4 Fictional Apocalypses That Shattered the Box Office

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Whether it's an alien attack in the 1953 adaptation of War of the Worlds, waves of famished George Romero-style zombies or blindness-inducing killer plants in the 1962 cheez-fest Day of the Triffids, moviegoers have always loved watching the world be reduced to rubble -- and discovering the grim new reality that rises from its ashes. Let's take a look at four end-of-days flicks that destroyed more than the world -- but box office records, as well.

1. Independence Day

independence_day_ver3.jpgReleased on July 2, 1996, Independence Day grossed a whopping $816,969,268 worldwide, which at the time made it the second highest-grossing film ever. Legend has it that director Roland Emmerich conceived of the film while on a press tour for his 1994 sci-fi blockbuster, Stargate, when producer Dean Devlin wondered aloud why the aliens in Stargate would've traveled light years from their world just to hide in ours. Why are the aliens in movies always lurking in cornfields and barns and the middle of remote desert testing facilities, they wondered? According to the DVD commentary, Devlin asked a report to imagine "what it would be like to wake up one morning and discover that 15-mile-wide spaceships were hovering over the largest cities in the world" -- and that was the birth of the idea for Independence Day.

While not exactly wowing the critics (Kenneth Turan dubbed it "The Day the Script Stood Still"), audiences couldn't part with their money fast enough. It was the highest-grossing film of 1996, breaking Jurassic Park's then three-year-old record. Critics did give it props for its amazing special effects sequences, however, and even Turan wrote that the movie did "an excellent job conveying the boggling immensity of [the] extraterrestrial vehicles [...] and panic in the streets" and the scenes of the alien attack were "disturbing, unsettling and completely convincing." It won an Oscar for visual effects.

Of course, impending doom is a great excuse to give inspirational speeches, and Bill Pullman's in Independence Day ranks with the best of 'em (in the cheesiest sense imaginable):

2. I Am Legend

This is a movie with quite a pedigree: the original novel by Richard Matheson ranks among the greats of sci-fi literature, and is one of the first in which a plague of zombies destroys the world as we know it. It was adapted to film three times: as 1964's The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price, in 1971 as The Omega Man with Charlton Heston and in 2007 as the Will Smith starrer I Am Legend.

I have a particular fondness for its most recent filmic incarnation (save its off-key ending) -- especially the first act, which explores in gritty, hyper-realistic detail the landscape of an empty, gone-to-seed Manhattan. (I was reminded of the book The World Without Us, which points out that in just a matter of months, NYC's subways would flood, collapsing the streets above them and creating rivers where, say, Lexington Avenue used to be. Jungle would reclaim much of the city within a few decades.)

Add to that mix a healthy colony of robust, sunlight-hating vampiric zombies, and I'm a kid in a cinematic candy shop. Other moviegoers clearly felt the same way: earning some $584 million worldwide, it's one of the top 50 highest-grossing films of all time. Rumor has it that a sequel is in the works, with a release slated for 2011.

Just for the sake of comparison, here's the trailer for the 1964 version:

... and the 1971 version:

... and the 2007 version:

3. War of the Worlds

Speaking of adaptations and remakes, few stories have been told as many times, or as many ways, as War of the Worlds. H.G. Wells' 1898 science fiction novel has been adapted no fewer than twenty-two times, as a radio play, a film, a staged musical, a TV series, a cartoon, a comic book, a board game, a theatrical production and even a series of trading cards. In addition, a number of authors have written unauthorized sequels, including more than one positing the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson during the alien invasion of London.

Some think that Wells' story tapped into pre-WWI paranoia about invading armies -- but rather than soldiers of the terrestrial, European type marching through the streets of foreign cities, Wells conjured a race of highly-evolved blood-sucking Martians. Ironically, they could wipe out thousands of Earthlings at a time while sustaining relatively few casualties themselves, but it was a tiny bacterium -- an alien pathogen -- against which they could not defend. If that sounds familiar to students of colonial history, it should -- aliens rampaging through the streets of London could easily have been inspired by European army regiments machine-gunning columns of spear-armed Africans -- and then succumbing to malaria or yellow fever. Wells himself broaches this theme in his introduction to the book:

And before we judge [the Martians] too harshly, we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished Bison and the Dodo, but upon its own inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?

Steven Spielberg's 2005 film adaptation was received in a generally positive light, raking in $591,745,540 worldwide to make it the fourth highest-grossing film of its year. Its opening weekend tally of $65 million was a record for studio Paramount -- and a personal best for star Tom Cruise.

Check out this trailer for the 1953 film adaptation, the narration of which makes it sound like a movie about a Nazi invasion: "a super-race from Mars!" ... "is there nothing that man stop the alien death machine?!"

4. 28 Days Later

28 Days may not have shattered the box office in a traditional sense, but considering it cost less than $10 million to make, its $82 million take was a stunning success. It still ranks as one of the most viscerally scary films I've seen, and the realism with which they were able to create an eerie, almost-deserted London -- on a tiny budget -- is amazing.

Also amazing is the fact that it was shot primarily on consumer-grade Canon XL1 video cameras -- one of which I owned at the time -- giving it a gritty realism which works perfectly for the subject matter (and certainly helped keep costs down). It also reinvented the zombie film, which previously had been the province of slow-moving, dim-witted George Romero-type zombies, who could be picked off like cattle in a field and were only dangerous in close quarters or great numbers. Days' zombies were motion-blur fast, savage, and their insane, berserker-style behavior was itself viscerally frightening in a way that made the old-school zombies seem like bedtime story characters.

Another primary difference between Days and other zombie films: this wasn't a zombie apocalypse, it was a viral apocalypse; it played on the new paranoia of the 21st century, when we were just starting to get used to terms like "ebola" and "H5N1 virus." These infected zombies don't even have to bite you to do you in -- just a drop of their blood or saliva will do the trick just as well, both of which they're constantly spattering around in liberal quantities.

Frightening indeed. Enjoy the NSFW trailer:

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December 23, 2008 - 4:20am
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