Don McKellar’s dry comedy from 1998 examines the peculiar ways that people might cope when faced with the ultimate disaster: the end of planet Earth.
The end of the world! Or, in what amounts to the same thing, at least for us, the end of the human race! Prior to the creation of the atomic bomb, no films on this subject were ever made, as far as I can tell. But in our nuclear age, it’s become practically a genre unto itself. Leaving aside the weirdness of trying to entertain ourselves with visions of apocalypse, there’s a spooky psychological question that must eventually come up for the viewer: What would it be like if you knew that life on earth was coming to an end? What would you do?
A brilliant and unexpectedly touching movie about just these questions, a comedy in fact, was written and directed by Canadian actor and filmmaker Don McKellar. Released in 1998, the same year as Armageddon, yet another big dumb Hollywood disaster movie, this small independent feature is one of the cleverest and yet most moving depictions of the end of our world. It’s called Last Night.
The story opens in Toronto on December 31st, 1999. As we get to know the various characters in Last Night, we discover that the world has already known for about six months that the planet was going to be destroyed on midnight of New Year’s Eve. Everyone’s gone through the panic stage already, and there’s been looting and rioting, but on this last day, most people are just trying to squeeze in some fun, or spend time with loved ones.
McKellar himself plays Patrick, a melancholy widower whom we first meet at a mock Christmas party, which is actually a farewell party, thrown together by his parents, and attended also by his sister Jennifer, played by Sarah Polley, her boyfriend, and two elderly relatives, the grandmother and aunt. In the context of the world ending, I found the petty bickering and whining in the family to be hilarious. That’s one of McKellar’s marvelous insights here—in the face of such total, inconceivable disaster, every personal problem or complaint, every kind of behavior based on the assumption of normality, becomes really funny. Patrick’s mother, played by Roberta Maxwell, is upset that he’s decided to leave the party and spend his last hours alone in his apartment. The 80-year-old aunt gripes that younger people haven’t lived long enough to regret anything. McKellar achieves a near perfect blend of dry humor here. The film doesn’t go over the top to break the fictional spell, but it stretches our understanding of human nature far enough to make us laugh.
In other subplots, a gas company executive played by David Cronenberg—yes, the famous director—spends his time leaving phone messages for all the customers, assuring them that their heat will be kept on until the last moment. Patrick’s best friend Craig, played by Callum Keith Rennie, decided when he first learned of the coming apocalypse, that he would have sex in as many different ways as he’s always wanted, putting a want ad in to that effect, and getting quite a few responses. One of them is from a woman played by Genevieve Bujold, who turns out to have been Craig’s French teacher—McKellar has quipped that having sex with your French teacher was a fairly common fantasy for boys in Canada.
Finally, in what is really the central story, Sandra Oh (another fine Canadian actress) plays a woman named Sandra who gets stranded downtown because looters trash her car and all the buses have stopped running. By chance she runs into Patrick, whom she doesn’t know, and begs him to help her get back home to her husband. This odd relationship between two perfect strangers becomes a metaphor for a collapsing society that never learned how to live properly, much less how to die.
One thing I love about Last Night is that it never explains why or how the world is ending. Instead of wasting our time with an explanation, it just establishes it as a fact so that we can watch the characters deal with it. We do see the sun seem to get bigger and bigger so that it’s still bright out when midnight approaches, so I guess that has something to do with it. But it’s really beside the point. That McKeller is able to take this darkly humorous theme and somehow gradually turn it into a moving emotional experience—well, I won’t spoil it for you. Last Night is available on DVD. Check it out when you get the chance.