Published November 1, 1999
Despite its apocalyptic theme, Last Night by the young Canadian director, Don McKellar, is a shockingly modest—and thus, to my way of thinking anyway, likeable—little film. Set on the human race’s last day, before an unspecified cataclysm puts an end to all life on earth, the film attempts to make no profound political or spiritual statement about human destiny. Instead it undertakes with wit and intelligence the humbler task of imagining what, given the popular culture of fin de siècle North America, real people might do in such an extraordinary circumstance—as we realize right from the start when we hear as background noise how a radio station has managed to make a promotional event even out of Armageddon: “You’re listening to CKRT with the top 500 songs of all time. We’re with ya to the end!” Needless to say, the songs are the same junk they play every day anyway.
As it happens, the world will end at exactly midnight—or what would have been midnight if there were still any night, since whatever cosmic event is about to put an end to things has announced itself in the first instance by perpetual day. This is a brilliant idea because the banality of daylight helps to drain this potentially too-cinematic occasion of much of its menace—and because the end, when it comes, comes as a cinematic end. Any residual spookiness in the fact that shops and offices are (naturally) deserted is not enough to be frightening. Even the crowds of merrymakers in the streets, prepared to greet the end with a countdown as if it were New Year’s Eve, do not seem riotous, although in the absence of government or police, or the contingent future which once seemed to make them necessary, a few thrill-seekers are killing people or otherwise engaging in anti-social behavior.
The film mainly concerns itself with a handful of characters whose lives intersect as they go about their last-daily lives. Patrick (Mr McKellar) visits his parents, sister and aunts, who are gathered together at the parents’ house for a special Christmas dinner, though he plans to greet the end alone in his apartment. His friend, Craig (Callum Keith Rennie), is methodically working his way through a list of sexual fantasies with a succession of compliant partners. A gas-company employee called Duncan (David Cronenberg), surely the ultimate in compulsive personalities, is telephoning each of the company’s customers to thank them for their business and wish them a happy end of the world. Sandra (Sandra Oh), having done some last-minute looting, is trying to make her way home to her husband so that on the stroke of midnight they can shoot each other and so cheat earth’s appalling Destiny of at least two among its multitudinous prey.
What I found most compelling about the movie was McKellar’s wise and witty projections as to what would be the same and what would be different about the world (or, at any rate, Toronto) if people knew that it was on the point of ceasing to exist. When Patrick arrives late for Christmas dinner, for example, his mother cannot resist upbraiding him about it. Patrick replies, “Well, mom, there are a couple of really good excuses. First, it’s not really Christmas, is it? And second, it’s the end of the world.” Likewise, when he announces that he wants to be alone at the end, mom starts crying, obviously engaging in a familiarly manipulative game. The roots of such behavior obviously go far too deep to have withered just because mother and son now face together the end of all things. Generally, people remain stubbornly what they are in the face of human extinction, and the juxtaposition of the familiar with the extraordinary accounts for much of the film’s humor. Thus when Patrick says good-bye to Craig he says without thinking, “See ya.”
“No you won’t,” says the other, matter-of-factly.
But because so much remains familiar, the capacity for change is all the more striking where it does exist. Out of the general, largely comic run-up to the end, there begins to emerge a particular story which comes closer, because it involves only one death, to touching the note of pathos. Patrick wants to be alone at the end because he is grieving over the recent death of a beloved wife. “She died, and then they said the world would end,” he says, as if somehow both things were connected in being personal affronts to himself. And, indeed, that’s how deep bereavement often feels, so that in a way Patrick is the only one of these characters for whom the end of the world seems natural. “In a way, I feel sort of privileged,” he says shyly to Sandra, who has sought his help in getting back to her husband. “This is the biggest thing that’s ever happened… No one was there to see the beginning.”
Sandra herself is one of those damaged women who have become so common in our day—women bent and broken by love gone bad. But now that she has at last found Mr. Right, just as it becomes clear that the world is going to end, she becomes like Patrick desperate to hurl some kind of defiance in the face of fate—in her case by joining in her husband’s suicide pact. Like Patrick she is funny and pathetic at the same time, and the final moments that they spend together are unexpectedly touching, a kind of statement of hope and glory on behalf of the late, great human race. This is a lovely film, and it should be seen by everybody.