World's end

Film byJonathan Romney

There's a priceless piece of teaser copy on the publicity for the new Canadian film Last Night: "Nothing to wear . . . Love life a mess . . . Can't get a cab. Nothing on TV . . ." Then the pay-off: "It's not the end of the world . . ." (place a sly, pregnant pause here). "There's still six hours left."

Don McKellar's film is the perfect antidote to those fire-and-fury apocalypse packages in which blazing portents of destruction streak across the skies only to be halted at the last moment by a few stout American hearts - Armageddon, Independence Day and the weirdly sanctimonious Deep Impact, in which the final computer-generated tableau of redemption could have been the airbrushed painting on a Jehovah's Witnesses pamphlet. McKellar treats Doomsday the smart way - he rules out salvation from the start, and chooses to treat the biggest topic imaginable in a scrupulously minor key. Be honest, what are you more likely to be doing on the very last night of the world: praying for Bruce Willis as he struggles against cosmic forces, or hoping the farewell roast is going to be cooked in time?

Last Night is set in Toronto between six and midnight on the last night of 1999. The world will end at the stroke of 12, quite simply, and in broad daylight. Last Night doesn't explain why the world is ending, or why there's no night - astronomers and science-fiction buffs can draw their own conclusions. Toronto is a wasteland, practically empty, although occasionally party crowds move through the barren streets, as do looters, lunatics and the odd frustrated motorist who may be rushing to hire the last dinner jacket in town. The mood isn't so much one of expectation and dread, more that of the fag-end of a party in the small hours, with the sky already light and everyone hanging on with weary patience till they can crawl off to bed or breakfast.

McKellar's small group of characters all have some business to conclude, mostly with a degree of everyday sang froid. Sandra (Sandra Oh), the film's most frazzled character, is trying to get across town to fulfil her suicide pact with her husband (David Cronenberg, guesting with his usual cordial mortician's calm), who's staying late at the gas company to make polite corporate thank-you-and-farewell calls to everyone in the phone book. Narcissistic hipster Craig (Callum Keith Rennie) is assiduously working through all his unrealised sexual fantasies, and by mid-evening has moved on to a liaison with his old French teacher (a languid, wryly melancholic Genevieve Bujold).

Life, meanwhile, goes on in what we can only assume - unless McKellar is being very cruel - is typical Canadian fashion. On the radio, a DJ is playing the top tunes of the millennium, and it's only halfway through the film that we realise the selection is no one's but his own: he's just indulging himself with cringesome MOR pulp (some of it rather good, although it's unlikely that forgotten 1970s names like Burton Cummings or the DeFranco Family can count on the film reviving their careers). The best Canadian in-joke is the announcement that thousands have chosen to end their days at a giant guitar jam hosted by Randy Bachman, of the wretched rockers Bachman-Turner Overdrive.

Writer-director McKellar, whose face you'll know from Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan films, plays Patrick, the centre of an Altmanesque ensemble of characters. Patrick's main anxiety is to get through a family dinner in one piece (Mom in beaming denial, Grandma peevishly hacking through a generation's worth of family videos) and return home to brood in solitude over his lost love. Of course, it's nothing but interruptions from there on. This soured loner - McKellar is a master of testy sarcasm - does have a redemptive moment in store, but it's handled with sublime lightness in the film's final moments, to the tune of "Guantanamera" (the subject, earlier on, of one of those pop trivia discussions mandatory since Reservoir Dogs - and one of the better examples of the genre, too).

Among other things, Last Night is an extraordinary feat of atmospherics, with the cinematographer Douglas Koch effectively finding a whole new spin on the film technique of "day for night". Here we're convinced that broad daylight effectively is night-time. The light is cast by a glaucous sun, whose unnatural, creeping progress across the sky we infer as it moves from point to point across the bleakly hip interiors of Craig's apartment.

The script's bone-dry wit has a serious philosophical edge: everyone seems pretty certain about what will be the most important thing in life when the crunch comes, and yet everyone might well be wrong and have the appropriate revelation with seconds to spare. If anyone in this film does get redeemed, it's in a sweetly farcical way: the indefatigably priapic Craig is humanised by a timely attack of impotence.

Only in Canada can you get away with films like this (although Last Night was originally commissioned for a French millennium series). Even in the American independent sector, it would have been considered impossible - global oblivion is not what you'd call an upbeat ending. And yet, with extraordinary bravado and joie de vivre, as well as a lovely Hitchcockian circling shot, McKellar brings history to a close with a burst of pure elation. When the film was screened for the first time in Cannes last year, you could have heard a pin drop in this closing moment - until someone's mobile went off. And when the time comes, that's probably exactly how it will all finish - with neither a bang nor a whimper but a Motorola.

"Last Night" (15) continues at selected cinemas in London and nationwide