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By Brock Wilbur · March 8, 2012
Is ignorance bliss, or is it just a different joy than knowing?
Except in extreme medical scenarios, people remain uncertain of their time remaining on Earth. Films like 50/50 can explore how individuals handle this reversal, and sci-fi dabbles in it with works like In Time, but in both, examples a major part of the arc is the protagonist's attempts to alter their fate. What happens when you are given both the ticking clock and the unwavering certainty of its grim resolution? Moreover, what does the scenario look like when played out across a family, a city, or a world?
Is it better to be side-swiped, or to see the end coming from a mile away?
In 1998, Don McKellar wrote, directed, and starred in Last Night, a film with a stunningly optimistic, yet honest, approach to a worldwide apocalyptic event. With a few exceptions, it's mostly a small character piece that treats the end of days as background to the lives in its focus, and how our psyches would respond to knowing the unknowable.
Everyone on the planet has known for three weeks that the world is coming to an end. It is never specified how, but the end is coming at midnight, and it is extremely bright out, so I'll wager the sun is involved. We join Toronto at 7pm on this last night, to watch the narrative of humanity resolve.
Depressed widower Patrick (McKellar) visits his family, including his remaining grandparents, his younger sister (Sarah Polley) and her boyfriend. His mother has unpacked all the boxes of their childhood memorabilia, and treats this final night like Christmas morning. Despite that bit of delusion, the rest of the event transpires with normal family politics, hyperfocusing on the minutiae and wondering why Patrick hasn't met a new girl.
The manager of the power company (David Cronenberg, acting?) makes it his personal duty to call every customer and remind them the gas will be kept on right up to the end. His assistant Donna (Tracy Wright) is in love with him, but unable to make a move, even now. After his departure, she uses the company computer to begin online dating, although hopefully not looking for a long-term relationship.
Sandra (Sandra Oh, doing the best work she's ever done) is trying to make her way home when a roving street gang flips her car. Elsewhere, Craig (Callum Keith Rennie) has been using these last weeks to guarantee he doesn't die without experiencing every single sexual encounter he's ever fantasized about, including hooking up with one of his former teachers. Arsinee Khanjian plays a mad woman, sprinting through the streets and ticking down the minutes.
In this world, the panic simply does not exist, since one would seem mad to be upset about an event you've had weeks to prepare for. Instead, the city seems almost serene. A celebration has overtaken the urban centers, and while minor acts of vandalism and violence do occur, isn't that true of all good parties? The fascination lies in determining who will use this time to live as they've never lived before, and what that looks like on an individual basis, versus those like Cronenberg, whose only desire is to live out another normal day. This dichotomy becomes one of the best scenes in the film, where Craig tries to convince his long-time friend Patrick to be his one homosexual experience, but Patrick still has errands to run.
Patrick and Sandra cross paths, and she enlists his help in locating her husband, who is not returning calls. After failing to find usable transportation, they resign to the fact it would be impossible for her to reach him before the final moments. Instead, Sandra begs to share the end with Patrick, but wants to fall in love with him first, so the two begin a tear-soaked first date, which races towards the repressed truths in the center of their hearts, hoping they'll force that beautiful connection before existence is unmade. In the midst of this, Patrick's parents call, and are thrilled to hear he's finally found a girl.
There's a small sequence in which Patrick's grandparents watch the end coming. One of them feels pity for the youth who have been cut off too soon. The other fires back, asserting that it is the elderly who are technically losing the most, and that while kids are missing out, people of her age are unable to finish the works of a lifetime, and everyone is wasting their time when the rush to defend children. Honesty born of egotism that may ring true, but would be socially unacceptable in any scenario except the total finale.
It's that sublime comedy which permeates even the darkest interactions of Last Night, but it only works because the end has been applied to all of us equally. Patrick recounts how the love of his life got sick and died, just before they announced the world was going to end, and how painful that seemed, back when people died one by one. Maybe the hardest thing to accept about death is not the finality, but the loneliness. And in that way, global Armageddon is the most joyous experience we can hope for.