Tag Archives: apocalyptic film



Format: Cinema

Release date: 30 September 2011

Venue: UK wide

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: Lars von Trier

Writer: Lars von Trier

Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt

Denmark/Sweden/France/Germany 2011

136 mins

It’s hard not to draw parallels between Melancholia and The Tree of Life, this year’s other contender for the ‘Cosmic Opera’ Academy Award. The similarities are superficial, to do with look and sound rather than intention, but I can imagine both films alienating some audiences in the same way: if you found Terrence Malick’s vision of the world’s creation, soundtracked by the emotive, devotional compositions of Gorecki and Tavener, overwrought, you are likely to find Lars von Trier’s take on its destruction - a haunting series of surreal opening tableaux set to the Prelude of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde - equally so.

Both directors use these lush, near-psychedelic sequences to frame stories about the family; but, while Malick’s is essentially redemptive, von Trier’s is, as you might expect, so much darker as to be almost Tree of Life‘s bleak reverse. In Melancholia, a dysfunctional upper-class family awaits and then experiences the end of the world, courtesy of a rogue planet (the Melancholia of the title) that collides with Earth. In the way that von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) co-opted aspects of the horror genre, Melancholia nods to disaster movies, but - like Antichrist - does so both knowingly and somewhat clumsily, which will move some viewers to ask, as so often with von Trier, whether the director is on some level toying with his audience and laughing at their expectations of genre and story.

I’m not sure this is the case here. Melancholia‘s take on the End Times is more in line with Tarkovsky’s Sacrifice (1986) or Doris Lessing’s lengthy novel, The Four-Gated City, in that it’s not the approaching disaster itself that’s the point, but how a small group of individuals anticipate, discuss and respond to it. Because it’s von Trier, there is a grim humour at work, but that doesn’t mean he’s unsympathetic or sneery. Take, for example, the film’s first chapter after its Wagnerian intro, which documents the lavish but excruciating stately-home wedding reception of Justine (Kirsten Dunst), organised by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). We expect large family gatherings on film to be tense, but Justine’s depression, which is severe, disabling and barely held in check, makes this a particularly painful one to watch. Yet depression also seems to stand her in good stead when, shortly after her failed wedding, the planet Melancholia draws near. While Claire panics, her sister responds with equanimity - she’s not afraid of annihilation. In fact, the threat of the planet’s approach seems to draw her out of a catatonic episode. Again, there’s a dark irony here, as when Justine scorns Claire’s desperate ideas for a ‘final’ gesture before the planet hits - but it is not at the expense of the characters.

There are classy but rather clichéd performances from Kiefer Sutherland (as Claire’s scientist husband), Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt (as the sisters’ inadequate parents), but the central relationship of the two sisters is well observed, allowing space for Gainsbourg’s more ‘sane’ sibling, who is at turns frustrated, controlling and kind. Von Trier is candid about his own experience of depression, and it probably does take a depressive to portray the condition like this, in all its crippling, self-aggrandising, planet-sized horror. Dunst rises to the challenge well, and she and Gainsbourg work hard to transcend some of the plot’s holes and clunky moments of dialogue.

Opinions on whether they succeed or not will be as polarised as those concerning the monumental music and visionary opening scenes. But this is not supposed to be an attractive film, despite the beautiful country house setting and elegant actors; and von Trier’s suggestion that the idea of being crushed by an alien land mass might actually seem preferable to being suffocated by your family and destroyed by your own psyche rings with a certain bleak sincerity - even if it is, in fact, the awful false logic of depression.

Frances Morgan

Stake Land

Stake Land

Format: Cinema

Release date: 17 June 2011

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Metrodome

Director: Jim Mickle

Writers:Nick Damici and Jim Mickle

Cast: Nick Damici, Connor Paolo, Kelly McGillis

USA 2010

98 mins

Jim Mickle’s Stake Land (2011) is a pretty good watch, with rousing action scenes where locals turned vampires tear up rural America, although this is hindered by some unneeded frills. The film is set in apocalyptic America (what has caused this is unexplained). Towns and cities are dysfunctional and many are deserted. Various groups jostle for position: an extremist Christian cult, disenfranchised ‘simple folk’ searching for a new frontier and a pack of blood-guzzling vampires, each aiming for supremacy.

The story follows the travels of vampire stalker Mister (Nick Damici, Mulberry Street, World Trade Center) and orphaned Martin (Connor Paolo, Gossip Girl), picked up by Mister as an apprentice/vampire killer pal (I hope named after George Romero’s awkward be-fanged teenager). They are trying to find the promised land, a mysterious place called New Eden.

Stake Land is part buddy movie, part road movie, part sci-fi, part social commentary, part Western. Watching the film is like flicking through cable channels: Mad Max follows Karate Kid follows The Champ, all with teeth. There is a lot going on and it’s impressive that the filmmakers manage to cover so much film territory. But it feels a bit like an attempt to cover their bases and have something for everyone: slowed-down glamorous sections where the leading actors look cool, set to a melancholic soundtrack, are next to gripping and noisy action scenes of blood lust and staking (the best part of the film for me), and sensitive bonding scenes between the characters as they travel through a stunning landscape. All this set to music that is so unnecessary it feels like being smothered with a pillow of emotional impact.

The subtext of the film seems to suggest that in a new era of sluggish economies and ecological disaster only the fittest will survive, and those commonly portrayed as a drain on resources and not ‘pulling their weight’ are cast out. Indeed, many sequences are reminiscent of media-fetishised disasters. Vampire-struck towns with deserted houses, shops and people scavenging for food reminded me of images of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina or images of terrorist attacks. The vampire format has been used before to flesh out a particular time’s anxieties (disease, addiction, etc), and here it’s a fear of terrorism. With Stake Land, we’re made more aware than ever of a ‘watch your back’ generation of Americans desperately in need of a bit of meditation and some Ritalin.

Some of these references to contemporary society work well. One of the film’s strengths is the way familiar American suburban tropes are adjusted to fit this apocalyptic vamp landscape. The scenes where these mythical beings are seen as roadkill for ‘Nam-styled Mister, or where an infected Santa Claus awaits his impending doom in a cul-de-sac, dripping with tar-like blood, are high points. On the other hand, the relationships between the characters are not allowed to fully develop, so that the audience can neither genuinely root for them, nor really despise them. Damici’s character has some great moments and his cool lines give the film some laughs, but part of the narrative draw is dropped too early. Four of the people that Mister and Martin befriend are promptly killed off, notably an old woman and a black man, and rather predictably, it’s the young white couple who survive long enough to try and reach the promised land in the end.

Nicola Woodham