How can Britain deal with the world when things really get tricky? We examine UK cinema’s depiction of apocalypses to find out.
Spoilers for The World’s End, In The Earth, When The Wind Blows and 28 Days Later.
COVID-19. Brexit. Fuel shortages. McDonalds running out of milkshakes. CO2 shortages endangering Irn-Bru production. No turkeys for Christmas. We are truly living in the end times here in the UK. And true to form, our British apocalypse is a lot more banal than it looks in the movies.
The post-apocalyptic dystopia is a mainstay of genre cinema the world over, from Mad Max to Melancholia. But what of British cinema? What do our apocalypses look like? And what of the people? With a populace who calls the emergency services when KFC run out of chicken, how can Great Britain possibly deal with things when the going really gets tough?
No apocalyptic film better captures the petty, self-destructive and bloody-mindedness of the Great British character than Edgar Wright’s The World’s End. Reuniting his estranged school friends, lead character Gary King sets out to recapture his youth by attempting the ‘Golden Mile’ – one pint in every pub in their hometown. Over the course of the evening, the friends uncover a sinister alien plot. Whilst the actual apocalypse doesn’t come until the climax, there is a palpable feeling of desolation throughout as tragic Gary struggles to cope with his own disappointment at the end of youth and his lack of fulfilment.
The World’s End is perfect for our current moment. After all, the film’s climax revolves around a middle-aged alcoholic, nostalgic for the good old days, who dooms all of mankind by refusing to become part of a universal federation-cum-trading conglomerate. At the time, it was a punch-the-air anti-capitalist, anti-Wetherspoons statement. Watching it post-Brexit, the line “We are the human race, and we don’t like being told what to do” takes on a slightly different meaning.
Where The World’s End predicted where we were heading, Ben Wheatley’s recent horror film In The Earth is a time capsule of our present fears and anxieties. Conceived and produced between lockdowns, Wheatley perfectly captures the strange rituals that we’ve all become accustomed to over the past 18 months – regular hand sanitising, temperature checks, mask wearing, distancing and a distrust of any sign of illness. All of which grounds the film’s trippier elements in something all too real.
In The Earth is a supremely unnerving descent into madness and folklore. As the world grapples with a deadly pandemic, two scientists head into the woods to contact a missing colleague. As they get further from what’s left of civilisation, they meet the sinister, shifty Zach and learn of the mythical spirit Parnag Fegg.
Like Edgar Wright, Wheatley wears his genre influences on his sleeve and In The Earth evokes the work of British sci-fi writers Nigel Kneale and John Wyndham as well as 1970s post-apocalyptic drama series Survivors. Like a lot of those novels, films and television series, this too posits a potential return to nature as a cure to all our ills. As rampant over-production and encroaching into uncharted environments are key factors in our current pandemic predicament, maybe they have a point.
Another man-made disaster is at the heart of seminal 1960s sci-fi The Day The Earth Caught Fire. In 2021, when the sea caught fire and the town of Jacobabad in Pakistan became too hot for the human body to handle, Val Lewis’ film is just as relevant today as it was on release 60 years ago.
The cause of the Earth’s rapidly increasing temperature in The Day The Earth Caught Fire is atomic energy. In a blackly comic twist, the US and Russia fail to synchronise their nuclear testing schedules and detonate bombs at either ends of the planet at the exact same time. Such a cataclysm sends the Earth spinning off its axis and set on a collision course with the sun. As temperatures soar and society collapses, journalist Peter Stenning rolls up his sleeves to unmask a government cover-up.
Shifting from black and white to yellow tinted cinematography, Val Lewis evokes a sweaty and unbearable London constantly on the edge of violence and civil unrest. Which is typical of Britain really. We complain when it rains for 350 days of the year but the minute it gets warm, society crumbles. What truly makes The Day The Earth Caught Fire British, however, is the portrayal of a populace who, when faced with the end of the World, go down the pub to watch it unfold on the telly.
Val Lewis’ film precedes several harrowing attempts in British television, cinema and graphic novels to tackle the shadow of impending nuclear destruction. Peter Watkins’ 1965 film The War Game was initially banned by the BBC for being ‘too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting’. Screening instead in cinemas and film festivals around the world, it won the 1966 Academy Award for Best Documentary. The BBC would later remove the ban in 1985 and screened it in the week before the 40th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. The equally harrowing Threads (that we wrote about here) had aired a year prior so presumably audiences and the head offices at Television Centre were more open to depictions of nuclear destruction on prime-time telly.
Peter Watkins drama/documentary hybrid depicts what it would be like if a nuclear bomb was dropped on Kent. As Watkins’ voiceover matter-of-factly takes us through the initial attack, ensuing devastation and aftermath, the film presents us with a Britain that, when put under unimaginable strain and tragedy begins to fracture and turn against itself.
The government become increasingly authoritarian and imposes rationing whilst the populace is psychologically damaged and sick from radiation poisoning. It is a divided and dangerous time, looters are shot on sight, there are food riots, and the UK infrastructure is obliterated. Puts your lack of a milkshake into perspective, that’s for sure.
Where Peter Watkins’ film looked at nuclear holocaust from a country-wide perspective, When The Wind Blows, Jimmy T Murakami’s animated adaptation of the Raymond Briggs book focuses on the effects on one household with heart breaking results. Murakami vividly brings Raymond Briggs’ illustrations to life with the orange-tinged scenes of devastation being a particularly dazzling highlight.
As the world edges closer to nuclear war, Jim and Hilda Boggs follow government advice and repurpose their home into a fallout shelter. Their blitz spirit and nostalgia for their wartime experience eventually give way to abject horror after the bombs fall. The Boggs’ initial misunderstandings are at once quintessentially British and blackly comic. They comment on the hot, cloudless day and the lack of public transport, blind or in denial to the truth. The film’s gentleness is key to its anti-war sentiment. When the book was first published in 1982, Briggs was commenting on how the cosy nostalgia of recent World War II history has softened the horrors of war. In 2021, the Boggs’ isolation and unquestioning belief that the government has the solution under control is painfully relevant.
As with all good post-apocalyptic films in the Romero tradition, there is also a healthy distrust of authority and those who use impossible situations for their own gain in Danny Boyle’s 2003 post-apocalyptic horror film 28 Days Later.
Awaking from a coma in an abandoned hospital, Jim finds the city ravaged by a virus which has turned humanity into rage fuelled killing machines. The abandoned streets of London get even more striking as the years go by, as our capital city becomes a 24-hour bustling metropolis. In search of sanctuary, Jim and his fellow survivors arrive at a military base in Manchester which may prove even more dangerous.
Dismissed by some undead purists for the running zombies, 28 Days Later is every bit as satirical as George A Romero’s seminal Dawn of the Dead. The international view of the reserved and repressed British psyche has a lot of truth to it, but it doesn’t tell the full story. We’re a nation of Ronnie Pickerings, angry cyclist videos, sectarian violence and football hooliganism. You only need to look at the strain the customer service industries have been under post-lockdown to see how a pandemic can turn folk into rage zombies.
If all this paints a bleak picture of Britain today then find solace in the fact that this small selection of films spans six decades of plague, climate catastrophe, nuclear anxiety and unfettered rage. We’re still standing, just about, and we’ll make it through our current challenges too. Maybe we’ll even get a few decent films out of it.
Thank you for visiting! If you’d like to support our attempts to make a non-clickbaity movie website:
Buy our Film Stories and Film Stories Junior print magazines here.
Become a Patron here.