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Sunday, August 16, 2015
These Final Hours (2013)
Written and directed by Zak Hilditch
Nathan Philips: James
Angourie Rice: Rose
Jessica de Gouw: Zoe
Kathryn Beck: Vicky
Miracle Mile just came out on blu-ray, with scads of extra features and plenty of reviews that are hopefully going to convince some people to check it out; it's shamefully obscure. Perhaps because, unlike most American films about the end of the world, there isn't a last-second reprieve. While I would love to jump on the bandwagon and tell people about a film that is a diamond in the rough, that was the seventh film I reviewed here at the Checkpoint, back when I was still intending to only look at Cold War era science fiction, action or fantasy movies.
But just because I was two years too early to tell you about that movie doesn't mean I can't do some commentary about a somewhat similar film today. And that brings us to the Australian production These Final Hours. What's it about? It's about the last hours that human civilization is going to exist following an asteroid strike on Earth; by an accident of timing and geography, Australia is the last part of the globe that will be overrun by the impact wavefront, which could probably be best described as a tsunami of fire. Why Australia? Well, the short answer is if they got hit first all the characters would just be charred skeletons lying in the blasted wasteland that used to be a slightly less-blasted wasteland. I prefer to imagine that New York City, as it does in all the American disaster movies, got hit first. And since the deep impact in this film works out more like an actual Armageddon-level event than a movie plot, all the American characters are dead before the opening credits roll.
In fact, air raid sirens (the "everyone's going to die" audio signal of choice for the discerning cinema fan since 1955) play over the production logos before the film proper even starts. While the movie keeps telling us who made it, staticky audio from someone calling "Control" and saying everyone's gone and then an overlapping cavalcade of answering machine and voice mail messages of people trying to contact a loved one while they can. The first image in the actual film is a fireball streaking through the morning sky with a mustard-gas-colored tail streaming behind it. The last thing in the audio collage, fittingly enough, is a series of people saying "I love you".
Love isn't exactly on James' mind once he hears the news; he's having sex for the last time with one of his girlfriends. He leaves her to go back to his home (I don't know Australian skylines well enough to tell you which city is burning down on the horizon, but he appears to live in the suburbs of one of the larger urban areas). I didn't spot the Sydney Opera House, but that doesn't mean anything. While James is drinking whiskey straight from the bottle (and driving--which seems excessive, but it's the end of the world so if he crashes he'll just be checking out a few hours before everyone else). A radio DJ lets us know that it's Perth destroying itself in a spasm of apocalyptic fear and rage, and that something slammed into the North Atlantic ten minutes ago; the shockwaves and firestorms are going to exterminate all life on the planet. The timeline's a little shaky here (James did a few lines of coke and has drunk at least half a bottle of light brown liquor and the editing reflects his mental state), but the news has apparently spread. Somewhere during the drive it becomes apparent that the east coast of North America and the west coast of Africa are both scoured clean of life. It is a matter of time (half a day, to be precise) before the same thing happens to Australia.
Some people have retreated into denial (a caller on the radio says if people move inland and avoid the coasts, they'll be okay; great, what do you plan to eat or drink once you've lived through the end of the world?) and others have taken to the streets to destroy cars or other people, have sex, or kill themselves. In a flashback to him bailing on Zoe, we get the first line from James and it's a far cry from the super-tough machismo that tends to dominate apocalyptic movies: "We're already fucking dead. It's gonna fucking hurt,". James looks like he wants to break down sobbing when he says it, too--this isn't the heroic introduction of an uber-tough alpha male who can survive in the wasteland; it's someone who just realized they're about to hit their breaking point and trying not to succumb to despairing insanity quite yet.
James says he doesn't want to feel the end when it comes; he wants to die drunk, high, and completely insensible when the shockwave hits him. He gets Zoe's blessing to leave and go to a friend's party--and Zoe's crying when she says she knows he's going to be having sex with his other girlfriend. But James leaves anyway, and gets relieved of his car when a drunk shirtless guy with a machete dives into the passenger's seat at a shopping-trolley roadblock and demands a ride so he can do some "errands", the first one of which is murdering his father with that machete for beating him as a kid.
James sprints off without his car keys (the guy with the blade has them) and winds up trying not to make any noise underneath an SUV when the maniac stalks him. Someone else enters that guy's field of vision and he runs off to start murdering them instead. A passing van looks like it might be at least a way for James to get a ride to where he needs to go, but it turns out to have three people inside it who go into a house in this part of Dante's Subdivision. A huge lardy muscular dude, a skinny dude, and a ten year old blonde girl who's screaming that she wants her dad. When the trio goes inside the house, James gets ready to steal the van but can't quite bring himself to abandon the girl to a horrific fate. Good thing there's a hammer amongst the stuff in the van, and the house isn't locked.
James almost gets taken out by each of the rapists in turn (the huge guy, unsurprisingly, is a much bigger challenge). Once the giant guy decides to switch to negotiation rather than fighting ("There's enough here for both of us") James bashes him on the head and rescues the girl. The film's also realistic enough about James' capabilities both physically and emotionally that he throws up after getting out of the creeps' house and openly doesn't care about helping the girl find her father before everything goes away forever.
Turns out the girl is going to "Auntie Janice's"; at least that's the plan. Her father burned their house down rather than let squatters live in it (not everyone's going full-tilt homicidally insane but nobody's wrapped too tightly right now, it would appear) and she got separated from him when he looked for more petrol (one assumes his car went dry; maybe it would have been better to pour more gas in the Family Truckster and less on the living room carpet). The girl says her family is supposed to meet up in Roleystone, but there's barely any gas in the van's tanks and James has other plans for the day.
As a compromise between leaving the kid to fend for herself and driving over to Roleystone, James goes back to the ice rink where the family station wagon is parked (and the girl's father hasn't returned yet; odds are he's not ever coming back). When James gets tired of waiting for her father, he says he's got to move on and offers to drop the girl off at his sister's place so she can be looked after. James thinks that's at least safer than where he's going; his sister's got three kids and she'll probably not mind taking in a stray for the last few hours of life on Earth. He actually puts the stolen van in gear and starts driving off before the girl decides to go with that plan rather than stick around waiting for her father at the ice rink parking lot. When they get back on the road, the girl gives her name--it's Rose, not that James asked about it--and James responds with his.
When they get to his sister's house, there doesn't appear to be anyone home. James lets himself in through the back gate (whatever James has been doing to screw up his life, it appears his sister Stacey did all right; it's a large two-story house with a pool in the back and plenty of kids' toys). Inside there's a Christmas tree with opened presents underneath it but upstairs something's wrong. James finds the body of his sister in the shower with the water running (which had been going on long enough for some water to overflow the stall and drip down the stairs--James send Rose out to the pool while he figured out what was going on; obviously, nothing good happened there and he didn't want to inflict it on an innocent kid). While James tries to figure out what to do next he spots three white crosses with kids' names on them in the back garden; apparently his sister assisted with three suicides before killing herself.
James is shaken enough that he wants to ditch Rose at the murder/suicide house and drive off in his sister's car. She catches him before he can do that and winds up accompanying him to the party that he's been wanting to get to for the last few hours. While James makes the drive, we get a flashback to him and Zoe before he abandoned her; he recommends that she does something to numb herself before the end (booze, drugs, pills, or any other mood obliterator). It turns out she's been avoiding intoxicants because she's pregnant. With James' child. His response is to ask what difference that makes on the last day of human existence on Earth--I cannot honestly imagine an American movie with such a bastard as the protagonist. Although, to be fair, he's under an unprecedented amount of stress and I'm guessing that his life hasn't been rough enough to teach him much in the way of empathy or kindness yet.
On the drive to the party, Rose improvises a bandage for a wound that James got while avoiding the machete lunatic at the start of the film and explains that she's worried that when everyone dies she's going to Hell (she prayed for a bullying classmate to die, and the child eventually developed a terminal case of leukemia). James is at least human enough that he tries to set Rose's mind at ease and say that God doesn't listen to those kinds of prayers. He isn't cruel enough to point out that everyone all over the world is going to be praying for the same thing over the course of that day and none of them are getting what they want.
At a local library, James sees a couple and their kids going inside. He tries to fob Rose off on them and belatedly realizes that the husband is a cop in uniform and he's brought his family in there with a gun. He and Rose leave but the husband asks to talk to James about something. And he's got the gun, so James decides to listen. Turns out the cop can't quite bring himself to murder his children to save them the fear and pain that's coming in several hours, so he asks James to do it instead. There's four bullets in the gun, and the police officer explains that he wants to read a picture book to his two kids and then have James shoot them in the back of the head before they realize anything's out of the ordinary. Then it's up to James to kill the parents. James refuses, and the officer asks for absolution instead. James does find the ability to forgive the man, and they walk out to continue their journey towards the end-of-days celebration.
James arrives at the party to find that everyone else has already arrived; the voice on the other walkie-talkie that serves as a doorbell and intercom says his (other) girlfriend Vicky is irritated because he took so long to get there. Rose takes his hand before they go into the gated mini-mansion; it can't be easy for a ten year old to walk past a TRESPASSERS WILL BLEED BEFORE THEY DIE sign. It's telling that everyone at the party calls him Jimmy when they see him come in; getting drunk and high at the end of the world is a situation where even Miss Manners would allow for a certain amount of informality.
Rose is visibly frightened by the crowd of bellowing, topless, dancing, intoxicated young lads and lasses. That's all bad enough, as is the ear-damagingly loud music, but it turns out that there's a Russian Roulette competition going on near the pool; mobs of chanting yahoos stoke the competitors' emotions, cheering for each victory and cheering even louder for each spray of blood against an Australian flag hung up as a backdrop (single gunshots at random intervals punctuate the scene, which lets the viewer know that the game is still going on and people are occasionally losing). Steering Rose through this bacchanal seems to give James a little bit of a glimpse at what his life looks like from the outside, though he's still fixated on finding Vicky. When he goes inside his friend's house and sees the orgy going on it's yet another thing Rose doesn't really know how to deal with ("I don't think anyone here will take me to Auntie Janice's"). Two of James' friends greet him, happy to see him, but neither one pauses while having sex. Also, maybe it's just a function of Australian ratings law, but as far as I can tell everything going on in the fuck pit is heterosexual. I would have hoped that someone's inhibitions would drop if there were only six hours left for them to worry about their friends calling them queer.
Jimmy hands a bowl of chips over to Rose (since she's hungry) and goes looking for Vicky; seconds after he walks off from her, Rose gets snagged by a woman who calls her Mandy and says not to be scared. This woman's too bright and chipper to be anything but coked up (or on meth, I guess) and the only person who has even the most cursory interest in taking care of the prepubescent girl in the house just wandered off. James intervenes but he's still only doing the absolute bare minimum to protect Rose; when Vicky sees him and jumps him for a prolonged kiss it looks like the kid's going to be on her own very shortly. Vicky and James tell Rose to hop in the pool for a quick swim; James goes inside to do a couple lines of coke and screw his other girlfriend. You can't hear any of the party from inside the bedroom, which seems more an artistic choice than anything (James is in savagely deep denial right now, and he has been the entire time he's been trying to get to the party).
The stress turns out to be more than James can handle; he stays soft while Vicky tries a couple of things that turn out not to work and then suggests that James take care of her while there's still time. Instead, James tells Vicky about finding his sister's body and the deaths of Stacey's three kids; Vicky doesn't even see the point to hearing about that kind of thing. Watching the realization play over Nathan Philips' face here is pretty wonderful--he's just gotten a stiff dose of his own medicine, and he doesn't like the taste at all. Vicky doesn't notice how shattered her guy feels (either the drugs or her own personality or both are preventing this); she decides to give James a look at the survival bunker her brother Freddie dug under the garage. Obviously he had to have started long before the world got the bad news, but he's sure got a doom bunker now. I found it interesting that all three of the main adult characters have diminutive, juvenile versions of their names--Jimmy, Vicky and Freddie instead of James, Victoria and Frederick. It might well be a comment on the essential childishness of getting stoned and drunk all the time (which appears to be a hobby shared by all three characters).
While Vicky and James are checking out the underground lair, Rose gets cornered in the pool by the woman who called her Mandy. The woman gives her a tablet to make her feel less stressed and afraid, pretty much forcing Rose to consume it (and making an empty promise to drive Rose to Auntie Janice's place as a final effort).
Down under the garage, Vicky shows off a recently constructed dingy greenish-lit bunker, which looks to be maybe twenty feet by thirty, to her boyfriend. She shows off the bunk beds, cardboard boxes of supplies and hand-cranked record player (which at least shows that Freddie realizes there won't be electricity in the post-apocalyptic world). James tries to get Vicky to realize what an empty fantasy survival would be, and ironically he uses the same phrasing with her that he did with Zoe. "We're all fucking dead" sums it up pretty succinctly. Vicky, impervious to reason, wonders why he's being so mean, and also says Jimmy could have stayed with his other girlfriend on the beach. This leads to a screaming tirade against her boyfriend and then a sobbing, screaming breakdown where Vicky says she doesn't want to die. For the first time since we've seen him, James tries to comfort someone else and admits how terrified he is of the coming inevitable doom.
And he says that he knows now that he can't just ignore what's coming and get blotto before the world ends; he's going to get Rose back to her father because that's where she belongs; Vicky asks where James belongs and he says it's somewhere else. It took him quite a while to get there, but he realized what he needs to do as a human being. Vicky cries again at the thought of facing extinction without her guy, and just when things look like they couldn't get any worse Freddie comes down the ladder with a gun (and wearing only a leopard-print banana hammock). He wants to know why his sister is crying, and James lets him have it for giving Vicky the false hope about survival in the underground shelter.
Out in the pool, Rose is enjoying the Ecstasy she's taken; the confetti in the air looks magical and the music's dulled to a cool throb rather than an eardrum-rattling shriek. But something goes wrong with her system and the pill; when James gets out there she's throwing up, burning and feverish. That's bad enough, but with the woman who keeps calling her Mandy accusing James of kidnapping her daughter and Freddie showing up waving a gun around and calling James a killjoy things just keep getting worse. The woman keeps telling Freddie to shoot James so she can get her "daughter" back; Vicky shows up, gently takes the gun out of her brother's hands and drills the woman in the forehead (there's some laughter at this from the background, but everyone in the frame realizes how awful things have become).
Vicky tells James to get out of there, and it turns out to be a good thing that he got there as late as he did because his car was the last one in. On the bad side, water is the one drink nobody has at the party so the fever and dehydration are going to do a real number on Rose. James steals a cab while the driver is out for a shirtless inebriated piss and goes to his mother's place, hoping that some kind of assistance will be there for Rose. James' mother is stunned into silence when she sees who's come back to see her. There's obviously plenty of bad words and pain between the two of them, and James gets hostile when called out on his total lack of concern for his mom. But when his mom asks if he's seen his sister, he tells her he didn't go over there rather than hurt her feelings. After all, he's only got to lie to her for another four or five hours, max, and then that issue (and every other one) is completely moot. But when his mom gripes about how thoughtless it was to not meet her at the door James improvises a story about going in and finding a note saying the family had fled--at least he's avoiding devastating his mother with the truth.
He asks to borrow his mother's car, or at least drain the petrol tank, and she tears into him as only a spite-filled parent can, asking what he's going to prove by trying to help this girl he doesn't even know. Then she tells him the car was stolen ("When?" "Does it matter?"), and they both have a bitter, quiet laugh about the vagaries of fate. It's probably significant that James' mother has a wine glass and a cigarette in her hands pretty much the entire time she's on screen, by the way. Her son might be a brainless yob who's trying to get rid of as many brain cells as he can by any means necessary, but he does appear to have picked up those tendencies honestly. James collects a couple of jerry cans partly filled with petrol and prepares to reunite Rose with her father. His goodbye with his mother is as strained and pinched as one would expect, but both James and his mom realize that he's actually doing the right thing, and judging from his friends, that's got to be a new experience from him.
On the drive to Auntie Janice's, Rose apologizes for getting James into trouble with his friends and he tells her that nothing that happened at the party was her fault; their conversation in the cab during this drive is much more like a father and daughter (or maybe an uncle and a daughter), and James has visibly softened around the edges now that he's gone through his panicked phase and is trying to do something positive as his final actions on Earth. They make it without incident to Auntie Janice's, but it turns out that everyone decided to check out together without Rose when it became obvious that she wasn't going to get back with her family. James is the one who discovers the bodies and he won't let Rose see them. He winds up carrying her away bodily as she screams for him to put her down, which is exactly what he saw someone else do the first time they crossed each other's paths. Instead of showing Rose a clearing full of dead bodies he wraps her father's corpse in a sheet and brings it out to lie next to a pond and lets Rose make whatever peace she can with the knowledge that her father is gone. In a movie full of screaming and panic, her quieter-by-comparison reaction is devastating.
Rose refuses to leave her father because he wanted to be with his daughter when the world ended; she grows up in a hell of a hurry to stay by his side and wait for the apocalypse. James goes away on his own to find Zoe, with only a tiny window of time left out of the half a day he knew was left. But before he goes, he does tell Rose that if the world wasn't ending he would have been a father some day. Rose tells him there's still time to see his other girlfriend, and gives him the benediction he needs to go and do that (it's one thing to fight lunatics with a hammer or face down a coked-up girlfriend with a gun, but trying to atone is harder and scarier than everything else James has had to do that final, awful day put together). And it's telling that the biggest tear-jerking scene in the film is the one where James is finally going out to do the right thing (in a stolen taxicab, because he's not that good a person underneath it all). But maybe he's good enough, and that's really all that matters.
One last mishap when he's driving (an overheated radiator that sets the engine on fire) means that James has to run as fast as he can for as long as he can in order to get to Zoe, who was waiting alone for the end of the world. And the filmmakers who gave us this very Australian end of the world weren't quite cruel enough gods to have him fail. The final thing he sees (and that Zoe sees) is the strangely beautiful wave of flames streaking towards them on the beach, as wide as the horizon and spitting cinders and sparks ahead of it. They stand together and are swallowed by the fire and darkness. It took him until the last seconds of his life but he finally did right by someone that he didn't realize that he loved. And again, my emotions get worked like a speed bag because characters being sad doesn't make my tear ducts vent anywhere near as much as it does when they choose to be good. The screen fades to white, just as it did for Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, and that's as solid a declaration of optimism as you can find. If the director wanted you to feel nothing mattered and everything was gone, surely the movie would have cut to black.
There's got to be a dissertation out there comparing different cultures' end-of-the-world cinematic visions. There's a low-key Canadian film called Last Night that will show up on the Checkpoint sooner or later (it's the movie I first saw with Sandra Oh in it). America has made dozens of "we stopped the thing from happening" movies that threaten Armageddon while Australia gave us the assless-chaps-and-hot-rods postapocalyptic genre. And the hero of this film really can't be called that until maybe fifteen minutes from the end of the movie. Up until that time he's a scared boy trying not to think about the horrible things staring him down (regardless of his physical age). It's an ironic and touching moment that he turns out to want to be there for Zoe and his child because he finally realizes how much that matters, and when there's nothing else left it's the final sparks of humanity that make it so essential to stand against the darkness.