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The best pre-apocalypse movies for those too cynical (and smart) to believe in a post-apocalypse

You're gonna have to make it through the pre-apocalypse before you can survive the post-apocalypse

Dr. Strangelove
Image credit: Sony/Columbia Pictures

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Everyone is constantly preparing for the time after the apocalypse. We as a society — and especially some real charmers reading this from their bunker, surrounded by MREs and enough tins of beans to clear the colon of a rhinoceros — have created an obsession with the off-chance that, one day, the bomb will drop, the zombies will come, the moon will get mad, or the aliens will invade. What optimists we are to think that we will survive those things well enough for there to BE a post-apocalypse, I say!

Something we perhaps don’t consider often enough in the face of nuclear war, plague, and natural disaster, however, is that perhaps the inevitability of the apocalypse is something that we won’t be able to prepare for. So while you can hunker down with every disaster movie and Mad Max-esque survivalist in hopes that we can prepare, I’m here to be your fairy cynic-mother and offer, instead, a list of movies to help us all through the pre-apocalypse. 

Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Dr. Strangelove
Image credit: Sony/Columbia Pictures

Even if you’ve never had the pleasure of watching Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 satirical anti-war masterpiece — or perhaps were just too young, as I was on first viewing, to understand exactly what makes it so funny, effective, and unfortunately evergreen — the image of character Major “King” Kong (played by non other than comedy and acting legend Slim Pickens) riding a nuclear bomb like a rodeo bull out of the belly of a bomber plane is one that has nestled itself neatly into the zeitgeist of cultural history.

Deservedly so, of course, as the film takes place at the inkling beginning of what will be a fictional World War III, with a erratic General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) having launched a nuclear strike against the Soviets and a war room full of frantic, comedically mysterious, and ultimately incompetent politicians and generals all trying to formulate the best way to stop the strike before war becomes inevitable. With a cast that boasts Peter Sellers, Jack Creley, James Earl Jones, and a host of old film royalty bringing to life a concept that perfectly balances the joke of war never changing and the grim reality of war never changing, it just doesn’t get better than Dr. Strangelove.

Just remember: there’s no fighting in the war room. 

Bio-Dome (1996)

Image credit: MGM

The nineties were a wonderful time for people going “Oh wow, we really messed up the earth and are probably going to die in a fiery ball and/or a new ice age and we should... fix it...?” and then having no idea how to really do that outside of listening to Al Gore talk about greenhouse gasses as we all nodded our heads saying “hmm, yes, that IS bad”.

Luckily, we also had Pauly Shore and Stephen Baldwin play our collective stand-ins in the 1996 cult gem Bio-Dome, which... kind of got the message across. Scientists unveil the first-ever bio-dome in the middle of the California desert in an effort to prove that if humanity lived sustainably and responsibly within a neutral eco-system, we could effectively roll back the damage done to the earth and avoid the long-term threat of environmental apocalypse. Unfortunately, Bud and Doyle (Shore and Baldwin, respectively), also stumble into the dome as it’s being sealed, and treat it as an experiment in raditiude, hoping to prove that they’re environmentally conscious and therefore bangable to their eco-friendly girlfriend.

Did any of us save the earth after watching Bio-Dome? No. But did it make us wonder if we SHOULD save the world from impending doom if it meant we got to be stuck in a bio-dome with late-nineties Kyle Minogue? I mean, YES.

The World’s End (2013)

The World's End
Image credit: Universal Pictures

If you really think about it, we’re all living in a pre-apocalypse because, hey: we’re all aging out of our best years and will die eventually. This message was brought to you by Edgar Wright’s underrated 2013 classic, which combines the dread of change and not being in our (perceived) best years anymore, and the fun threat of robot-alien invasion.

Gary King (played by Edgar Wright’s favorite, Simon Pegg), is 40 year old man in arrested development over his glory years of high school and is determines to round up his former high school gang to finish their attempt at the Golden Mile — a pub crawl in their hometown of Newton Haven consisting of twelve pubs, ending with an establishment called The World’s End. Having never completed the crawl in their teen years in the 1990s, the reluctant and more buttoned up gang finds more than a drunken night in store when it turns out Newton Haven has become a hive for alien takeover.

Somewhere between the creeping notion of a sci-fi apocalypse a la “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and the existential dread of aging, the World’s End is the classic Edgar Wright formula that’ll make you believe in the power of being a tee-totaler, even if only for the ass-kicking powers that come after the first pint in quite a while.

Miracle Mile (1988)

Miracle Mile
Image credit: Hemsdale Film Corporation

Treading the line between nuclear paranoia and genuinely remarkable, neon-drenched romantic comedy, Steve de Jarnatt’s Miracle Mile is a pre-apocalypse gem that will leave you devastated.

There's a Twilight Zone vibe to the story, as young musician Harry (Anthony Edwards) falls in love with a waitress, Julie (Mare Winningham), only to be late for their first date as he recieves a call in a phone booth with a misdialed announcement that “nuclear fucking war” is breaking out. “It’s for real, dad. We shoot our WOD in 50 minutes!” cries the soldier, and it’s up to Harry to decide his fate even if no one else is ready to believe him — or if he even believes it himself.

Something of an exercise (or possibly exorcism) of the late-1980s nuclear holocaust fears of the Cold War, Miracle Mile is a tone-shifting, darkly funny, and all-too-timely addition to the notion of cinematic impending disaster.

Melancholia (2011)

Image credit: Magnolia Films

Apocalyptic movies are often used as a metaphor, and director Lars Von Trier, luckily, loves a good metaphor (albeit an often heavy-handed one). Melancholia proves this point handily, as the impending doom of earth looms on the horizon. A new planet is spotted as a bright star in the sky and steadily gets larger and larger, going unsaid and with little context — a rarity in the genre — with the exception of house party conversation as two contrasting sisters prepare for different routes in their lives.

While the movie itself is, again, a heavy-handed but beautiful metaphor for depression, the film lands itself in a unique spot of also showing how different people handle their feelings of impending and inevitable doom. While most pre-apocalyptic movies plant their characters in positions with little time to react or only able to react in survival panic, Melancholia shows what can happen when the world is ending and you have no choice but to feel everything while you wait.

Cabin in the Woods (2011)

Cabin in the Woods
Image credit: Lionsgate

Look, no one is denying that teen horror comedies can swing either way when it comes to film quality, but Cabin in the Woods comes in as a dark horse with mermaids, grisly deaths, and a cast list that includes Richard Jenkins and Sigourney Weaver. (And Chris Hemsworth, I guess.)

As five college kids go to the eponymous cabin in the woods for a weekend away, little do they know that their trip and every move they make is all a game being played as a sacrifice to suppress ancient gods. When the main good girl makes it to the end alive, the death of the earth feels like the only option to save humanity from forever being pawns to an international scheme.

As far as pre-apocalypse goes, Cabin in the Woods builds to the inevitable demise in the same way listed in Melancholia, but this time with the lack of knowledge and behind the wizard screen of being just another teen horror romp. And who doesn’t want to be slowly surprised by the fact that you’ve gotta just sit down and accept your death!

Get ready for the end of the world with our guide to best dystopian TV shows of all time, a guide to how to watch/play the entire Fallout saga, and how to watch the Mad Max & Furiosa saga.

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