When you think of apocalypses in cinema, you probably think of dystopian movies like I Am Legend and The Road that stand out for their post-apocalyptic settings.
But how did those settings become that way in the first place? Well, some sort of apocalypse came upon them—and they lost.
I love post-apocalyptic movies as much as anyone, but sometimes the threat of an apocalypse can be just as thrilling as watching people try to eke out a living after the world has been destroyed.
Here are my picks for the most thrilling apocalypse movies that take us through all kinds of cataclysmic possibilities, where the characters really only have two paths before them: save the world or die.
16. 2012 (2009)
Directed by Roland Emmerich
Starring John Cusack, Thandiwe Newton, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi (2h 38m)
This first entry is a bit of a doozy, but I'm including it for good reason! Back in the 2000s, 2012 was the speculated date for Earth's end because galactic alignment, Timewave Zero, and the Mayan calendar all suggested doomsday might fall that year.
An apocalyptic Hollywood action flick was guaranteed to come out of this widespread superstition, which director Roland Emmerich envisioned as a series of natural disasters—earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, avalanches, tsunamis, you name it.
Critics weren't impressed with 2012, but they understood it was a spectacle film made for the masses. The all-star cast, explosive action, and capitalization on society's 2012 paranoia reeled in box office figures and even became the second-most streamed film on Netflix during lockdown!
15. The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
Directed by Roland Emmerich
Starring Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal, Emmy Rossum
Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi (2h 4m)
Roland Emmerich clearly had very specific ideas for our eschatological end. Five years before he came out with 2012, he had also directed another natural disaster blockbuster: The Day After Tomorrow.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Sam, who's trapped in a New York City library and trying not to freeze to death while his climatologist dad (played by Dennis Quaid) is doing his best to rescue him and save the world. Bundle up warm for this one, kids!
The Day After Tomorrow is a little classier and more engaging than 2012, but still a mainstream Hollywood sci-fi worth watching.
14. War of the Worlds (2005)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Miranda Otto
Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi (1h 56m)
H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds was a literary milestone for the sci-fi genre, dancing up there with other greats like 1984, Dune, Brave New World, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
The late-19th century book sparked a huge panic in 1938 when soon-to-be-legendary filmmaker Orson Welles broadcasted a radio reading of it that listeners thought was real!
It's understandable that they'd panic given that The War of the Worlds is about aliens invading Earth and killing humanity. It's even cited as the first alien-versus-man narrative.
In 2005, Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg modernized the classic tale with this film, packing it full of flashy action and grand suspense. Though it's far from Spielberg's best, it's still a fantastic watch.
13. This Is the End (2013)
Directed by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen
Starring James Franco, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen
Comedy, Fantasy (1h 47m)
If the world actually came to an end, there'd be nothing funny about it. But in This Is the End, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg take the drama of this premise and turn it on its head, putting an apocalyptic spin on the goofy crudeness of Superbad and The Interview.
Beyond its hilarity and bizarreness—is that Channing Tatum wearing a dog collar?—the real star of the show is... well... the stars! Ensemble casts are a surefire way to reel in audiences, but few movies boast a cast as great as this one. Even Rihanna makes an appearance!
What's even better is that all of these actors play versions of themselves, gathered at James Franco's housewarming party when Armageddon flies straight out of the Bible and into Los Angeles.
For the British response to impending apocalypse comedy, try the infinitely dryer sarcasm of Edgar Wright's The World's End, which takes place in a London pub than an LA house party.
12. Contagion (2011)
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Starring Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne
Drama, Thriller (1h 46m)
Back in 2011, viewers couldn't have known that Contagion would resonate as much as it does now in a post-COVID world. The images of face masks and empty grocery shelves haunt us who have lived through the various stages of pandemic lockdown.
Contagion goes beyond the use of face masks and into the eerie, as Steven Soderbergh and Scott Z. Burns predicted (unknowingly, of course) that society would grind to a halt due to a bat-borne virus and that governments would implement "social distancing" rules.
But even before the coronavirus outbreak, Contagion was still an unsettling film in its own right, with public health sectors struggling to keep up with a fatal pandemic sweeping across nations.
Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, and Bryan Cranston star in this multi-stranded medical drama comprised of various storylines interweaving into one heart-pumping worldwide tragedy.
11. Melancholia (2011)
Directed by Lars von Trier
Starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland
Drama, Sci-Fi (2h 15m)
Melancholia forms part of Lars von Trier's Depression Trilogy, so don't expect a barrel of laughs here. Written as a way for Von Trier to express his own struggles with depression, Melancholia is split into two parts that each focus on a different sister.
When news comes out that a rogue planet is likely to smash into Earth, Justine (played by Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) respond in opposite ways: while Justine sunbathes in moonlight, yearning for an end to her post-wedding depressive episode, Claire grows wild with anxiety.
Melancholia proposes that people who find everyday life difficult are more accepting and calm in the face of doom, whereas well-adjusted people are liable to fly off the handle completely. It's an interesting theory that was put forward by Von Trier's own therapist.
Dream sequences, luminous plasma, and German opera music make Melancholia an abstract vision of melancholic daydreaming. (For a more action-packed meteor film, try Don't Look Up, Asteroid City, Greenland, or Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.)
10. Deep Impact (1998)
Directed by Mimi Leder
Starring Robert Duvall, Téa Leoni, Elijah Wood
Action, Drama, Sci-Fi (2h)
The meteor strike in Deep Impact is more Hollywood than the one in Melancholia, but don't let that deter you. This film is a classic 90s sci-fi flick that everyone should watch at least once.
Before we has trudging to Mordor as Frodo, Elijah Wood played a teenage astronomer who spotted a comet hurtling towards Earth. From there, Deep Impact breaks off into different plotlines between governments, journalists, and astronauts preparing to destroy the comet.
The Americans play the usual self-sacrificing heroes as a crew of five head off on a sure-death mission to nuclear bomb the meteor. Meanwhile, the rest of the nation is left to choose who will be sent underground and saved should the mission fail.
The 90s era loved disaster thrillers, so if you enjoyed Deep Impact, you can also check out Armageddon, Twister, and Independence Day.
9. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Directed by Edgar Wright
Starring Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kate Ashfield
Comedy, Horror (1h 39m)
Shaun of the Dead is the first (and best, if you ask me) film in Edgar Wright's Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy, although they're all fairly on par with each other! Apart from Cornetto ice creams, it's Simon Pegg and Nick Frost who link all three movies together.
In the case of Shaun of the Dead, Pegg and Frost play loser best friends in North London who are slacking on the sofa and watching TV when a zombie apocalypse suddenly breaks out.
It takes them a while to notice, but once they do, Shaun (played by Simon Pegg) and Ed (played by Nick Frost) have a bumbling way of fighting off the undead, emblematic of British slapstick comedy.
If you've seen Wright's sitcom Spaced, Shaun of the Dead might feel somewhat familiar. That's because it was inspired by the episode where Pegg's character hallucinates a zombie apocalypse!
8. Take Shelter (2011)
Directed by Jeff Nichols
Starring Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigham
Drama, Horror, Sci-Fi (2h)
To anyone who's already seen it, Take Shelter may not immediately spring to mind as an apocalypse movies. But when you take everything into consideration, it could certainly be interpreted as one.
Opting for a stripped-back character study over big-budget aliens, Jeff Nichols lets viewers make up their own minds about whether the impending doomsday in Take Shelter is real or not.
This wasn't done as a lazy cop-out, by the way! Take Shelter wants you to figure out if Curtis LaForche's visions are prophetic or schizophrenic, and Michael Shannon's portrayal of a man caught in the talons of a mental breakdown is incredible as we explore the human psyche.
After warning his town and family about an incoming deadly storm, Curtis is written off as insane. (I won't ruin the ending for you, but you should read up on the different theories after watching!)
7. 12 Monkeys (1995)
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Starring Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt
Mystery, Sci-Fi, Thriller (2h 9m)
Terry Gilliam is known for his weird and ambitious movies, like this one! Inspired by Chris Marker's 1962 short film, Twelve Monkeys switches between post- and pre-apocalyptic worlds in an Orwellian US.
Bruce Willis stars as James Cole, an underground prisoner in a dystopian 2035. The world was devastated by a viral outbreak, which is traced back to the mysterious Army of the Twelve Monkeys—and now Cole must go back in time to stop it before it happens.
But Cole is accidentally sent too far back in time to long before the apocalypse is even on the radar. His time-traveling gibberish marks him as a crazy man, landing him in a mental asylum where he meets a crazy-eyed, radical environmentalist (played by Brad Pitt).
12 Monkeys experienced an influx of views during the COVID-19 pandemic. Conspiracy theorists jumped on the movie's proposition that the plague was man-made, especially with the walls reading "Is there a virus?" and "We did it" in spray paint.
6. Planet of the Apes (1968)
Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner
Starring Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter
Adventure, Sci-Fi (1h 52m)
Over the years, the Statue of Liberty has become the symbol of end-times destruction in sci-fi cinema. Just look at Cloverfield, The Day After Tomorrow, X-Men, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Deep Impact, Independence Day, Godzilla: Final Wars... Need I go on?
This trope dates back to 1968, when Franklin J. Schaffner was famously the first to employ the Statue of Liberty as a doomsday indicator.
The plot twist in Planet of the Apes was enough to shake the film industry forever, as we spend the whole movie thinking a group of astronauts have landed on a faraway planet only to realize it's Earth in the future.
Lady Liberty stands like trunkless legs of stone in the desert where George Taylor (played by Charlton Heston) falls to his knees, cursing humanity for pushing itself to the brink of extinction.
On this planet of talking apes, humans are the ones being hunted following a nuclear war. Only a few people remain in 3978, all of them mute, and soon the crumbs they have left of Earth will be lost forever.
5. Dr. Strangelove (1964)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Starring Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden
Comedy, War (1h 35m)
The clue to apocalypse is in the very title of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (i.e., the impending apocalypse in this one is nuclear warfare).
A political satire of the Cold War, Peter Sellers plays three different roles in Dr. Strangelove: a British RAF officer, the US President, and Dr. Strangelove himself (who's a former Nazi nuclear war expert).
Alien hand syndrome—a real condition that can make your limbs act of their own accord—is probably the worst thing to have when you're sitting in front of the big red button of a nuclear launch, a plutonium button that could plunge Earth into mutually assured destruction.
Crazy generals and government advisors squabble over the dropping of a B-52 bomb over the Soviet Union, making Stanley Kubrick's grand black-and-white parody one of the greatest films of all time.
4. Donnie Darko (2001)
Directed by Richard Kelly
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Mary McDonnell
Drama, Mystery, Sci-Fi (1h 53m)
People who suffer with paranoid schizophrenia can often believe the world is about to end. For Donnie Darko (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), this threat isn't a vague paranoid suspicion—he's given a precise countdown from a giant, imaginary rabbit.
The troubled teenage boy in suburban Virginia has exactly 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds to stop the world ending. Diagnosed with daylight hallucinations, Donnie becomes obsessed with time travel and sees portals of life force protruding from people's chests.
Richard Kelly's takes the idea of an ambiguous ending to the extreme with a finale riddled with theories and interpretations. From the scientific to the spiritual to the psychological, the circular narrative of Donnie Darko is hotly debated, widely admired, and cult-followed.
3. 28 Day Later (2002)
Directed by Danny Boyle
Starring Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Christopher Eccleston
Drama, Horror, Sci-Fi (1h 53m)
28 Days Later was one of Danny Boyle's early hits, launching both Boyle and star Cillian Murphy onto the A-list. This is no run-of-the-mill zombie movie (even if it might seem that way without any context).
A guy wakes up in an empty hospital in an empty city, confused to find society ravaged by a zombifying virus. You've likely seen this opening in movies and TV, as it's a good way to introduce us to both the protagonist and their apocalyptic environment.
However, 28 Days Later changed the shape of zombie movies forever and became the new prototype for the genre. These aren't brain-dead, slow-moving monsters, but partially human, whip-fast killers.
The iconic opening of Murphy wandering the barren streets of London introduces a sense of scale and devastation that's now the norm for the genre. The plot unfolds in the early stages of the outbreak—unlike its post-apocalyptic sequels—where one man must fight for survival.
As of this writing, Danny Boyle recently confirmed 28 Years Later as the third installment in this franchise, but that's pretty much all the information we've been given.
2. Interstellar (2014)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain
Adventure, Drama, Sci-Fi (2h 49m)
Humans need the provisions of nature to survive, so it seems obvious that we should care for it. Yet, the idea of a dystopian ecocide doesn't feel so unrealistic given our societal trajectory, and we may one day soon be facing the desolation seen in Interstellar.
Droughts and crop failures have turned Earth into a near-uninhabitable Dust Bowl, and the Cooper family lives off nothing but corn and hope. That's when ex-NASA pilot Joseph (played by Matthew McConaughey) is hired to fly into a wormhole and find new potential home planets.
Being a Christopher Nolan film, the plot of Interstellar is far more complex than simply hopping between planets. Time and dimensions have different rules in space, and they pull and push Joseph towards and away from his kids back on Earth in a bid to save humanity.
1. Children of Men (2006)
Directed by Alfronso Cuarón
Starring Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Action, Drama, Sci-Fi (1h 49m)
Ecocide is also the culprit of dystopia in Children of Men, which delivers an impactful doomsday tale that's scarily feasible and hits close to home.
Based on the powerful novel by P. D. James, Children of Men is set in the not-so-distant future of 2027, where all of humanity has become infertile. This—coupled with global depression, wars, and illegal immigration—has turned the UK into a dreary police state.
Teetering on the edge of an apocalypse, Theo (played by Clive Owen) discovers a pregnant refugee and must protect her at all costs.
The gray color scheme, background violence, religious imagery that's reminiscent of death and judgement day, and cynical protagonist make Alfonso Cuarón's adaptation a masterpiece of filmmaking.
For more films about ecocide, check out Blade Runner 2049, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Snow Piercer, Wall-E, and Mad Max.