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Last Night, written and directed by Don McKellar, 1998, 100 min.

I'm frightened by my own initial reaction to this movie: why weren't there more explosions! To find that even someone as cynical about Hollywood as myself could have been conditioned by second-rate "science fiction" spectacles like Deep Impact and Armageddon to expect an explosion every ten minutes... it's almost too much to bear. That's why my high rating for Last Night might be somewhat suspect. If Last Night is only privileged as an antidote to Hollywood, then what good is it on its own? However, the situation is a little more complex than that. First of all, it is impossible to dissociate this movie from what it reacts against, namely the entire disaster movie subgenre. And secondly, both Deep Impact and Armageddon have merits of their own that cannot be sweepingly dismissed. Last Night will find a much smaller niche than either of those big budget American movies, and because the residents of that niche might be more "literate" or more "articulate" should not mean that their movie gets rated more highly. Having said that, I would like to add that monoculture of any kind is boring to me. To watch only big budget disaster/spectacle movies (as Hollywood science fiction has become to a large extent) has been as excruciating as watching only artsy/existential movies would be, should the market be overrun by such a thing. And yet the fact remains that I rate Last Night much more highly than the other two end of the world movies of this year. How can I justify such a thing?

Firstly, I found the storyline more interesting. Last Night has a nice tagline: "It's not the end of the world... there's still six hours left." Right here we find the sense of inevitability that pervades the movie. None of the events directly concern the comet/asteroid/oncoming disaster that will end all life on Earth. No one can do anything about it, all that is left is to pass those final hours. Neither Bruce Willis nor Robert Duvall ride in on a spaceship to save us from the end. This immediately removes the necessity for extensive special effects -- heck, a budget of two million (Canadian dollars no less) doesn't even pay a tenth of Willis' fee these days. Instead of becoming an excuse for gratuitous mayhem, the disaster clarifies the dilemmas and perplexities of our human existence. It's an existential question writ large -- there will be no consequences for your actions, because we are all going to die in a few hours anyway. And so we have a collection of typically quirky Canadian characters who meander through the last six hours of the last night. However, McKellar keeps the movie interesting through a clever structure. The story of each character is related to the stories of the others in various witty and subtle ways. Best of all, the stories connect because of actions that proceed seamlessly out of each character's personality.

For example, the character of Duncan is played by David Cronenberg, in a nice bit of casting and even better acting. He is the executive of the local gas company, and he has spent the last day methodically phoning each customer, thanking them for their patronage and reassuring them that the gas will be on until the very end. Ironically, no one ever answers (that we know of at least), and he has to leave messages. How those messages become important is part of the genius of the movie, and through McKellar's clever writing, there can be no accusation of coincidence -- Duncan has called everyone! And why? Because of his careful, business-like nature. Similarly, Patrick, the main character as played wonderfully by McKellar himself, wants to be alone when the end comes, but it doesn't quite work out that way for him. He encounters a woman named Sandra, portrayed vividly by Sandra Oh, who is trying to get across town to her husband. Patrick is too much the good Canadian, helpful and polite, despite his sharp tongue with his parents and his own emotional problems. The cast of supporting characters is also splendid, from Patrick's friend who wants to finally play his piano recital, to Patrick's other friend, who wants to die while having sex (this particular character might be offensive to some).

Last Night could provoke a number of arguments as to its position with regard to the genre of science fiction. It's a tough-minded character drama, with little time for the clichés of science fiction movies as they have been passed down to us since the 1950s. To my mind, Last Night is the best kind of science fiction of all -- a what-if scenario taking place in the lives of ordinary people. McKellar doesn't explain the nature of the catastrophe, but he is certainly clever in placing it in context. We get the bulk of the early information through Patrick's father -- a somewhat pompous, though soft-hearted, older man -- in a speech that would have seemed ridiculous coming from someone younger or someone on TV. The last six hours are all clearly labelled p.m., but an eerie light suffuses the entire movie. Why isn't it dark? Because of the oncoming comet/asteroid, and we only discover that from one poignant line of dialogue. Near midnight, Patrick says: "At times like this, I miss the dark." I found the absence of technobabble extremely refreshing. Incomprehensible jargon does not make a movie or TV show science fiction, all evidence to the contrary.

Are there any flaws in Last Night? The lack of spectacle will turn away disaster junkies. For example, the list of costs for this movie goes something like this: 1 orange Pinto, 1 green Superbee, 1 street car, 1 bright white light. Massive explosions are not to be found, nor CGI comets. Also, the story proceeds at its own quirky pace, which can be seen as an attraction or a flaw, just like the movie's low budget. Is there a link between large budgets and formulaic plots? That is, does the huge amount of money invested in movies like Deep Impact and Armageddon rob them of any chance at individuality right at the start because of the need to recoup that investment with a "sure thing"? Perhaps, and if this is indeed the case, then I'll take a film like Last Night any day of the week. I understand that movie-making is a business, so I return to my concept of niches -- Last Night is the product that best appeals to my own whims as a consumer. Hopefully my review has justified that claim, and can help others decide whether the merits of this film will appeal to them.


Last modified: November 22, 1998

Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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