Disaster movies are often a reflection of collective fears — an epidemic, a climate disaster, a zombie outbreak, an authoritarian dystopia, a meteor shower, societal collapse or an alien invasion are ways in which movies channel our deep uncertainty about the future.
In The End We Start From, out now in cinemas, a good part of the UK is flooded by inexplicable rains that force millions of people to flee their homes in search of refuge. Based on Megan Hunter’s novel, the movie doesn’t really feel like it’s set in a distant future.
However, it does something important in a genre that too often relies on pessimism — it doesn’t allow the severity of the situation to paint a hopeless future.
It’s a welcome change for a long-lasting legacy of disaster movies, which is still very much alive today. With Mahalia Belo’s feature debut, the genre is showing a bigger range than ever, and audiences keep coming back for more.
There has always been something oddly comforting in seeing the world destroyed on screen. It feeds directly into an unshakeable fear of extinction that feels closer now than ever.
That’s not to say the genre is a monolithic structure — from big action blockbusters that take pleasure in destroying the world’s most famous buildings (seeing the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal being wrecked is definitely impactful) to small indie movies focusing on the smaller ramifications of a worldwide catastrophe, there is variety to be found.
It’s a kind of movie that has always known how to measure the climate of its time, too.
Movies like The Towering Inferno and Earthquake in the ’70s felt like a hangover of the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal, while 2013’s World War Z conveyed anxieties about overpopulation and 2008’s Cloverfield evoked post-9/11 trauma. With the 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre being imprinted on the collective consciousness through citizens’ recordings, the use of found footage in that movie was spot on.
These movies hold a precious balance between helping process the trauma through pure escapism, and being a tool for awareness about important issues.
It’s no coincidence that the most prominent type of disaster movie this century is the eco-disaster drama, from The Day After Tomorrow to 2012. It reveals a deep concern about how humanity’s own mistakes are leading to its ultimate extinction.
Perhaps because now the world seems to be ending every other week, particularly after going through a world pandemic (Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 movie Contagion doesn’t look like such a big stretch anymore, right?), disaster movies are exploring different paths.
There are those focusing on evoking unease without detailed context (Leave the World Behind), and those making fun of the circus that is our current politics when placed before a world-ending catastrophe (Don’t Look Up).
Others evolve into terrifying dystopias like Hunger Games and The Last of Us, while others stick to the classic formula — a Twister sequel and Mad Max‘s prequel Furiosa are coming in 2024.
Beyond Hollywood productions, smaller movies like The End We Start From are adding essential ingredients to the disaster-movie mixture, speaking directly to the defining tension between feeling everything is lost and springing into action.
Jodie Comer’s movie wants to be hopeful, not just to show the worst side of human nature when it comes to surviving. It’s also about “the light in the dark,” as director Mahalia Belo put it in an interview with Digital Spy.
“It was something we felt very strongly about, and what I wanted for this film. I feel it’s not hopeless. It is a journey, and it’s something where you have to see the world in a different way. And you have to see the world through a baby’s eyes, and also through the shifting landscape of the world.”
“At the end of it, you have to feel like there’s room for improvement, and that can only come from hope.”
A 2019 study about climate-change mobilisation revealed how important hope is in order to take action. Through an extensive survey in the US, the report explained that “awareness comes easily when there is hope involved, rather than pure undiluted destruction.”
Perhaps The End We Start From doesn’t point out the specifics of the climate disaster at hand, risking being too vague but also avoiding alienating audiences with too much information. Instead, it tells a touching personal story that audiences can relate to.
As the study pointed out: “Hope is not always good and doubt is not always bad; the combination of constructive hope and doubt may actually be motivating, whereas false hope and fatalistic doubt may lead to avoidance, distancing, and inaction.”
Perhaps the movie doesn’t focus on specific “actions”, it doesn’t go the extra mile to reach the root of the problem, but it does show something equally valuable — it shows the kindness of strangers, the communities that are put in place to help those in need, the camaraderie that arises from a difficult situation, and finally that there is calm after the storm.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel — a possibility to start anew.
The End We Start From is out now in UK cinemas.
Deputy Movies Editor, Digital Spy
Mireia (she/her) has been working as a movie and TV journalist for over seven years, mostly for the Spanish magazine Fotogramas.
Her work has been published in other outlets such as Esquire and Elle in Spain, and WeLoveCinema in the UK.
She is also a published author, having written the essay Biblioteca Studio Ghibli: Nicky, la aprendiz de bruja about Hayao Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service.
During her years as a freelance journalist and film critic, Mireia has covered festivals around the world, and has interviewed high-profile talents such as Kristen Stewart, Ryan Gosling, Jake Gyllenhaal and many more. She’s also taken part in juries such as the FIPRESCI jury at Venice Film Festival and the short film jury at Kingston International Film Festival in London.
Now based in the UK, Mireia joined Digital Spy in June 2023 as Deputy Movies Editor.