Damon Smith chooses 10 (post)apocalyptic films to watch at home this week.
1. AD ASTRA (118 mins) Available to rent or buy on various platforms
Brad Pitt blasts into space and delivers an out of this world lead performance as an astronaut with deep-rooted daddy issues in director James Gray’s sci-fi thriller.
Ad Astra begins with a series of devastating electrical storms, named The Surge, that results in more than 43,000 deaths on Earth. Mr Gray’s film hardwires the visceral thrills of Gravity and the existential angst of 2001: A Space Odyssey in a near-future setting that slingshots from our stricken planet to Neptune via the dark side of the moon.
Brad Pitt’s classically handsome features ripple with emotion in close-up and he excels at conveying turmoil beneath his gung-ho trailblazer’s placid surface with an expertly timed twitch or downwards glance. It’s a meaty, complex role and the Oklahoma-born actor is mesmerising in every scene before his internal monologue interrupts the chilling silence in space, where no-one is supposed to be able to hear your primal scream.
Director James Gray quickens pulses with bravura action sequences including a lunar buggy chase and a memorable encounter with carnivorous gravity-defying baboons.
2. AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (184 mins) Streaming on Disney+ and available to rent or buy on various platforms
War demands sacrifices: civility, morality, compassion, responsibility and, ultimately, torn flesh and innocent blood. There are many heart-breaking sacrifices in Avengers: Infinity War, a blockbuster battle royale choreographed at dizzying speed by directors Joe and Anthony Russo to unite characters from across the sprawling and sinewy Marvel Comics franchises.
The head-on collision of The Avengers with protagonists from Black Panther, Captain America, Doctor Strange, Guardians Of The Galaxy, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Spider-Man and Thor delivers an eye-popping spectacle. A small army of special effects wizards bring to life hulking supervillain Thanos (Josh Brolin), who continues his quest to claim the six Infinity Stones, which will allow him to exterminate half of all living organisms in the universe with a snap of his digitally rendered fingers.
Scriptwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely bolt together the outlandish action sequences with comical interludes peppered with snarky humour, pop culture references and an obligatory Stan Lee cameo to the thunderous beat of composer Alan Silvestri’s score.
3. BIRD BOX (15, 124 mins) Streaming on Netflix
Emulating the sensory-starved scares of A Quiet Place, director Susanne Bier’s apocalyptic thriller draws inspiration from Josh Malerman’s novel to imagine a mysterious force that decimates the human population. Anyone who looks at the source of the devastation is compelled to take their own life. Survivors must literally turn a blind eye to avoid a grim demise.
In the aftermath, Sandra Bullock puts on a blindfold to lead two children (Julian Edwards, Vivien Lyra Blair) on a harrowing trek to safety, including drifting downstream in a rowboat without visibility of Mother Nature’s terrifying obstacles. Ms Bier embraces myriad horror movie tropes to stage slickly efficient action sequences and steadily increase the body count. Oscar winner Ms Bullock elevates the otherworldly elements with an emotionally raw performance that tugs our heartstrings even when the plot beggars belief.
4. CLOVERFIELD (85 mins) Available to rent or buy on various platforms
Foregoing traditional opening credits in favour of a time code screen and a warning that what follows is the “Property of Department of Defence”, Matt Reeves’ film is stylised to resemble found footage of a farewell party, which is interrupted by a devastating attack on New York City. The director delivers thrilling set pieces including a terrifying encounter with beasties in train tunnels, filmed using a camcorder’s infra-red function, and a nail-biting rescue from a high-rise flat that proves what you can’t see is just as horrific as what lurks on screen.
Scenes of a gargantuan monster’s rampage are similarly impressive with a nice jump out of your seat scare in the closing minutes. Shooting the film from the perspective of the beleaguered survivors, like The Blair Witch Project, sustains tension brilliantly. However, some viewers might feel a little motion sick because of the constant camera movement.
5. CONTAGION (102 mins) Streaming on Amazon Prime Video and Netflix and available to rent or buy on various platforms
Steven Soderbergh’s stylish thriller, which imagines the panic when a deadly new virus threatens to become a pandemic, sends a fresh trickle of sweat down the spine. Scott Z. Burns’ smart script zigzags from Hong Kong to London, Tokyo, Minnesota and beyond, examining the reaction of governments, scientists and the public, unearthing personal dramas in the midst of devastating global catastrophe.
Only once does the film resort to what might be considered cheap disaster movie tactics, watching nervously as two surgeons peel back the scalp of the first victim to examine her brain for signs of the infection. Otherwise, Mr Soderbergh shows cool restraint, killing off major characters with little fanfare.
Matt Damon delivers a terrific performance as a family man unable to stop his loved ones dying in his arms, who will do literally anything to protect his daughter from the same fate. Tension is palpable from the opening frames and Cliff Martinez’s insistent electronic score jangles nerves.
6. IT COMES AT NIGHT (92 mins) Available to rent or buy on various platforms
If you go down to the woods in writer-director Trey Edward Shults’ efficient psychological thriller, you’re sure of a nasty surprise. Set in the aftermath of a viral outbreak that has decimated America, It Comes At Night gradually tightens the thumbscrews until we’re prickled with the same paranoia as the characters. The desire to protect and preserve overrides the fear of death in Mr Shults’ lean script, which transforms men into monsters inside a family home with boarded up windows and tightly bolted doors.
Friendship counts for little during this brutal and sometimes bloody battle for survival. As one anguished father reminds his son: “You can’t trust nobody but family . . . as good as they seem.” Mr Shults heightens suspense without recourse to cheap scares. Instead, characters continually trade suspicious glances, searching for tiny signs of betrayal that might warrant a twitch of a sweat-glistened trigger finger. When violence explodes, it’s graphic and ugly, and the moral compasses of good men whirl sickeningly out of control in the name of love.
7. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (120 mins) Available to rent or buy on various platforms
Fasten your seat belts and hold on white-knuckle tight as writer-director George Miller invites you to an orgy of high-octane auto mayhem that makes the Fast & Furious look like a sedate Sunday afternoon drive. Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth instalment of the post-apocalyptic franchise, delivers a blitzkrieg of propulsive pursuits featuring almost 150 hand-built death machines of every conceivable shape and size.
These thrillingly choreographed sequences of carmageddon build to a jaw-dropping finale, replete with roof-mouthed metronome-like poles that allow road warriors to swoop down and snatch their prey from adjacent vehicles. If the original Mad Max released in 1979 was soaked in testosterone, Fury Road adds a heady whiff of oestrogen by introducing a badass tribe of warrior women called the Vuvalini.
Tom Hardy perfects an array of grunts and growls but he’s a dull boy next to Charlize Theron’s gutsy alpha female. She goes toe-to-toe and trades blow for bone-crunching blow with the grizzled anti-hero, channelling her character’s sense of loss into fiery vengeance.
8. A QUIET PLACE (90 mins) Available to rent or buy on various platforms
Silence is golden – and imperative for survival – in John Krasinski’s nerve-shredding horror thriller about a family battling against sightless otherworldly creatures, which hunt by sound. A single sneeze or cough could be fatal, and the lean, propulsive script co-written by Bryan Woods, Scott Beck and John Krasinski takes sadistic delight in our discomfort until we’re ready to scream on the characters’ behalf.
In the opening hour, A Quiet Place is a masterclass in old-fashioned scares and suspense including a horrific scene with a nail protruding from a wooden basement staircase, which begs to be glimpsed through trembling fingers. The gasp-inducing pay-off is telegraphed and Mr Krasinski confidently tightens the screw with slickly engineered set pieces. In the absence of dialogue, the film relies on beautifully calibrated gestures to convey emotion.
The script’s logic frays in places but it’s impossible not to be held in a vice-like grip by the family’s white-knuckle ordeal. Don’t speak, don’t breathe, and pray. Silently.
9. THE ROAD (107 mins) Streaming on Amazon Prime Video and available to rent or buy on various platforms
The future isn’t bright, not in the slightest, in John Hillcoat’s post-apocalyptic thriller, adapted by Joe Penhall from the novel by Cormac McCarthy. The Road unfolds through a grimy, colour-bleached lens and when misery is poured upon characters’ heads, the consequences are chilling and often gruesome.
To offset the relentless doom and gloom, the film clings onto any scraps of sentimentality and engineers as much of a life-affirming resolution as it dares. The emotional weight rests almost entirely on the shoulders of a gruff and heavily bearded Viggo Mortensen and Australian child star Kodi Smit-McPhee. Cast as father and son in a desolate landscape littered with unspoken dangers, the two actors create a believable on-screen dynamic that holds our attention.
John Hillcoat orchestrates edge-of-seat set pieces like when characters seek refuge in an old house and discover why the door to the basement is locked. It’s not a road movie you’ll forget in a hurry.
10. TRAIN TO BUSAN (113 mins) Available to rent or buy on various platforms
South Korean director Yeon Sang-ho delivers a hyperkinetic rush of blood to the head by staging a horror movie staple – a zombie apocalypse – inside the claustrophobic carriages of a bullet train hurtling from Seoul to Busan. Here, the undead aren’t slow-moving, shuffling predators that can be derailed by a few closed doors and a wall of luggage.
They are voracious, flesh-crazed predators that will do anything to pass on the contagion through a frenzied bite. Action sequences are staged with brio but Park Joo-suk’s script manages to underscore the carnage with barbed social commentary.
Gong Yoo commands the screen as a divorced workaholic, who decides to take his young daughter (Kim Su-an) to Busan to see her mother for her birthday. Infected passengers are intent on rampaging through the carriages and there is a lot of track to run until the terminus and potential salvation.
How many of these have you watched? Are you a fan of end of the world movies?
– With PA
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