Will the world end in fire, or will it end in ice? Or will it be an alien invasion that uses superweapons to destroy Earth's ecosystems over time? The speculation is endless, and it has been an enduring pastime of people to speculate on the end of the world, how it will happen, and what people will do. People love to explore how humans would behave in those extreme situations, and perhaps as a form of catharsis for the last couple of years, people cannot get enough of apocalypse movies.
Therefore, we scoured the film archives for some of the best movies on this theme. Some will be older, some will be more recent, but all should be available since streaming services have practically everything available either on-demand or for rent, at least in most regions. To use a now-old cliché, watching any of these films should not cost you more than a cup of coffee.
With every type of apocalypse under the sun (unless it destroyed the sun for some reason), here are our top picks, in no particular order:
Starting with one of the best-animated films ever made (but note, this film is not for children by any stretch of the imagination), Akira has action, philosophy, excellent characters, and everything else you could want from a film. Its images remain resonant today, and there is little like it in the history of film, despite many imitators.
Taking place around the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (in a bit of precognition from the creators), Akira is about Kaneda, a bike gang leader in Tokyo, trying to rescue his friend from secret government projects. With a backstory and interesting explanations for all they happen in the film, the rich world will take you in and make you reflect on humanity and the consequences of its actions.
While this film might be a bit confusing on a first watch, the depth and quality demand a few viewings over time. This was one of the films that brought both anime and cyberpunk into the mainstream, and culture worldwide owes a debt to this film. Whether to watch the English dub (note there are two different dubs) or the original Japanese version with subtitles, we will let you decide.
Director: Katsuhiro Otomo
Cast: Nozomu Sasaki, Mami Koyama, Mitsuo Iwata, Tesshō Genda
Available on: Stream on Hulu or Tubi; rent or buy from Vudu or iTunes
Taking place in a world that hasn't necessarily ended yet, but is well on its way because no one can have children, Children of Men provides both moments of fear and awe as the world tries to reorganize itself. Featuring some of the best cinematography and directing on this list, this is a poignant story that will stir feelings and make you wonder about the nature of humanity.
In the film, the world is a bit dour, but civilization still stands to some degree, at least in the United Kingdom. An unknown cause has made it so that people can no longer have children, forcing humanity to stare at its own slow demise. The state has become authoritarian, and a political crisis abounds, complete with militant groups and increasing economic problems. Theo, the main character, after a series of events, is tasked with escorting a very important person.
With multiple threads and at times conflicting (in the best way possible) themes, Children of Men remains one of the best science fiction films of recent memory.
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Cast: Theo Faron, Julianne Moore, Claire-Hope Ashitey, Jasper Palmer
Available on: Stream on Peacock; Buy or rent from YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, Apply TV+, Vudu, and Amazon Prime Video
This film, first coming out in 2011, is perhaps the last thing that one might think of when they think about the end of the world, but it remains possible. What if the end were inevitable but also unsurvivable? Nothing could change what would happen. How would you act? How would you feel?
The film focuses on two sisters, one of whom is struggling with depression, dealing with the event of another planet being on a collision course with Earth. Anything more might spoil your enjoyment and exploration of the film. That said, it takes a different tone than one might expect given the plot, being directed by the notable Lars von Trier, and this is not an end of the world film to enjoy in a party atmosphere.
It certainly is a different film than you might expect from an "apocalypse movie." Yet, it is still worth the watch, especially if you want something thought-provoking, a film that explores depression, or simply want to watch something unique.
Director: Lars von Trier
Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgård, Kiefer Sutherland
Available on: Stream on Tubi, Vudu, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video; rent or buy on YouTube, Google Play, iTunes, and Apple TV+
Not every apocalypse movie has to be a downer or show the complete end of the world. This now-classic movie starring Will Smith and a wide variety of other great actors features some of the most quotable lines in film history and is still just a ton of fun to watch. Whether you need something a little different from the sadness of the average apocalypse or post-apocalypse film or want to go back to a more straightforward action movie, Independence Day is for you.
On the Fourth of July weekend, strange events start occurring, and large flying saucers appear over Earth's major cities. When it becomes clear that the aliens do not come in peace, it comes down to a group of individuals from all backgrounds to fight back and save the world from this alien invasion.
While initially released on the Fourth of July weekend, it remains good for any time of year and can be a fun escape from too much time spent inside.
Director: Roland Emmerich
Cast: Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, Mary Mcdonnell, Randy Quaid
Available on: Stream on Hulu, HBO Max, Amazon Prime Video; Rent or buy from iTunes, Google Play, Apple TV+, Vudu
There are hundreds of zombie movies to pick from, but our leading choice for a zombie film still has to be George Romero's classic Dawn of the Dead. Effectively inventing the genre with the preceding film Night of the Living Dead in 1978, this film does not contain any of the same plot elements or characters, making it an excellent choice for jumping into Romero's filmmaking.
This creative filmmaking turns a shopping mall into not only the setting of an excellent horror film but an interesting take on consumerism and modern society where four individuals try to survive and find a way out of an ongoing zombie outbreak. To us, it has not aged a bit and is well worth your time.
We should note that there is a remake. While it's certainly not bad and worth watching for enthusiasts, there is quite simply nothing like the original. The original is tougher to track down online from the usual streaming giants, but a quick search will show that it is easy to find and watch, being an older yet popular film.
Director: George A. Romero
Cast: Ken Foree, Gaylen Ross, Scott Reiniger, David Emge
While any of the Mad Max movies could certainly qualify for this list, and we recommend all of them to people who have the time, we find the most recent Mad Max: Fury Road to be the best of the bunch. It can effectively be described as a long-form action scene with deeper themes than you might first realize. Themes aside, if you want some of the most thrilling entertainment you can find, then you have to watch this movie.
Following a relatively simplistic plot, Mad Max finds himself imprisoned in a post-apocalyptic desert wasteland by a warlord called Immortan Joe. Imperator Furiosa, perhaps the real star of the film, defects with Immortan Joe's five wives, leading to what is in effect one of the longest and best chase sequences in modern cinema.
The action hardly ever stops, and once you start watching, you will not notice the time going by, wondering where the last two hours went by the end of the film. Once you finish this post-apocalyptic treat, other movies just will not feel the same.
Director: George Miller
Cast: Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, Hugh Keays-Burne, Nicholas Hoult
Available on: Stream on HBO Max; Rent or buy from YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, Apple TV+, Vudu, Amazon Prime Video
For something a bit subtler yet nonetheless brutal in its depiction of the post-apocalypse, The Road is less concerned with the whys and hows. The fall of civilization is just taken as inevitable, and the film focuses on human relationships and the harsh reality of society (or the lack thereof) at the end of the world. At the very center of the story is a man, his son, and the struggle for survival. Other humans are more of a threat than anything else, and desperation has topped everything, at least on the surface.
Based on a modern classic novel by Cormac McCarthy, The Road could be considered very difficult to film, given the subject matter and extremely dark nature of the story. Nonetheless, the film does the story justice with beautiful performances and cinematography, and expect to cry not once but several times throughout this powerful film.
This will be more challenging to find as it is not available on every major streaming or rental service, but it is worth the effort to find and watch.
Director: John Hillcoat
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-Mcphee, Charlize Theron
Available on: Rent or Buy on iTunes, DVD, or Bluray
You have likely seen it already and certainly know most of the film's plot just through cultural osmosis. The Matrix is one of those films worth revisiting every once in a while, both as a sci-fi classic and a film that portrays an apocalypse few other movies do.
In it, Neo, looking for answers to the question "What is the Matrix," finds his question answered and more. He follows a woman named Trinity to someone named Morpheus, who opens up the true world to Neo. Groundbreaking revelations ensue, and Neo must learn the Matrix's nature while dealing with the threat of its creators.
If you're wondering, the action still holds up, the effects spark the imagination, and there are few if any movies that tell this type of story so well to this day. While you might want to ignore the sequels, The Matrix is a film for the modern age that will make you think, "is any of this real?"
Director: Lana Wachowski, Lilly Wachowski
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne, Hugo Weaving
Available on: Stream on HBO Max; Rent or buy from YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, Apple TV+, Vudu, Amazon Prime Video
While you may not think of the apocalypse when you think of Pixar, its excellent science fiction film Wall-E takes place long after humans have effectively trashed the planet. Robots are left behind to clean up the planet after humans were evacuated centuries ago. Only the titular Wall-E remains, slowly cleaning up what he can. When a probe (EVE) arrives on the planet and finds a small plant Wall-E found, the adventure kicks off.
One part science fiction film, one part love story, and one part cautionary tale, Wall-E might be a truly unique entry on this list. While it is by far more hopeful than most of the other entries on this list, it paints a vivid world and shows humanity as the victims of their own neglect and laziness. That might be scarier than any alien monstrosity or comet shooting towards the earth.
While adults might find some disturbing background and food for thought, it remains a lovely movie that says what it wants to with a minimum of words. Wall-E provides a warning for ecological disaster while retaining some level of hope for humanity's future. Every character feels human in its own way, and through that, we can look at humanity in a new light.
Director: Andrew Stanton
Cast: Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin, Ben Burtt, Fred Willard
Available on: Stream on Disney Plus; buy or rent from YouTube, Apple TV+, Google Play, Vudu, and Amazon Prime Video
Our last but certainly not least pick is Contagion, released in 2011 to a public that was not so aware of microbial danger. While the subject might hit a bit close to home for many, others might like the catharsis of a Hollywood model of a pandemic or exploring the thought of "what if things were just a bit worse?" The movie does a fine job trying to show how a globe-changing pandemic could occur and the real effects it could have, being praised across the board for its relative accuracy.
In the film, a virus that is easily transmitted by objects and droplets is spreading rapidly. Researchers and health officials must race to find a vaccine or a cure while dealing with a potentially crumbling society and competing interests.
Contagion offers some great performances and shows us that we can fear something other than the monsters and meteors we might be used to. While there are tense scenes and high stakes throughout the movie, this film has a bit more thought depth (though it remains accessible) than the average apocalypse movie.
Director: Stephen Soderbergh
Cast: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet
Available on: Rent or buy from YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, Apple TV+, Amazon Prime Video, Vudu
Whatever type of world's end you are looking for, we hope there is something listed above that will suit your tastes. There are plenty of excellent films beyond the ones we listed, and we hope that you find some of those as well. We are sure you could watch one a week and still have plenty left over for next year.