The majority of apocalypse-centric cinema contains at least some element of hope. The leather-clad bikers and rampant lawlessness depicted therein might signify otherwise, but the world — no matter how battered its condition may be — is usually still there, with the potential to rebuild on the table in one way or another. But there’s that rare sub-section of flicks whose circumstances are decidedly more concrete, wherein our planet is thoroughly doomed, and there’s nothing to be done about it. Writer/director Zak Hilditch took this mindset to heart in crafting his 2013 Aussie thriller These Final Hours, and considering how risky it is to hold a viewer’s interest with such an oppressive narrative, that he even attempted it at all is commendable to a degree. But while he arranges many a bleak tableau in the picture’s eighty-something minutes, his storytelling skills aren’t the most consistent, leaving us with a film that’s stirring in spots but whose emotional resonance never quite catches up to its own stakes.
The end of the world as we know it is less than a day away. The crashing of some unknown object in the North Atlantic has resulted in a wave of fire decimating the globe bit by bit — and Perth’s number is coming up next. Some lose their minds in the face of such a fate, and others turn to faith to give them comfort, but Jimmy (Nathan Phillips) doesn’t want to feel a thing. Before everything he knows turns into ash, he resolves to drink himself numb and drown in pure debauchery at the mother of all parties. But the road to these final festivities leads Jimmy to Rose (Angourie Rice), a young girl whom he saves from an unspeakable assault. Reluctantly agreeing to reunite the kid with her folks in time for the end, our man hits the road, fighting the urge to give up and spend Armageddon curled up at the bottom of a bottle. But as he shields Rose from sight after ghastly sight throughout their journey, Jimmy finds his sense of purpose gradually returning, inspiring him to change his ways even as Doomsday waits just hours around the corner.
Visually, These Final Hours trades in familiar apocalypse motifs, but its own ideas are incorporated effectively enough to enthrall audiences regardless. We see the abandoned streets, burning buildings, and errant corpses that one is wont to stumble across in stories like this, yet Hilditch opts to bathe this haunting imagery in a searing brightness. Even as ominous clouds roll in and signal the inferno’s forthcoming arrival, a hazy, near-blinding light permeates nearly every frame, virtually making us sweat bullets in the comfort of our La-Z-Boys. It’s a great way to get us in an uncomfortable frame of mind very fast, and Hilditch further instills dread within our guts by keeping the action on a personal level. Given the film’s low budget, there’s only so much he could’ve gotten away with in the first place, but sparing viewers from any bombastic outbursts of mass chaos to artificially create tension is a big help in getting the story across in a more genuine light. That said, Hilditch does kneecap himself a little in the movie’s first and third acts, both of which include lengthy stretches that feel as though they were cut like a trailer, with fast-paced editing and swelling music that mostly keeps out of sight otherwise. These sections have a bit of a cloying quality to them, driven not by the desire to foster an intimate narrative but to swing for emotional high notes that they haven’t properly prepared to reach.
For the lion’s share of its midsection, however, These Final Hours can be some well-crafted — if a touch by-the-numbers — doomsday fare. Phillips (Snakes on a Plane) doesn’t strain too many acting muscles, but one can imagine his role as a party bro type reconciling with the possibility of redemption easily being more insufferable. Even if there isn’t much weight to his character’s transformation (which is more of the script’s fault than the actor’s), he does his job just fine, adopting a lost, boozy visage and getting you to sympathize enough with Jimmy to want to see him make the most of what time is left. Rice, on the other hand, delivers an almost completely authentic performance from beginning to end, wholly convincing in the bulk of her scenes and effortlessly transcending the sort of contrived dialogue that would sink other, less committed child performers. She holds her own against Phillips pretty easily, and the two complement one another nicely, with each character having to step up and offer encouragement to the other at crucial points in the plot. They’re people you don’t mind spending a lot of time with, which is exactly what happens, as the rest of the cast is essentially divided amongst random crazies, strung-out partygoers, and ancillary loved ones who don’t stick around for very long.
Though impressive in presentation considering its limited resources, These Final Hours is only passable when weighing its narrative accomplishments as a whole. It’s suspenseful, it’s dramatic, and it’s even darkly funny on occasion, but the simplicity of its “no need to abandon emotions in the face of futility” message receives only a partially profound payoff. All in all, These Final Hours won’t relieve you of your socks, though enough of its potential is realized to make it a mostly engaging watch.