The end of the world has been a theme in literature almost from the beginning of the written word. The Epic of Gilgamesh from 2000-1500 BCE includes angry gods flooding the place out, though the most famous apocalyptic writing would be the Revelation of John, which people have misinterpreted to mean the imminent “end of all things” almost since the ink dried.
Modern literature’s first apocalyptic story was “The Last Man,” written in 1826 by “Frankenstein” author Mary Shelley, though the most popular early works came from the pen of H.G. Wells: “The Time Machine” (1895) and “War of the Worlds” (1898). With the advent of film, audiences could experience the end visually. The Danish movie The End of the World was made in 1916 and postulated the world’s end as the result of disasters caused by a comet passing too close to the Earth. (This was 6 years after Halley’s Comet passed by, and in the middle of WWI.) The nuclear age gave screenwriters more ways to destroy the world, though the classics remain popular, as the regular remakes of War of the Worlds and The Time Machine attest. Currently two films are in the theaters with end of the world themes: World War Z and This Is The End. I went to see them back to back.
World War Z opens with Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), his wife Karin (Mireille Enos), and their daughters Rachel and Constance (Abigail Hargrove, Sterling Jerins) preparing for a trip while news reports tell of strange happenings in countries around the world. As they’re driving out of Philadelphia, they get caught in a huge traffic jam, and then the explosions start. The zombies have arrived. Gerry watches as a man is bitten by one of the zombies. In ten seconds, he turns into a flesh-eating zombie himself.
Gerry is a former investigator for the U.N. who’s gone into more dangerous locations than most men. He makes a deal with the Secretary General (Fana Mokoena) to keep his family safe if he comes back to investigate how the outbreak occurred. First though, they have to survive a night in New Jersey before they can be evacuated. It is the most effective sequence in the film, and one that makes you forget to breathe.
From a naval taskforce in the Atlantic, Gerry makes his way first to Korea, where it is thought the outbreak started, then to Israel, and finally England. Pitt, who also produced the film based on the bestseller by Max Brooks, is effective as Gerry. Rather than focusing on saving all mankind, he does what he does to save his family.
Director Marc Forster has made some excellent movies, among them Finding Neverland and Monster’s Ball. However, he’s also responsible for Quantum of Solace, the worse James Bond film since Roger Moore did the role. While it’s not a train wreck, World War Z is similar to No Country For Old Men; it is 9/10ths of a decent film that breaks down at the end. The movie went through extensive revisions and reshoots that included scrapping the last 40 minutes. It ends up feeling truncated with a voice-over ending (never a good sign).
I moved on to the next theater. This Is The End could be called a vanity project, but that usually means that the people involved in it have some vanity. That’s not the case here.
The movie is sort of a remake of a short that Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel made in 2007 called Jay and Seth versus the Apocalypse. For This Is The End, Rogen and Baruchel have added James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride to the main cast, all of them playing over-the-top versions of themselves. Baruchel has come from Canada to visit his friend and fellow Canadian Rogen. Rogen convinces him to come to a party at Franco’s new house. The party is filled with other actors and performers: Emma Watson, Mindy Kaling, Rihanna, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, David Krumholtz and Aziz Ansari, as well as a completely out of control Michael Cera.
While on a trip to a local store for cigarettes, Rogen and Baruchel get caught in what at first seems to simply be a major earthquake. But then Baruchel sees people all around him drawn up into the sky by beams of blue light. They return to the party and tell what they’ve seen. When the partygoers go outside to see what has happened, a huge sink hole opens up and swallows most of them into a fiery pit, leaving only the six main people alive in the house. At first the movie is your basic survival story with a comedic twist, but as it goes on Baruchel and then others realize the destruction is Biblical in proportion.
This Is The End earns its R rating with amazingly crude sexual humor, extensive drug use, and incredibly foul language. It’s also one of the funniest movies in a long time, not in a small part because the participants take major body shots at their own personas and careers. One sequence is a five-minute sequel to the Rogen/Franco hit, Pineapple Express. Strangely enough, within the crudity is a meditation on spirituality such as you would not normally find in a Hollywood movie since the 1950s. It’s simplistic but it’s there.
Of the two movies, This Is The End is the better, though you may need a strong stomach and asbestos ears to watch it.