Last Night (Feature Film, 1998)
Written & Directed by Don McKellar Amazon CA DVD - Amazon UK DVD
(don't bother with the US DVD - it's rubbish. The Canadian DVD isn't much better but at least it's widescreen, though possibly not anamorphic, and the transfer is supposed to be much better. The UK edition is something I haven't seen but does at least claim to be widescreen)
The world ends in six hours. How are you going to spend the last night on Earth?
Back in 1998, the world was getting ready to end – in the cinema, anyway. Two major Hollywood blockbusters about asteroid impacts came out in swift succession. Armageddon and Deep Impact were run of the mill stuff in which the world was saved (or left with only a mild singe or two) by the usual crews of heroes with the usual bland adventures.
Then came Last Night – a tiny little Canadian film with a far more interesting premise: the world is going to end and saving it is impossible. All that’s left is for everyone to choose how to spend their last remaining hours on earth. There’s a family getting together for Christmas (though it isn’t Christmas), giving their adult children back the presents they’d had when they were kids. There’s an executive at the gas company calling every customer to reassure them that the gas will stay on until the end. There’s a guy working his way through every sexual fantasy he’s ever had. There are parties in the streets, people overturning cars for the hell of it, suicide pacts and a demented woman jogging around yelling a countdown to anyone who cares to listen.
Threading through all these choices are the recently bereaved Don McKellar, who thought he’d decided to be alone at the end but can’t quite work out the details, and Sandra Oh, who’s decided to be with her husband, but has become stranded on the wrong side of town while trying to get a few last supplies. They don’t really want to make a connection, but the film inexorably pushes them towards it as the clock ticks down towards the end.
To some extent, this is a series of interesting, often funny vignettes about what might happen at the end of the world, and that willingness to explore things happening on the sidelines rather than following the main plotline might leave some people wondering if there's a point. But when you place the apocalypse at the end of a story, there’s never any need to worry about where things are going. The ending of Last Night pulls every thread together in a moment of sublime beauty as the world ends; even watching it now after first seeing it twelve years ago, I still wept.
And unlike most of the whizz-bang apocalypse blockbusters, this film is actually about something. It’s not a terribly complicated something; it’s much more of an emotional thing. It’s about the connections between people and how important they are. Many of the choices people have made about how to spend their last hours are monumentally selfish, and the film shows how destructive that is. On the last night, most people are just too busy doing their own thing to help one another. For those few who rise above that and come together (quite literally, in one case), the last second of life on earth becomes a perfect moment.
There’s only one downside, now I look back at the film from a distance of years, only slightly less overwhelmed by the story: Don McKellar’s performance. There’s something rather flat about the way he ambles through the movie, and maybe that’s a choice, given that he’s supposed to be emotionally numb from the loss of his fiancée, who died just before the end of the world was announced. But when put up against all the other actors, he doesn’t quite ring true. Even David Cronenberg manages a better performance, and he’s not actually an actor. But in the end, it’s a minor irritation, and the rest of the film is good enough to rise above it.
Depiction of the Apocalypse
If there’s one thing this film doesn’t care about too much, it’s the exact mechanics of the apocalypse. And it’s right to do so, because the story is really about the people and how they face up to the end of everything, rather than anyone trying to actually do anything about it.
And now, having said that, I shall proceed to poke holes wherever I may.
The apocalypse appears to be something to do with the sun – or a sun, anyway. Towards the end, Don McKellar observes that there are no nights any more, and even as the clock approaches midnight, it still seems to be a bright sunlit day. If something had gone wrong with the sun, then this would, of course, be impossible; the Earth would still be turning, and night would still happen (okay, sure, maybe the moon would be much brighter due to reflection, but not so bright as to turn night to day).
If night has been banished forever, then there would have to be a second star coming close, which offers a more plausible method for destroying the world, though I doubt it would be so sudden: firstly, the temperature increase would be gradual, and life would not be able to continue with such ease until a sudden cut-off point. Secondly, an incoming star would make a mess of the solar system through gravitational interactions. The earth would not just plough on in the same course until it hit the star – it would most likely be flung out of the solar system altogether and freeze to death, or be bombarded with debris driven inwards as the rogue star knocks everything out of whack.
Or, of course, it could be something different entirely. Maybe aliens have decided humanity needs to be exterminated and have told them when it will happen. It really doesn’t matter to the story. But it’s clear that the exact details haven’t been worked out. Which is fine for this film. Because it doesn’t matter. Okay? IT DOESN’T MATTER.
(I’ll just repeat that to myself for a bit…)
Where the filmmakers have put in a little thought is in the human response to the apocalypse, which is resolutely Canadian, well organised and polite. The government shut itself down in an orderly manner. There was chaos and social unrest when the end of the world was announced, but they got over it. Electricity and gas are still running. Nobody seems to have run out of petrol. Nobody’s dying of starvation (or even from a lack of alcohol).
It’s a lot like On the Beach in this regard: an inevitable apocalypse creeping up on the world, and everyone trying to keep things going until it’s all over. The partying gets a bit out of hand towards the end, and people die in stupid, pointless ways, but somehow, society keeps itself together until the final moments. Last Night chooses to believe more in the goodness of humanity in its final moments, but then it doesn’t have to contend with the bitterness of a self-inflicted apocalypse that was a very real possibility when On the Beach was written. Absolving humanity of any guilt in its own destruction – which it does, in part, by refusing to specify how the world is ending – allows the film to examine human reactions to an apocalypse without any baggage that would skew the results. It’s not responding to any issues of nuclear war, environmental breakdown, social decay or anything else; it’s purely about the characters, set free to do what they will in the last few hours before the end.