There’s something very appealing about an end-of-the-world story in which the coming Armageddon takes a backseat to character development. Sure, exploding buildings and drowning cities can be a lot of fun, harking back to that exhilarating rush when we first discovered rage and knocked over all our Tinker Toys, but special effects yield diminishing returns over the long haul. If you’ve seen one fireball hurl its way into a downtown metropolis, you’ve pretty much seen ‘em all. And character issues in Hollywood-style doomsday films – the way people react to the knowledge of looming annihilation – are always the most clichéd portions of the tale, paint-by-numbers interludes between the digital kicks.
Last Night, not incidentally a Canadian film, is the exact opposite. So secondary is the destruction of the world that we’re never told how or why it’s going to be destroyed, only that, as the film opens, it has six hours left. This is fantasy, not science fiction – the world is scheduled to end at the stroke of midnight, like a fairy tale ball. And, like Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life, the movie seems to have been spun off from a parlor game; only this time, instead of "what single memory would you want to hold for all eternity?", the troublesome poser is "what would you do with your final six hours?"
No doubt a certain number of people would be content to roam the city and commit random acts of vandalism – and Last Night does have its buffoonish mob of last-minute window smashers. But most of its characters take a more serious approach. Patrick (Don McKellar, who also wrote and directed), after visiting his parents who are staging a midsummer Christmas celebration as their last experience, wants to spend his final minutes in solitude, with a decent glass of wine and some good music. His friend Craig (Callum Keith Rennie) is spending his allotted time cramming in every sexual experience he’s never had. And Sandra (Sandra Oh), a young woman Patrick encounters on his way home from his parents, is trying to hook up with her husband, who seems to have disappeared.
There are a lot of interesting ancillary characters, including Genevieve Bujold as one of Craig’s more poignant collaborators and David Cronenberg as an absurdly conscientious gas company employee, but it’s the chance meeting of Patrick and Sandra that ups the movie’s emotional ante. Sandra’s mounting anxiety at the prospect of having to face the end alone slowly breaks through the wise-guy detachment which Patrick has been hiding behind since the death of his wife. Already involving, the film deepens as the two characters grow closer and, in a brilliantly executed climactic flourish by director McKellar, what began as an intriguing dilemma ends on a genuinely moving note.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].