Unsaveable day
April 27, 2020 4:24 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to hear about books and movies where the heroes do not manage to save the day.

I can think of several examples:
  • Frank Herbert's novel The White Plague, where a molecular biologist successfully engineers a virus which kills only women
  • Gregory McDonald's novel The Buck Passes Flynn, where an attempt to flood the USA with counterfeit currency succeeds
  • The films Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe, where nuclear bombs destroy major populations by accident
I'm not interested (here) in books or films like The Tripods, where good eventually prevails. I'm looking for catastrophic events with permanent changes. Thanks in advance.
posted by ubiquity to Media & Arts (68 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
Pom Poko
posted by Geameade at 4:31 PM on April 27, 2020 [3 favorites]


Arlington Road. Shocked lil 14-year old lizjohn.
posted by lizjohn at 4:33 PM on April 27, 2020 [11 favorites]


Came to say Arlington Road as well!
posted by Sassyfras at 4:34 PM on April 27, 2020 [1 favorite]


Cabin in the Woods
posted by burntflowers at 4:39 PM on April 27, 2020 [14 favorites]


The first example that came to mind was the Watchmen comic book, where the bad guy's plot comes to fruition and at the end the heroes have to decide if they can go along with it or not.

Also Terminator 3? They couldn't stop Judgment Day. Although I don't know if John Connor counts as a hero trying to save the day or is just someone trying to survive.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 4:42 PM on April 27, 2020 [6 favorites]


Robert Sheckley's wonderful (and very, very short) Space Opera Zirn Left Unguarded, The Jenghik Palace In Flames, Jon Westerley Dead would seem to fit this category admirably (via Reddit).
posted by Chairboy at 4:43 PM on April 27, 2020 [1 favorite]


Cat’s Cradle, by Vonnegut?
posted by sudogeek at 4:48 PM on April 27, 2020 [15 favorites]


The movie "Perfect Storm".
posted by cheesecake at 4:53 PM on April 27, 2020 [1 favorite]


How "catastrophic" are you looking for? Like, Dr. Strangelove-style End Of The World or would you be satisfied with things just not working out for the main characters and not much if any impact beyond that?
posted by soundguy99 at 4:57 PM on April 27, 2020 [2 favorites]


Neal Stephenson's "Seveneves" might fit as the real victor was physics.

I'm also not sure if anyone "saved the day" in Stephen R Donaldson's "The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant", everyone seemed to go through hell in that series.

(I'd also say Volume 2 of any Peter F. Hamilton trilogy would work, but Volume 3 usually has a 'save the day')
posted by Fortran at 4:59 PM on April 27, 2020


A Canticle for Leibowitz. It's a major theme of the book, though there is a tiny, slim ray of hope which might not work out.
posted by Alensin at 5:00 PM on April 27, 2020 [11 favorites]


Oh, and depending on your politics (and tolerance for not-too-great-writing), "The Circle" by Dave Eggers might qualify. The book, not the movie, which had a more Hollywood ending.
posted by Fortran at 5:02 PM on April 27, 2020


TV?

Twin Peaks
posted by phunniemee at 5:10 PM on April 27, 2020 [5 favorites]


Skyfall is probably James Bond's biggest failure. The villain seemed content to die so long as he killed M, so in the end the villain got everything he wanted.
posted by Tehhund at 5:10 PM on April 27, 2020 [2 favorites]


On The Beach
posted by kimota at 5:14 PM on April 27, 2020 [6 favorites]


I was going to suggest Avengers: Infinity War, since it concludes with the main villain successfully wiping out half the galaxy in one fell swoop (or snap, as it were).
posted by Roger Pittman at 5:20 PM on April 27, 2020 [2 favorites]


Not a movie but a very good TV show - Patriot on Amazon Prime (but the exact implications aren't clear in the finale).
posted by getawaysticks at 5:23 PM on April 27, 2020


Miracle Mile
posted by Gorgik at 5:26 PM on April 27, 2020 [6 favorites]


Parallax View
posted by Gorgik at 5:31 PM on April 27, 2020


Dead Poets Society.
posted by Melismata at 5:37 PM on April 27, 2020 [1 favorite]


The Conversation.
posted by BlahLaLa at 5:37 PM on April 27, 2020


Joanna Russ's WE WHO ARE ABOUT TO is sort of in this category and sort of out of it. it is about what constitutes a happy ending once you put the question of survival aside.

it permanently settles several questions that are absolutely essential to any post-apocalyptic considerations.
posted by queenofbithynia at 5:45 PM on April 27, 2020 [2 favorites]


28 Weeks Later
posted by BungaDunga at 5:45 PM on April 27, 2020 [4 favorites]


Chinatown.
posted by mykescipark at 5:48 PM on April 27, 2020 [8 favorites]


Brazil
posted by Glomar response at 5:52 PM on April 27, 2020 [8 favorites]


About half of Mary Gentle’s books , most impressively in _Ancient Light_.

Also a theme for KJ Parker.
posted by unknown knowns at 5:59 PM on April 27, 2020 [3 favorites]


Melancholia isn’t about trying to save the day, but it ends with Earth and all inhabitants being obliterated so uh that probably does the trick?
posted by Special Agent Dale Cooper at 6:09 PM on April 27, 2020 [2 favorites]


For Whom the Bell Tolls
posted by Rash at 6:12 PM on April 27, 2020




The Mist (2007)
posted by TWinbrook8 at 6:23 PM on April 27, 2020 [5 favorites]


If you liked The White Plague, you're going to love Hugh Howey's Silo series.
posted by teremala at 6:28 PM on April 27, 2020 [1 favorite]


Large chunks of the Supernatural series deal with the fact that the lads keep failing to save the day, and thus a terrible evil is released, or someone dies, or the apocalypse happens, or whatever, and then having to deal with the aftermath in the NEXT season... Repeat for 15 seasons to the point where they are now trying to kill God Himself Literally.
posted by The otter lady at 6:29 PM on April 27, 2020


Colossus: The Forbin Project, a Hugo-nominated AI thriller from the early 70s.
The second Planet of the Apes film, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, ends with the destruction of the Earth.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers--the one from 1978 in particular was also Hugo-nominated.
The Medusa Touch, a psychic powers thriller also from 1978.
Maybe 1978 was a good year for this because Piranha ends with the strong implication that the heroes failed with disaster-level consequences.
posted by cpound at 6:35 PM on April 27, 2020 [2 favorites]


The first book I remember reading in which this happened--something was irreparably broken and couldn't be fixed, and furthermore, it was the protagonist who wreaked the havoc--was The Great Gilly Hopkins. Not as dramatic as obliterating major city populations, but quietly devastating for a young reader.
posted by praemunire at 6:36 PM on April 27, 2020 [1 favorite]


Not sure if this is too silly for you, but I think Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog qualifies.
posted by mekily at 6:49 PM on April 27, 2020 [5 favorites]


Thelma & Louise
posted by kapers at 6:55 PM on April 27, 2020 [2 favorites]


George Martin's Song of Ice & Fire series has a lot of this.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:17 PM on April 27, 2020


This previous ask might have some suggestions for you:

Movies-where-the-heroes-dont-foil-the-dastardly-plot"
posted by Julnyes at 7:27 PM on April 27, 2020


Chernobyl or Contagion.
posted by effluvia at 8:12 PM on April 27, 2020


Oryx & Crake and the subsequent two novels. Like a lot of Atwood, it hits pretty close to home.
posted by carsonb at 8:24 PM on April 27, 2020 [3 favorites]


To Live and Die in L.A.
posted by Dr. Wu at 8:51 PM on April 27, 2020 [1 favorite]


Picnic At Hanging Rock
posted by gudrun at 9:06 PM on April 27, 2020 [2 favorites]


The classic sci-fi short story The Cold Equations is an example of this—a story about the inexorable mathematical realities of space travel.
posted by Orlop at 10:58 PM on April 27, 2020 [4 favorites]


Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson, an interesting take on Big Tech's plan to exit planet Earth.
posted by SoundInhabitant at 11:47 PM on April 27, 2020 [1 favorite]


The Dresden Files book series might scratch that itch if you’re talking about a medium scale. The main characters who are sorta good get badly beaten, fall apart and change irrevocably. Things get darker and darker and there is no happy ending as of 13/15 and some permanent changes that make a Happy Ever After impossible. The world keeps turning, but there’s a huge cost paid.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 12:13 AM on April 28, 2020


The Girl with All the Gifts (the movie too). Wonderful story (despite its grim, yet thought provoking, ending) along the lines of the plague/zombie genre.
posted by like_neon at 12:31 AM on April 28, 2020 [3 favorites]


It's not quite this, but The Expanse novels are often more about trying to create a slightly less bad outcome than saving the day.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant.

S.M. Stirling's Drakas series hits what you're looking for in the third novel. You do have to read the whole series to get there. Very fully realized world.
posted by rednikki at 12:39 AM on April 28, 2020


Cavalry. It’s an Irish film about a priest who takes confession from an unseen man who tells him that he was raped as a child by a priest, and as revenge will kill a good priest in a week.
posted by Jubey at 2:52 AM on April 28, 2020


N.K. Jemisin's trilogy that starts with The Fifth Season. It starts with the end of the world and goes on to end several other smaller worlds. Depending on the perspective they technically save the world by the end of the third book, but it's a very mixed victory with a lot of tragedy along the way.
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 3:43 AM on April 28, 2020 [1 favorite]


Gone, Baby, Gone. Book and movie. Not going to spoil it.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:50 AM on April 28, 2020


The Empire Strikes Back
posted by steinwald at 5:36 AM on April 28, 2020 [3 favorites]


The Vanishing (the 1988 Dutch version, not the later Keifer Sutherland remake).
posted by essexjan at 6:24 AM on April 28, 2020 [3 favorites]


The Last Policeman trilogy by Ben H Winters is excellent, but the planet still gets clobbered in the end.
posted by workerant at 6:38 AM on April 28, 2020 [1 favorite]


Although I'm not a connoisseur of anime, this seems to be the way a lot of anime works. There's a catastrophe that the protagonist can't prevent. Princess Mononoke, Ghost in the Shell, etc.
posted by adamrice at 6:41 AM on April 28, 2020


If you want a horror movie, Martyrs doesn't end well (to put it lightly).
posted by hydra77 at 8:29 AM on April 28, 2020


Drag Me to Hell
posted by Fuego at 10:24 AM on April 28, 2020


Mamista, and Winter, both by Len Deighton.
posted by Stoneshop at 10:32 AM on April 28, 2020


Friday Night Lights movie. The team doesn't win.
posted by gakiko at 12:06 PM on April 28, 2020 [1 favorite]


Fail Safe
posted by Dolley at 5:56 PM on April 28, 2020


Reaching way back, the Arthurian legends as told in the 15th century Morte D'Arthur by Mallory, and retold countless times including in the mid-20th century in the novel The Once and Future King by T.H. White and in the broadway musical Camelot. Most of the questers don't find the holy grail, the two love triangles Lancelot-Guinevere-Arthur and Tristan-Isolde-Mark cause great suffering for years until they end in tragedy, and finally Arthur is unable to overcome his family's tragic history, so the round table and the kingdom break up in civil war.
posted by JonJacky at 6:39 PM on April 28, 2020 [2 favorites]


The "Cube" trilogy is pretty nihilistic.
posted by Sophont at 1:33 AM on April 29, 2020 [2 favorites]


Grasshopper Jungle is an apocalyptic young adult novel that is so, so funny and weird and dark.
posted by EmilyFlew at 6:54 AM on April 29, 2020


Can't believe no one has said 12 Monkeys yet!
posted by wintersonata9 at 7:58 AM on April 29, 2020 [1 favorite]


Buried
posted by gottabefunky at 9:26 PM on April 29, 2020


The Mist scoffs at all other downer endings.
posted by gottabefunky at 9:26 PM on April 29, 2020 [1 favorite]


Leaving Las Vegas.
posted by Melismata at 2:00 PM on April 30, 2020


Rebel Without A Cause, Vanishing Point, Easy Rider, Cool Hand Luke
posted by Rash at 3:10 PM on May 1, 2020 [1 favorite]


Lots of great suggestions here! Thanks, metafilter!
posted by ubiquity at 3:56 AM on June 5, 2020


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