how industrialism and pollution throw the natural world out of balance; Princess Mononoke charges directly at that conflict, following the fantastical disruptions that ensue when humans build a settlement in a mystical forest. The spirits that emerge to battle the humans are among Miyazaki’s most transfixing. Equally crucial is the sympathy he extends to his apparent villain, Lady Eboshi—a rigid and protective ruler whose need to expand her territory is depicted with nuance rather than simplistic malevolence.
How to watch: Buy from various outlets; stream on HBO Max (forthcoming)
The Quiet Earth (1995, directed by Geoff Murphy)
A criminally under-seen classic from New Zealand’s 1980s boom of exciting and original cinema, The Quiet Earth has a familiar setup: A man (Bruno Lawrence) wakes up alone on a seemingly deserted Earth. Though some of the plot sees him trying to unravel the mystery of what happened to the planet, the film is more concerned with the fragile mental state of its protagonist as he navigates his new, lonely existence. It’s the best work by Geoff Murphy, who examined life in New Zealand from many challenging angles before being lured to Hollywood to make mediocre blockbusters.
Safe (1995, directed by Todd Haynes)
The apocalypse in Safe is an entirely personal one: Carol White (Julianne Moore), a suburban housewife, is besieged by a variety of inexplicable illnesses and allergies, and struggles to convince others of the seriousness of her condition. Todd Haynes’s film is a deeply allegorical tale of the precariousness of life at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but its themes are worryingly applicable today. Haynes and Moore communicate the paranoia that each new symptom provokes in Carol, and show how her efforts to self-quarantine begin to degrade her mental health. Safe isn’t a film with easy answers, but therein lies much of its power.
How to watch: Stream on the Criterion Channel
Southland Tales (2006, directed by Richard Kelly)
Following his 2001 cult hit, Donnie Darko, the writer and director Richard Kelly crafted this gonzo epic, a dense and often wildly funny portrait of a near-future America on the brink of destruction. Attempting to summarize the plot of Southland Tales is a fool’s errand—the film itself struggles to explain everything, and Kelly planned multiple graphic novels to lay out its extended back story. But his visions of a government surveilling its citizens, Hollywood movie stars (played by Dwayne Johnson and Sarah Michelle Gellar) becoming the leaders of a Marxist revolution, and a never-ending War on Terror driving the country into madness all feel oddly prescient.
How to watch: Stream on Mubi
Stalker (1979, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky)
Maybe the most influential work of apocalyptic cinema is Andrei Tarkovsky’s sci-fi masterpiece, which harnesses the deserted landscapes surrounding abandoned Soviet power and chemical plants to imagine an ominous future. Much of the action is confined to “the Zone,” an empty part of the world where the laws of reality do not apply; the story follows a writer and a professor trying to navigate this region with the help of the Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky). The polluted areas where Tarkovsky filmed look alien and forbidding, perfectly mirroring Stalker’s inscrutable plot.
Star Trek: First Contact (1996, directed by Jonathan Frakes)
The universe of Star Trek’s many television shows is a utopia where the citizens of Earth have dispensed with such petty concerns as poverty and global conflict. But that society emerged only after a nuclear war ravaged the planet. Star Trek: First Contact transports the crew of the Enterprise back in time to the brink of civilization’s collapse to do battle with the alien Borg. It’s one of the best editions in the Trek film franchise because of both its compelling action and its high stakes—Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and his crew are fighting to ensure a future that’s anything but apocalyptic.
Synecdoche, New York (2008, directed by Charlie Kaufman)
Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut is ostensibly about an art project that gets out of hand when the theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) uses a MacArthur Fellowship to stage a play that encompasses all of human experience. Set in a giant Manhattan warehouse, the film follows Caden’s efforts to mimic reality as best he can, first dramatizing his own life, then casting actors to play the actors shadowing him and his family, and so on, until his production has become a fully functional city unto itself. Synecdoche, New York is bubbling over with so many philosophical themes and implications that it alienated some audiences when it was first released. One of its most fascinating insights, though, is how humanity—much like a virus—replicates itself in unpredictable ways, eventually turning a quiet domestic drama into a much larger crisis.
How to watch: Stream on Pluto TV
Time of the Wolf (2003, directed by Michael Haneke)
Michael Haneke, the Austrian master of hostility and despair, has made many films (such as Funny Games, The Seventh Continent, and The White Ribbon) that reflect the disintegration of society. But his only explicitly futuristic work is Time of the Wolf, a chilling drama set after some unspecified global disaster. It follows a family (headed by Isabelle Huppert) fleeing the city and finding their country cottage occupied by strangers; from there, further horrors descend, always rendered with the dreadful mundanity that is Haneke’s specialty. The film’s most effective scares are some of the simplest, using nighttime photography to increase the sense of ongoing menace.
How to watch: Stream on Mubi on Amazon
The Truman Show (1998, directed by Peter Weir)
The world of The Truman Show is anything but apocalyptic: It’s an idyllic seaside community where everything functions like clockwork and the residents’ biggest anxieties are about what to eat for dinner each night. But that’s what’s so wonderfully creepy about The Truman Show, a sci-fi vision of reality television that satirizes America’s pompous postwar exceptionalism. Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) is the star of a TV show he doesn’t know exists, living inside an artificial bubble created only for him. (As an announcer proudly proclaims, Truman was the first child ever adopted by a corporation.) Even though Truman’s scripted life seems perfect, Peter Weir uses its cookie-cutter conformity to illustrate a disturbing world frozen in time.
Us (2019, directed by Jordan Peele)
The implausibility of Jordan Peele’s wonderful horror film was a sticking point for some critics on release, but that’s part of its elaborate surrealism. In Us, the real apocalypse happened long ago, but Americans either don’t know about it or refuse to think about it. Meanwhile, people’s “tethered” doubles, the results of a failed government experiment, live dreary mirror lives underground. The metaphor is broad enough to encompass any injustice people try to ignore from day to day, be it poverty, homelessness, or racial inequality. The film’s plot, which sees the Tethered emerging to overthrow the social order, is equal parts terrifying and funny. In other words, it’s perfectly within Peele’s wheelhouse.
Vanilla Sky (2001, directed by Cameron Crowe)
The most memorable shot in Cameron Crowe’s remake of the Spanish film Open Your Eyes—Tom Cruise running through an empty Times Square—was accomplished through a feat of scheduling. Now, as Manhattan remains mostly devoid of people, the film feels resonant, not only for imagining an abandoned New York, but also for satirizing how far people will go to return to normalcy after a trauma. Summarizing Vanilla Sky is tough, but the gist is that the millionaire publishing playboy David Aames (Cruise) is injured in a car accident and resorts to a strange, dream-based form of sci-fi therapy to eliminate his scars. Crowe’s film is bizarre and ambitious, but its best sequences—such as David’s journey through a vacant metropolis—are its most nightmarish ones.
How to watch: Stream on Starz on Amazon
The Village (2004, directed by M. Night Shyamalan)
The Village might be M. Night Shyamalan’s best and most complete piece of storytelling: a parable of what happens when a community tries to seal itself away from hardship. Set in a rustic town that’s cut off from the outside world and surrounded by red-cloaked monsters, The Village is mostly a portrait of the comfort and terror that come with voluntary isolation; it explores America’s post-9/11 mindset by telling a story of a town that seeks only the illusion of safety at the cost of every other liberty. Shyamalan’s reputation for twist endings somewhat overhyped the movie’s initial rollout, since audiences went in with high expectations for a surprise finale. But while the big reveal in The Village was initially mocked, it makes tragic thematic sense, and only deepens the viewing experience on rewatch.
How to watch: Rent from various outlets
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.