Yes that’s right – New Years just happened like, a week ago… counting down, people count down on New Years… that’s the point, and it’s as close as I can get to writing about something that relates to the holidays, and it’s way late. And while I first thought to do this because of the end of 2011, it actually turned out to be a fun list to think about. How do you judge the intensity of a ticking clock? It’s not always how close the characters came to zero – sometimes it’s about the process itself, getting to inevitability, fighting time.
It’s rather like life, and the knowledge that being on this world is a sort of countdown. Every year is another tick of the clock, leading every one of us to the same inescapable conclusion. So uh… Happy New Year! …Here’s a list counting down countdowns.
10. Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind – An Entire Relationship
Because of the delightfully surreal execution of this story, it’s very easy to think of this film as not containing any kind of countdown. There’s no ticking clock to be nervously watched and there’s no concrete zero hour – this is the only example on this list where an amount of time isn’t being counted down, but rather an entire relationship’s worth of memories as they are systematically degraded from a man’s brain during one night of sleep.
The tension from this comes from the man’s refusal to allow the memories to slip away as he desperately attempts to somehow stop the process from happening. As the memories roll back farther and farther to the day he first met the women he loves, the noose begins to tighten. The intensity does grow considerably as we watch the very last memory he has of the relationship literally fall apart around him.
9. Ringu/The Ring – Seven Days
I have a special place in my heart for both Ringu and the American remake The Ring, so instead of choosing one or the other I went ahead and combined the two. The countdown of seven days may not be the most intense countdown in a film, but it’s probably the most horrific in its outcome and mysteriousness surrounding it. It’s a wonderful example of modernized folklore – you watch what looks like it could be any student film in any college anywhere ever on an unlabeled videocassette and then you get a call that, when answered, whispers two words: seven days.
Personally, in most cases when I watch experimental black and white films I tend to want to die right away. The only way to stop your demise is to make a copy and show the tape to someone else, which seems like a challenge even for when these movies were made – I wonder if seeding a torrent of it would count.
8. Nick Of Time – One Hour, Fourteen Minutes
Thank the lord for 90s political action/suspense films! Why is it that we’ve suddenly become a society of people that think it’s too silly to have a murder mystery that takes place in the White House or an action film where the President is the hero? What happened in 2000 that we shamed ourselves out of that? This film is centered on a character played by Johnny Depp whose daughter is kidnapped by Christopher Walken and will be killed unless he assassinates a governor in the next 74 minutes.
Of course our assassin-to-be knows that he essentially has to choose between his life, as he will surely not survive such an ordeal, or the life of his daughter, who is being held in a van. As he stalls for time and attempts to alert the governor’s bodyguards he finds out, to his despair, that the bodyguards are the very same people who have kidnapped his daughter under the orders of the governor’s very own husband! Seriously – 90s political action/suspense, you can’t beat that shit.
7. The Dark Knight – Roughly Twenty Minutes
So the Joker has pretty much sent Gotham into an full-blown frenzy – while all the bridges and evacuation routes have been blocked off due to his threats of repercussion, two ferries have managed to make their way across the river and out of town. One of these boats houses Gotham’s biggest and baddest criminals, and the other contains your average bunch of civilians. Sure enough, this situation takes a rather bad turn as the Joker remotely hijacks both ferries with instructions that he has rigged them with explosives as well as given each boat the means to detonate the other, and if neither boat is ablaze by midnight than he will blow them both.
It’s a rather foul plot that takes the kill or be killed scenario to a whole new level of mass-murder. For the next 20 or so minutes we have the pleasure of watching both boats try to figure out a fair way to make the decision between dying innocent or living guilty, and knowing that at any moment their neighboring vessel just might make the decision for them. It’s a hell of a sequence.
6. Aliens – Four Hours
Alright – you’re on a remote planet and you’ve effectively sealed yourself off from the giant acidic two-mouthed space demons that happen to also be inhabiting the planet with you – time to take it easy for a while and find a way to be rescued right? Well – too bad because everything is going to blow up in four hours – that means that you now have to actually find a way to escape this grotesque planet before you are either vaporized or brutally torn up by a bunch of walking nightmares. Good thing you have Bishop, that’s for damn sure, because I’m not sure you would be able to convince anyone else to Shawshank their way through pipes in order to retrieve the ship that will get you the hell out of there.
To make matters worse Ripley loses the only character in the film that really isn’t allowed to die, Newt. More hits the fan as Ripley searches for Newt and gets way more than she bargained for in the form of an alien queen, and suddenly this becomes both a race against time and a more literal race against a giant egg-laying monster. Nothing makes my muscles tighten more than listening to that bitch computer voice counting down the minutes left to reach “minimum safe distance.”
5. The Andromeda Strain – Five Minutes
This is going back a bit – in this Michael Crichton novel turned film our government discovers a deadly extraterrestrial microorganism that essentially turns blood into freaking powder. They bring the organism, as well as the few surviving specimens, to a secret underground lab in the middle of Nevada (where else?) where it is studied five levels down in what has to be the most overly sanitary environment imaginable. The fail safe to the whole lab is naturally a big hunk of nuke buried under the entire thing and set to detonate five minutes after there is any kind of containment problem – after all, they really don’t want to destroy the entire human race. There is only one way to stop the countdown once it starts, a single key that has been given to a single individual – in this case one of our main characters, Dr. Hall.
Before the five minutes are over he must insert the key one of several locations around the lab, which is exactly what he has to do when such a breach occurs not long after the scientists have discovered that a nuclear explosion will only make the organism, which feeds off energy, stronger. This scene cuts it way close as the doctor has to climb through a secure area guarded by freaking lasers in order to get to an insertion point. Got to love the days when lasers were a thing you could put in movies with a straight face.
4. The Fifth Element – One Hour, Fifty-Seven Minutes
The moment when Corbin Dallas learns from the president that he has one hour and fifty-seven minutes to save the planet Earth is also the moment we get to hear one of the best Bruce Willis action quotes out there: “I’ll call you back in two hours.” Alright, perhaps it’s not the best of the best but it’s a decent one – it’s in the top twenty. The worst part about this countdown to oblivion is that there is nothing that they can do to stop it until the last five minutes, when the heroes of the film arrive at the temple in which they must insert four element stones into specific spots and then figure out how to “open” them.
When they learn that each stone is opened with its own specific element we are then treated to what is probably the most gut wrenching cinematic moments out there when the fate of Earth comes down to a single matchstick. As if that isn’t awful enough, in the last minute, after they have set up this machine, Corbin must convince a despondent and damaged Lilu that the world is, in fact, worth saving. Holy hell – the entire human race dependent on a Bruce Willis action movie character talking about his feelings – we’re doomed!
3. Run Lola Run – Twenty Minutes
It’s hard to think of a way to ever pull off a film like this ever again. The entire film is one big countdown as Lola attempts to acquire 100,000 marks that her boyfriend needs in order to pay off a crime boss. Not only is this entire film structured around time in the sense that it is a race against it, but it also uses time as a method of showing us just how big of a difference the little things make by going through three different versions of the same series of events surrounding Lola’s mad dash to save her man. Each version starts with just one variation: Lola’s reaction to an initial obstacle, a vicious dog. Depending on her reaction she finds herself either going faster or slower, reaching locations and events at different points in time and drastically changing the ultimate outcome. What makes this work so well is that the manner in which this dog affects her also mirrors the way she handles future situations emotionally – and it’s only when she masters that one situation is she able to master everything else.
2. Back To The Future – Eight Minutes
Dear god, did Marty really have to change his clothes before going back to 1985? I ask that every time I see the final clock tower scene that, without fail, still makes me nervous to watch. I mean, it’s a bolt of lightening – there is no wiggle room. And not only does Marty have to hit 88 at the right moment, but also at the right freaking place on the road – seriously what are the damn odds that they could pull that off first try? Also… why didn’t Doc just attach a really long cable from the tower to the DeLorean that uncoiled or something while it drove away? Why did they have to do that hook thingy? Whatever – it’s awesome. Then of course, as if there isn’t enough going on, Doc has to nearly kill himself trying to plug those cables in on the top of the tower while hanging from a giant clock – way to use symbolism, guys.
1. The Hurt Locker – Two Minutes
Sorry. Look, I was trying to judge this purely on countdown movies or scenes that made me tense to watch, not on how un-depressing the scene was. It’s hard to end this with such a terrible scene – but I mean, did you see it? If you didn’t than go watch the movie, if you did and want to see it again, here it is:
Those two minutes last forever, and every time I hope that they are going to get the guy out of that thing. It’s such a dark situation because you know just by looking at the device that two minutes is nowhere near enough time – but the fact that James doesn’t even see that as a possibility is both inspiring to watch and incredibly sad when he is finally forced to give up and apologizes to the man who is about to explode in front of everybody. It ranks as the most intense countdowns because it is truly inescapable from the moment the clock starts. Wow, dark. If it helps – The director of this film, Kathryn Bigelow, also directed Point Break with Keanu Reeves… so that’s… that’s kind of silly right? This year is already starting awkward.
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