When a trailer for an upcoming film called Last Night crossed my path I felt a tinge of disappointment. Had someone decided to remake my favourite Canadian apocalyptic indie? It seemed unthinkable; Last Night (1998) is such a film of its time. A current of pre-millennial tension runs through it that seems as though it wouldn’t translate as well now that the year 2000 is a distant memory. However all of those thoughts quickly vanished when I realised the upcoming release has nothing to do with the film I adore.
Don McKellar’s directorial debut Last Night is set on an unspecified date when all of humanity is well-aware that the world is going to end at midnight. We follow a handful of characters that cross paths as they make their arrangements for how they’ll spend their final hours. The film takes place from 6 pm onwards but the sun never sets, giving us our only clue as to how this apocalypse is coming about. We never know for sure though, as the characters have known of their fate for a couple of months and we never see them talk about. They’re aware of the apocalypse, they’ve accepted it, and now they’re acting out their last moments.
The film opens with a great sequence where Sandra (Sandra Oh) parks her car outside an abandoned supermarket and goes inside to look for food and drink for her last meal. The film cuts between her as she walks the aisles and picks some of the remaining items off the near-empty shelves, and outside where her car is parked. Each time we cut back to the car, more and more people have gathered around it. Eventually they start rocking it, before tipping it all the way onto its roof. By the time Sandra has left the supermarket, her car is gone altogether. She finds it up the road leaning against a power-pole; the perpetrators are nowhere to be seen. This opening shows us the two types of mentality leading up to the end of civilization: there are those who want to go out with a bit of dignity, and there are those who want to go out breaking everything (including the law).
The film focuses on characters all in the former category: gentle Canadians who simply want to spend their last night in a peaceful fashion. Our main protagonist is Patrick (Don McKeller), a cynical, shy man who is still mourning something from his past. He attends a mock-Christmas at his parent’s house where he receives “gifts” from his childhood before leaving to enact his wish for the final hours: to be alone. This wish is interrupted when he meets Sandra and lets her use the phone to call her husband. Patrick makes a connection with the stranger and agrees to help her find a car.
One of the few working ones they come across belongs to Menzies (Michael McMurtry), an old friend who is driving around trying to rustle an up an audience for his first piano recital to be held this evening. Meanwhile, Duncan (David Cronenberg in a rare acting role) is the head of a gas company and rings all his clients one-by-one to thank them for their patronage over the years and to assure them that they’ll do everything in their power to keep the gas running right up until the end.
Elsewhere, Patrick’s good friend Craig (Callum Keith Rennie) has used the last couple of months to act out every sexual fantasy he has ever had e.g. being with black woman, a pregnant woman, and his former French teacher Mrs Carlton (Geneviève Bujold). Added to the mix are a woman paralyzed by grief (Arsinée Khanjian) and the daughter trying to get her to do something, Patrick’s sister Jennifer (Sarah Polley) and her husband trying to flee the city, a mentally-disturbed woman credited as “The Runner” (Jackie Burroughs) who jogs around periodically yelling out how much time everyone has left, and a radio DJ counting down the top 500 tracks of all time.
What sets this film apart from others in the pre-apocalypse genre is how it focuses entirely on the characters, never stopping to ask why or how or who to blame. It uses pre-millennial fears to explore questions of humanity and rather than other portrayals that tend to focus on the savagery and lawlessness that comes from having no consequences, it focuses on the good in people and suggests we might not all resort to raping and pillaging. The tone of the film is rather odd but not necessarily in a bad way. The score comes across with a standard, dreary end-of-days gravitas but it’s in contrast with the film itself, which is often being quite humorous. From Patrick trying to tell his old teacher what he’s been up to in French and having her correct him as he goes, to the absurdly polite message Duncan leaves his customers, to the radio DJ finally revealing his criteria for “the top 500 tracks”, this film is approaching the end of the world with a smile on its face and trying to put one on yours.
A delightful piece with a strong “it’s never too late” message; whether its Patrick’s one more shot at love or Menzies’ final chance to perform, these characters are making the most of it. As the original tagline stated: “It’s not the end of the world… there’s still six hours left”.