“Been there, done that” probably shouldn’t be one’s first response to the apocalypse, though it’s been rehearsed enough times onscreen by now to feel a familiar threat. A concise Australian thriller spanning the last day (or half-day, to be precise) on Earth, “These Final Hours” conjures some sparks of panic with its story of one man seeking last-minute redemption amid a society reduced to anarchic violence and/or hard partying. Ultimately, however, Zak Hilditch’s brash debut presents the end of the world very much as we know it. Technically auspicious but narratively hollow, “Hours” struck a U.S. distribution deal with genre specialists Well Go USA Entertainment following its bow at Cannes; VOD reps its best chance of finding an international audience.
From Don McKellar’s “Last Night” to Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter” (the ending of which “These Final Hours” markedly appropriates), the best doomsday movies succeed by playing mundane minutiae of everyday life against the surreal vastness of approaching fate. In that regard, Hilditch has chosen an apt setting for his contribution to the genre: The featureless, sun-bleached suburbs of Perth are an affectingly unremarkable place to locate an end-of-days study, populated in the film by characters who don’t appear to have made much of their lives to begin with. Hilditch’s script spares us scientific detail about its inevitable armageddon; humanity, it would appear, is long past the questioning stage, and the audience must follow suit.
Our guide through the planet’s 12 remaining hours — whittled by editors Nick Meyers and Meredith Watson Jeffrey to a reasonably urgent 86 minutes — is James (Nathan Phillips), a handsomely tattooed two-timer introduced in the midst of breakup sex with his lover, Zoe (Jessica de Gouw), at her beachside house. Thrown for a loop when Zoe announces that she’s pregnant with his never-to-be-born child, he decides against seeing out the day with her. Instead, he chooses to head over to a friend’s party — the hedonistic blowout to (literally) end ’em all, where his original g.f., Vicki (Kathryn Beck), is raving the pain away.
The ostensibly simple drive across town turns out to be a nightmarish obstacle course that nearly ends James’ life a few hours ahead of schedule, with crazed citizens looting and killing at random. The film’s opening act promisingly portends a grisly, claustrophobic horror film along the tonal lines of “28 Days Later,” though the proceedings take a more sentimental course when James rescues stranded pre-adolescent girl Rose (appealing newcomer Angourie Rice) from two attackers, and reluctantly assumes responsibility for returning her to her family. No prizes for guessing that the mission prickles his conscience over his own impending fatherhood, but Hilditch’s characters are too remote and ill-defined for the tidy pathos to hit home.
Little information is offered about James’ existence beyond this one heightened day. The point of Hilditch’s script appears to be that details of employment, residence or personal history are hardly what define a man when the chips are this far down — which may be true, but it’s still difficult for the audience to invest much emotionally in either his physical survival or his gradual change of heart. It’s to the credit of the ruggedly charismatic Phillips (recognizable to non-Aussie auds as one of the hapless victims in 2005’s “Wolf Creek”) that he remains a solid dramatic anchor for the action — particularly as the film goes off-track in its shrill, over-extended party sequence, burdened with misjudged support from Beck as Vicki and Daniel Henshall (so good in “The Snowtown Murders”) as James’ psychotic best friend, Freddy.
In all technical departments, the film is batting well above its shoestring budget. Emma Bortignon’s sound design alternates effectively between eerie silence and infernal clatter, while d.p. Bonnie Elliott shoots adroitly through radioactive yellow filters — evoking both the blinding sunlight of a regular summer Down Under and the white-hot doom to come.