It's the End of the World as We Know It.


Do you love disaster movies? You know I do. Recently, while trawling the Net, I encountered an intriguing production called End Day. This three-year-old co-production between the BBC and National Geographic debuted well under the radar and doesn’t appear to be available on DVD. I ended up watching it on Google Video, though it remains to be seen how long the link remains active.

End Day is an intriguing docu-drama that crosses Groundhog Day with the sort of action-science disaster thrillers that we sometimes see on the Discovery Channel these days. The story opens at 7:00 a.m. in a London apartment as a sleeping professor wakes up and prepares for a trip to New York City. His face is all over the news due to worldwide controversy surrounding his planned experiments, but as the day progresses, this news quickly gets bumped when it is learned that the La Palma volcano has erupted in the Atlantic, collapsing half the island and sending a massive tsunami hurtling towards the American Eastern Seaboard.

Of course, your typical disaster movie follows. We see panic mount in New York City, we focus on a young family struggling to get out in time, and then thanks to the magic of special effects, the gigantic wave sweeps through the streets. Of course, the professor doesn’t make it to New York (he remains stuck in London, with all flights cancelled). A scientist pontificates on the likelihood of this disaster (“It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when!), and it’s the end of the movie…

…a movie that’s playing in the professor’s apartment at 7:00 a.m. as he wakes up and tries to make his way to New York City, as another disaster grabs worldwide attention.

In fifty-five minutes of running time, five different disaster scenarios unfold, including an asteroid strike on Central Europe, an outbreak of avian flu, and the eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano. With just eleven minutes per scenario to tell their various stories, End Day isn’t so much a disaster movie as it is disaster movie concentrate. It has none of the art of the best disaster movies out there (like Don McKeller’s Last Night), nor the lengthy campy dross of the remaining three-quarters of the genre, but it hits all of the points that should make disaster movie affectionados’ toes curl, and it does it five times.

There are a few versions of this docudrama. The version aired by the BBC edits out the asteroid strike on Berlin, while the National Geographic version edits out the Yellowstone supervolcano, possibly for time constraints (taking out one segment makes the docudrama fit perfectly into an hour slot, with commercials). Personally, National Geographic got the better deal, as the Berlin asteroid strike segment was among the better segments (with an excellent sense of pacing) and the supervolcano segment was among the worst (with phony American accents being very much on display, British license plates on American cars, and catch the glitch of somebody driving away from a pyroclastic flow with the steering wheel on the right side of the car. Oops). The BBC-Discovery Channel co-production Supervolcano did it much better.

One thing you don’t get in End Day is characterization. You often don’t get that in disaster movies full stop, but with just eleven minutes to tell each scenario, we encounter people with no backgrounds, who hardly interact with each other. There is no chance to get to know these people, and thus gain a reason to care about their predicament. Further, none of the characters on screen have a chance to show much emotion. A young mother has her car hijacked in plague-riddled London, with her young son in the back seat, and she barely shrugs. A father and a son are separated in Berlin, and there’s no screaming. Even harder to believe, the professor — the one character who is onscreen for most of the production — gives very little reaction to the events that proceed (if anything, he seems just mildly perturbed that he’s going to miss his experiment). As a result, End Day is sharply lacking in emotion, and the only reason to watch is the special effects. This may be true with most disaster films, but it doesn’t have to be so.

The full video gets a little tedious by the fourth segment, especially with all the experts repeating the mantra “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when” (down a shot if you’re playing the drinking game), but then End Day unleashes its neat twist. In the fifth segment, the professor wakes up in his London hotel room, prepares for his trip to New York… and nothing happens.

He makes it to New York City, manages to slip past the sea of protesters around the newly opened particle accelerator (supposedly the world’s largest), and reaches the control room. At that point, he and dozens of other scientists begin an experiment, colliding particles and accidentally creating a “killer strangelet”. This particle of strange matter immediately begins sucking in the atoms around it and converting them to strange matter, blowing up the laboratory, punching a hole in New York City, and ultimately turning the planet Earth into a cloud of quark-gluon plasma.

Especially delicious is that the expert that brings this segment to a close bucks the cliché of the other experts by essentially saying, “there’s no bloody way this is every going to happen, ever! It might make for good television, but you’re crazy if you think this is even a remote possibility.”

Well, maybe it’s not good television, but I can think of worse ways to waste an hour.

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