"When The Wind Blows" (1986)
For all the bleak takes on nuclear apocalypse -- "On The Beach," "Dr. Strangelove," "The Day After" -- it's perhaps a little discomforting to find that the most harrowing comes in the form of a cartoon. Based on Raymond Briggs' graphic novel of the same name, "When The Wind Blows," from Japanese-American director Jimmy Murakami ("Battle Beyond The Stars") follows an average, elderly British couple, Jim and Hilda (who Briggs admitted were based on his own parents, rather hauntingly), who face an imminent Soviet strike on the U.K. with typical British chipperness. Voiced touchingly by John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft, they follow government advice and build a wooden shelter, and wait for the whole thing to blow over. But the bombs fall, and although they survive the blast, they're obliviously dying of radiation poisoning, leading up to a haunting conclusion as they pray together. The wry humor just about makes it palatable, but it's an enormously affecting piece of work (sometimes made a little too obvious by the Roger Waters score and David Bowie theme song), which haunted at least a couple of generations of Brits, and anyone else who managed to see it, sitting alongside "Watership Down" and "Grave Of The Fireflies" on the "unbelievably traumatic animation" shelf.
"The Day The Earth Caught Fire" (1961)
Riding the wave of similar nuclear-fearing apocalyptic sci-fi pictures like "The Day The Earth Stood Still" and "When Worlds Collide," "The Day The Earth Caught Fire" is one of the more thoughtful and plausible takes on the genre. Recently divorced Daily Express journalist Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) discovers that simultaneous nuclear tests by the Soviets and the U.S have thrown the Earth slightly out of orbit, causing it to come closer to the sun, and raising temperatures to the point that water is evaporating, covering all of Britain in a mist. There is a plan, but we don't follow the government types hoping to detonate more bombs in Siberia to throw the planet back in its groove, we stay with Peter, his best friend Bill (a lovely turn by the great Leo McKern) and love interest Jeanie (Janet Munro) as they wait on, helplessly. Director Val Guest ("The Quatermass Experiment") keeps everything thoroughly grounded, despite the iffy science of the inciting incident, providing an authentically nightmarish look at London under the cooker. And it has one of the greatest endings in science fiction: Stenning dictates an editorial, as two alternate versions of a final front page, reading World Saved and World Doomed wait to be sent to the presses, depending on how successful the nuclear detonation turns out. U.S. prints added the ringing of church bells, but even that seems to only contribute to the bleak ambiguity of the ending, rather than suggesting that the world's been saved.
"Time Of The Wolf" (2003)
Unlike the rest of these picks, the apocalypse has pretty much been and gone by the opening of Michael Haneke's "Time Of The Wolf," the Austrian helmer's sole entry into the science fiction genre. But that doesn't mean that the worst is over. Far from it. Society is still crumbling around the family at the centre of Haneke's dystopia. A middle class family, led by matriarch Anne (Isabelle Huppert), are struggling to survive in a world in the aftermath of an again unknown catastrophe (drinking water is scarce, and livestock are set aflame). In the opening minutes, they're robbed, and watch as the patriarch (Daniel Duval) is murdered, forcing them to flee, eventually coming under the questionable protection of tinpot despot Olivier Gourmet, who has control of the uncontaminated water. It's about as much fun as you'd expect from a post-apocalyptic Michael Haneke film -- i.e. no fucking fun whatsoever -- but it's impeccably directed and performed, by Huppert especially. And what elevates it above, say, "The Road," are the hints that the director gives -- without ever over-egging it -- that he's not really talking about some futuristic dystopia, but about the places in the world -- Kosovo, Somalia, wherever -- where people eke out existences all to similar to that of Anne and her family.