Remember this name: Zak Hilditch. You’ll probably be hearing it again soon. That’s because filmmakers who can convincingly evoke the apocalypse on a small budget usually get called by Hollywood to do the same thing on a much bigger budget. Hence, Neill Blomkamp goes from District 9 to this week’s Chappie, Gareth Edwards goes from Monsters to the Godzilla remake, and Colin Trevorrow goes from Safety Not Guaranteed to the upcoming Jurassic Park sequel. On the strength of Hilditch’s These Final Hours, which opens this week at AMC Grapevine Mills, this Australian filmmaker should be getting his call-up any time now.
The story begins early in the morning on a stiflingly hot summer day in Perth, where the residents receive the not-entirely-unexpected news that an object has struck the planet somewhere in the North Atlantic. They have about 12 hours’ advance warning before the ball of fire enveloping the Earth reaches them. Wanting to be as numb as possible when the end comes, a shiftless young man named Jimmy (Nathan Phillips) is on his way to an end-of-the-world party when he sees a girl named Rose (Angourie Rice) being dragged into a house by two pedophiles. He rescues her and determines to spend the world’s last few hours taking Rose to her family’s ranch outside the city to reunite with her dad.
Rather than set this film in the bustling city or the distant countryside, Hilditch stages much of the action on largely deserted suburban streets that have been neatly kept, apart from the odd dead body or bit of spray-painted graffiti (“Had to Leave”). This, and the oppressive sunlight that bakes everything, gives the film a different look from other movies about the apocalypse. Hilditch determinedly keeps the focus small, eschewing big crowd scenes and choosing other ways to depict the breakdown of the social order, like Jimmy being carjacked by a shirtless guy with a machete, who promptly runs off to hack some poor bastard to death in the street.
The story is filled with such episodes, and they hit home more often than not. Jimmy eventually gets to his party with Rose in tow, and it looks properly hellish. (The film’s one moment of humor comes when he leads the little girl through a room where a full-scale orgy is going on. A frightened Rose looks around and says, “I don’t think anyone here is going to take me to my auntie.”) Later on at the party, Rose falls into the clutches of an unhinged young woman (Sarah Snook) who doses her with Ecstasy and claims that Rose is her daughter Mandy. It comes as a relief when Jimmy stops off later at his mother’s house and finds his mum (Lynette Curran) sitting serenely at her table, spending the Earth’s last moments doing a jigsaw puzzle.
Keeping the movie low-tech is a savvy strategy for Hilditch, who saves up the CGI pyrotechnics until the very end. Yet it wouldn’t work nearly as well if it weren’t for the chemistry between the two lead actors. You may remember Phillips as one of the slaughtered backpackers in the cult slasher flick Wolf Creek or the witness Samuel L. Jackson was trying to protect in Snakes on a Plane. (And if you do remember those, you have a better memory than I do.) He gathers strength as the movie proceeds, and Rice is a wonderfully unself-conscious child actor who plays the part without any cutesiness or self-pity.
What Jimmy does for Rose is small in the grand scheme of things (and a movie about the apocalypse is always about the grand scheme of things), but his determination to keep her safe and deliver her to her family while there’s still time is his measure of redemption, and it gives the film its traction. This movie doesn’t match the best films about the apocalypse, especially Children of Men, which it appears to be modeled on. Yet its focus, eye for detail, and visual distinctiveness are enough to give These Final Hours a power all its own.
These Final Hours
Starring Nathan Phillips and Angourie Rice. Written and directed by Zak Hilditch. Rated R.