The world is going to end in 12 hours. Balls of fire have descended from the sky to turn the ocean into a pool of rumbling, quickly spreading magma, and the heat has already evaporated all life on many coastlines. In Perth, Australia, the clock is ticking – for those who have not already evaded the apocalypse by taking their own lives.
Bleak and blisteringly intense, These Final Hours is an end-of-the-world title from Australia that manages to give a few jolts, despite the overwhelming familiarity of this countdown to doomsday scenario. Titles like Last Night and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World explored how people choose to spend their final moments, while the ravaged roads in The Book of Eli and The Rover lead to a despairing version of a place where life has already gone to the dogs. Despite a familiar template, this is a taut, tense ride that is over much too quickly. The Australian thriller, like its characters hoping to make the most of this cumulative day, hardly wastes a second.
In the midst of the chaos and carnage, we meet James (Nathan Phillips), who is on his way to a massive end-of-the-world party to meet his girlfriend, Vicky (Kathryn Beck). He drives a car that is running low on fumes, while he is starting to fume about the end of civilization. The roads are deserted and smoke spews into the sky from wrecked vehicles on the side of the road. Those wandering on the road are chopping at each other with machetes, hoping to find a car with enough fuel to get away from the carnage.
However, as he evades these predators on his way to the party, James sees a young girl, Rose (Angourie Rice), shrieking for her life as two burly abductors drag her into a house. Armed with a hammer, he captures Rose from her captors. She wants to spend the final moments of humanity with her father. James has other things on his mind, but he decides to return her to the people who love her.
This apocalyptic thriller approaches this end-of-the-world scenario in two different ways. The first is through a pounding sensory overload, as we enter James’ tormented, drug-addled psyche as he comes to realize the weight of the world falling down on him. The second is a more calming, contemplative mood, as James realizes he still has time to do some good and make a meaningful impact on the people in his life. Hilditch’s greatest achievement as a director is how he manages to capture these wildly different tones, yet achieve balance.
These Final Hours manages to be jarringly violent in segments when Rose and James encounter nihilistic folk with machetes on the street, who would maim and kill to find a car with enough fuel for the day. A heavily profane script mirrors the coarse desperation of the characters, as the sun encroaches and the temperature blazes. (Bonnie Elliott’s cinematography is suitably sunbaked and smoggy.) On the other hand, the quieter scenes with the two characters are haunting, as both realize their lack of available time left. Composer Cornel Wilczek (Cut Snake) alternates between harsh, suspenseful strings and thick silences, the latter creating a deeper intensity as the end looms nearer.
The centerpiece of the film is an arresting one, as James and Rose get separated at the end-is-nigh party, where hundreds of adults have decided to fornicate the pain of their incoming peril away. It is a carnival of excess, which includes casual sex in the living room, pill passing in the pool and rounds of Russian roulette in front of cheering crowds. By showing the carnal pleasures through Rose’s eyes, we (as an audience) are jolted by how removed this savagery is from the world as we know it. Alternatively, the moments between James and Rose have a quiet grace and solemnity that stands in contrast to the rest of the bacchanalia.
These Final Hours propels forward with ease and is barely 80 minutes before the credits start rolling. While the short length is effective for a film where time is of the essence, the characterization is too slight. James moves from a man hoping to consume the rest of his day with substances to one with enough substance to become a paternal figure to Rose; however, there is little indicating how he moved from relying on his basic instinct to survive to decide to care for the girl.
“I never would have picked you for the fatherly type,” Vicky tells James, explaining our disorientation at his change of heart. The future overwhelms the characters, but unfortunately, we do not learn enough about James’s past to become invested with his redemptive arc. Phillips gives a commanding but mostly inexpressive performance, at least until he has to come to grips with saying goodbye to the people he loves the most.
Instead, most of the dramatic lifting comes courtesy of the petit Rice, who steadily becomes weary as she comes to accept her fate. Regardless, she provides a bit of relief, able to smile at the thought of freely swimming in her dress. Rice offers a mature, poignant turn, becoming the heart on this sunbaked road of misery. Like her performance, These Final Hours becomes increasingly still and silent as the end approaches, achieving an inescapable dread as we realize what lies ahead.
Slight but suitably tense, These Final Hours is a harrowing glimpse at two lonely souls arriving at the end of the world as they know it.