Tom Jolliffe looks back at the Y2K era Schwarzenegger vehicle End of Days, released during a period of millennium apocalypse fascination…
Remember Y2K? Remember the threat of an impending apocalyptic event? Or if not that, PCs around the world going haywire. As it transpires, soothsayers from the middle ages were a bit off course with their predictions. It didn’t transpire. Neither did the notorious computer bug, the potential ramifications of which, seemed to cause genuine worry. We had a number of end of the world type films, some of them set around the turn from 20th to 21st century. Hell, it even confused and confounded 20th Century Fox in what to call themselves.
What else was going on in late 1999? Well a certain Arnold Schwarzenegger had seen his star slowly fall throughout the 90’s. A number of disappointing films, and misfiring attempts at broadening his audience, resulted in a decline in box office takings. To be honest, some of this was a little harsh. Films deemed below par across every caveat were in actuality reasonably successful (financially), not least Jingle All The Way and Eraser. Batman & Robin as contentious as it was, also happened to make bank. Still, there just seemed to be this feeling that Arnold wasn’t the action titan he once was. The trouble with grossing as much as he did with Terminator 2: Judgment Day was that a bar that high sets expectations to another level. As Sylvester Stallone faced similar problems, other guys like Nicolas Cage and Tom Cruise were entering the fray as action heroes.
Additionally, Schwarzenegger had his own brush with mortality. He’d taken time out of the game to have and recover from heart bypass surgery. Suddenly Mr Olympia, the almost unfeasibly brawny and indestructible Austrian Oak was physically fallible. His return was awaited with a mix of baited breath from fans, but apathy from the casual moviegoer. He was given a fairly big studio film, but it was far from being tentpole. The budget did reportedly come in at $100 million, before accounting for prints, ads and marketing etc. The end result never suggested it was that much, but End of Days was supposed to be a brave new world for Schwarzenegger. As we approach the end of an almost apocalyptically shit year, lets take a look back at this Arnie vehicle.
Years of being dismissed as a physical performer rather than an “actor,” and a critical mauling for his part in Batman and Robin, saw Arnold looking to push himself as an actor. End of Days, after a few years of dividing time between more family friendly fare, in among some of his more cartoonish, atypically broad action films was meant to be stripped back, dark and more character driven. To an extent it is. This end of the world tale sees the devil come to Earth, possessing Gabriel Byrne and seeking a chosen woman to mate with and bring about the end of days (before the close of the 20th century). Arnie is a character crushed by the loss of his family (and thus all faith in God), succumbing to alcohol addiction and barely keeping himself from blowing his own brains out. So far, so clichéd, but not without a certain sincerity from Arnold. He stripped back the puns, the larger than life persona, and played someone crushed by guilt and grief. It just needed a more inspired script and direction. Arnie did his bit, but a more vibrant director, perhaps not so hamstrung by a big studio overseeing his every move, might have pulled that little bit more from Schwarzenegger.
Though it tried, End of Days would ultimately be a mixed bag of ideas, supposed to combine the millennial Armageddon motif with a Fincher-esque thriller. It is dark, and by Ahnuld standards, gritty, but it’s also unintentionally gonzo in places. There’s the bizarre acolyte albino, there’s the assassin priest with no tongue that recites bible passages, there’s Miriam Margolyes kicking the shit out of Arnie, and there’s a basement of priests all hooked into their computer terminals in their perpetual quest to protect us from Satan (and lead with inimitable ham by Rod Steiger). Byrne’s villain is well played, but occasionally comes across as cheesy (more through some of the set pieces as written, than Byrne’s choices). Additionally, it had one of those classic 90’s action film endings that didn’t quite know how to nail the landing. Think of the clumsiness of Blade’s final battle with Deacon Frost for example. The end of this film sees the devil rise but the CGI wasn’t up to task of making it feel like a big moment. It made it feel like the cut scene on a mediocre PlayStation game.
Here’s the thing. I kinda like End of Days. It was something of a rite of passage for me. I’d just turned 18 that year. It was my second Arnie film on the big screen (I’d sat through Mr Freeze). Previously, his films were predominantly for adults and were thus out of my age bracket. It had been on video where I’d caught all the Arnie classics. I’d become a grown up and it was my first grown up Arnie film. I dug the film at the time. In fact I remember thinking it might be a game changer. I was into the whole Satanic plot and end of the world shtick the film delivered (I’d only recently watch Dolph Lundgren deliver a very similar, though markedly cheaper film called The Minion). It struck a chord, as did this new, more human approach by Arnold. It was then a little surprising afterward to find it receiving hammerings from critics. The experience of seeing the film perhaps made the unintentional silliness wash over me (perhaps Arnie’s more traditional winking and irony would have better suited this). To me the stubbled and morose Schwarzenegger, knocking back booze and being morally obtuse wasn’t hackneyed. It might have been a very well worn character, but Arnold had never worn that suit. To me it was fresh because it was fresh for the Oak. Perhaps the more interesting character element was the crisis of faith Jericho Cane (okay, a little on the nose) must overcome in order to save the world.
The derisory reviews were followed by disappointing box office. Back then everything was about your domestic. Nowadays the obsession is about the international gross, particularly now with China being such a lucrative box office region for American blockbusters now. End of Days failed to get close to the $100 million mark, something that at the time was the minimum you’d expect from a Schwarzenegger vehicle. It marked the beginning of a 21st century evacuation of American theatrical viewers. Terminator 3 in its own right did decent money domestically, but perhaps not compared to its budget, and certainly falling well short of Terminator 2. His gap as the Governator didn’t build anticipation so much as ebb away those audiences further, and his post political films have all failed to light up the box office in the US (though a number of them remain popular in foreign territories, not least parts of Europe and across Asia).
In retrospect I still enjoy End of Days, in part because of the goofy elements that intertwine with those genuine attempts to evolve Schwarzenegger. Failed it might have (Yoda?) but there’s something I enjoy about this combo of mid-tier Fincher riff, and dark action that pushed Arnold as close to horror as he’d been since The Terminator. What are your thoughts on End of Days? What was your favourite end of the world film around that era? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth, or hit me up on Instagram…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/