12 doomsday scenarios from the movies

With the Mayans depicting the end of the world in 2012, we look at 12 of cinema's deadly doomsday scenarios...

Just 13 years after the dreaded 1999, we’re once again facing the possibility of doom. According to some interpretations of a Mesoamerican calendar, the 21st December 2012 will mark the end of the world.

There are claims that we may shortly be snuffed out of existence by a supermassive blackhole, a catastrophic burst of solar radiation, a devastating comet unleashed from the Oort cloud, a disastrous reversal of the north and south poles, a collision with the Planet X, a blast of radiation from a dying Betelgeuse star, invading aliens, or One Direction’s Christmas album.

It follows, then, that there is no escape. There’ll be no time to open our Christmas presents, nor mull our wine. Instead, we’ll simply cling to one another on that fateful December day, and wonder which of the above calamities will take us first – it’s possible they may even occur all at once, in a great firework display of swirling disaster.

Whatever happens, we should be mindful of one thing: filmmakers warned us of all this before. Some decades ago, others very recently. So while the rest of us whimper in our living rooms, awaiting for the inevitable comet, alien invasion, blast of radiation or reversal of the poles, director Roland Emmerich will be standing proudly on the top of a mountain, gloating at us all for laughing at his prophetic movie, 2012.

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Here, then, are a few of cinema’s end-of-the-world scenarios, including, of course, Emmerich’s Nostradamus-like glimpse of the future…

Mutated neutrinos – 2012

Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first – Roland Emmerich’s 2009 uber disaster movie, 2012. It predicts that a massive solar flare will have a terrible effect on the Earth’s core, essentially sending our planet into terminal Murder-Death-Kill mode. A series of tsunamis, earthquakes and vomiting volcanoes send our cities tumbling into the void, while the White House is destroyed by a tumbling aircraft carrier.

The iffy science in 2012 was beautifully shot down by Dara O Briain, in a stand-up routine that’s probably more famous than the movie itself by now. “This bloke delivers the greatest line in the history of cinema,” O Briain says, referring to one of the movie’s gallery of suspect pseudo-scientists. “‘This guy, a physicist, turns to the other physicist, and says, without any shame, ‘The neutrinos… have mutated!’ […] He might as well have gone, ‘The electrons… are angry!’ That’s how ludicrous it is…”

It’s easy to pour scorn on such woolly science, of course. But what if Emmerich was on to something? He may have scientific details wrong, but it’s just possible he knows something we don’t. After all, the proposed 3D re-release of one of his earlier disaster blockbusters, Independence Day, has been pulled from the 2013 theatrical schedules, and with good reason – what’s the point in going to all the effort of planning a 2013 movie release if the world’s about to end?

How we could survive: According to the movie, the only people who’ve a hope of survival are the lucky ones chosen to board four enormous lifeboats called Arks. Even then, you’re not guaranteed to live, given that the Arks are bobbing about on a raging ocean – really, you’d think those billionaires and scientists would have built submarines or airships instead.

No, there’s only one way to guarantee survival: make sure you’re John Cusack.

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Asteroid (Meteor, Deep Impact, Armageddon, plus various others)

A slightly more plausible scenario than the mutated neutrinos, the decimation of life on our planet by a gigantic space rock could, at least in theory, happen at any point. Fortunately, many of our best scientists have been dreaming up various methods of diverting potentially devastating asteroids from a collision course with Earth – proposals include the use of solar energy, nuclear bombs or explosions to expertly shove the objects out of our path.

Movie scientists have been equally creative in their anti-asteroid thinking. In the 1979 disaster flick Meteor, a scientist played by Sean Connery worked with Russian leaders to blow up an asteroid with orbiting nuclear missile platforms. In Armageddon (1998), Bruce Willis and a crack team of oil drillers blew up a killer meteor with high explosives.

The rival disaster picture Deep Impact, however, painted a somewhat gloomier picture. With Earth seconds away from destruction, a few hundred thousand hand-picked survivors are bundled mountain caves, where they may or may not find shelter from the in-bound devastation.

How we could survive: assuming Sean Connery or Bruce Willis don’t come up with any bright ideas, we’d suggest heading to the safety of your nearest limestone cave.

Ice age (The Day After Tomorrow)

Another entry, another Roland Emmerich movie. Is there anything this man doesn’t know about the destruction of our planet? In his 2004 masterwork, we see the Earth suddenly in the grip of a new ice age. Our cities are flooded and then frozen over, leaving the few remaining survivors stumbling about in the snow and wondering where they put their gloves.

How we could survive: wear an extra jumper. And maybe watch The Grey for survival tips, just in case a few wolves sneak out of your local zoo.

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Extreme heat (The Day The Earth Caught Fire)

One of Britain’s few disaster movies, and one of the best, The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1961) suggests that repeated nuclear testing might one day knock our planet out of orbit. With Earth moving ever closer to the sun, it looks as though life is about to be scorched from existence. Scientists scramble to find a solution, and as they attempt to set off yet more bombs in a last-gasp attempt at pushing Earth back on-course, journalists (at the Daily Express, no less) attempt to anticipate the outcome by printing two headlines: one hailing its success, the other saying, “World Doomed”.

Unusually, the movie ends with our fate hanging in the balance, a church bell either celebrating our safety or our sounding our death knell.

How we could survive: Unlike most doomsday movie scenarios, this one offers no Ark on which to sail out of the situation. The only thing we can do in this situation, it seems, is to sit by the fridge, keep eating ice lollies and hope for the best.

Interplanetary collision (Melancholia, When Worlds Collide)

Although Lars von Trier’s Melancholia may have taken its inspiration from the theory that Planet X (or Nibiru) may soon clash with Earth, the 1951 sci-fi movie When Worlds Collide suggested a similar thing 50 years ago. In it, a star called Bellus is discovered to be heading our way, and the urgent warnings of Dr Cole Hendron (Larry Keating) go unheeded by the United Nations.

As in 2012, a group of wealthy industrialists cobble together an escape ship, and select a handful of lucky passengers by drawing lots. The ship then blasts off for the Eden-like idyll of Zyra, while the rest of us wait our firey end on Earth.

How we could survive: Unless a lottery ticket with our name on it pops through the door soon, it’s probably safe to say we’ve not been chose to go on the government’s top secret rocket ship to Zyra. This being the case, we’re happy to adopt the approach Kirsten Dunst took in Melancholia: make a teepee out of sticks in the middle of a golf course, and simply watch the pretty lights while Charlotte Gainsbourg weeps into her hanky.

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Alien invasion (Earth Vs The Flying Saucers, Independence Day, plus too many to list)

Perhaps one of the most prevalent doomsday scenarios of all, the alien invasion is also one of the most regularly thwarted. In the face of the latest influx of bug-eyed invaders from Mars, there’s usually at least one scientist with a plan that Might Just Work.

Occasionally, though, we face an invasion that is simply too insidious to counter – look, for example, at the kind of nightmare situation offered by Don Siegel’s classic Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, in which once lively, honest Americans are turned into dead-eyed slaves by pods from outer space. If it’s a more violent take-over you’re looking for, then there’s always 2010’s Skyline, in which Eric Balfour and a few other actors could only look on helplessly from their posh flat while aliens sucked humans up into their giant space Hoovers. Terrifying.

How we could survive: If aliens do invade on the 21st December, we’d better hope that a scientist somewhere has an extremely good idea as to how we can repel them – at the very least, we’d best hope that the invaders haven’t updated their anti-virus software.

Nuclear war (Dr Strangelove, When The Wind Blows, On The Beach, Fail Safe)

Mutually-assured nuclear destruction was an imminent, horrifying everyday possibility in the Cold War, and was a common topic in numerous movies, from the bitterly cynical (Dr Strangelove) to the gentle and movingly human (When The Wind Blows). In most instances, humanity’s demise was depressingly simple: diplomatic relations had broken down – or worse, a simple mistake had been made – and the missiles began to fly.

The overriding fear in these movies is not just of the mushroom cloud itself, but of our utter helplessness in the face of global politics. In Dr Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick took the Cold War novel Red Alert and reworked it into a searing comedy, imagining the world’s leaders as a bunch of idiots engaged in a bun fight at the end of the world, while a maniacal American General (played by Sterling Hayden) prods humanity to its nuclear doom.

How we could survive: Although the end of the Cold War made the threat of nuclear Armageddon a less immediate one, there’s no point in taking any chances. We’ve already taken inspiration from When The Wind Blows, and made our own shelter with nailed-together wooden doors and old carpet. The landlord’s furious.

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Killer computer (The Terminator, The Matrix, Colossus: The Forbin Project)

Assuming our political leaders don’t spark a war themselves, movies present another worrying scenario: self-aware computers. In Colossus: The Forbin Project, an artificially intelligent computer brought humanity under its dictatorship, while Skynet, the AI overlord in The Terminator series, triggered nuclear war and rounded up the surviving remnants with killer machines.

According to James Cameron’s chronology, Skynet was due to become self-aware on the 29th August 1997. Could it be that Cameron simply got his dates a bit wrong, and that Skynet – or something like it – will suddenly spring into consciousness this December?

How we could survive: With any luck, someone somewhere will be standing next to Skynet with an eye on the clock and a hand on the nearest power socket. If the computer suddenly exclaims, “Bloody hell, where am I?” at the stroke of midnight on the 21st December, it’s time to pull the plug.

Killer plants (The Day Of The Triffids)

As if all the other horrifying doomsday possibilities aren’t enough, the 1962 Day Of The Triffids movie (one of several adaptations of John Wyndham’s novel) gives us the possibility that we may face extinction at the tendrils of roving killer plants.

How we might survive: Fortunately, the Triffids in the movie version are rather less formidable than the ones in the novel, and are easily despatched with salt water. Our suggestion? Keep a bag of salt and a water pistol handy next month, just in case.

Zombies (The Night Of The Living Dead, Dawn Of The Dead, etc)

Say what you like about death by tidal wave or asteroid – for us, the zombie apocalypse is the most terrifying fate of all. Not just because of the wave upon wave of shuffling undead roaming the streets, but because of the inevitability of being stuck in a confined space with a group of neurotic character actors in various states of panic.

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How we might survive: In fairness, a zombie outbreak, unlike the worlds-in-collision scenario offered by Melancholia, at least offers a slim chance of survival. Maybe that’s why our governments have been plying us with all those zombie-based videogames and movies over the past few years – they’re training for the apocalypse to come. “You gotta shoot ’em in the head…”

Angry God (Legion)

In what is perhaps the ultimate Armageddon scenario, the 2010 film Legion suggested that God has finally lost His patience with his wayward creation, and triggered the end times. To this end, he sends his angels down to take on corporeal form, and kill everyone that moves.

How we might survive: We probably won’t. We’re looking forward to seeing what Richard Dawkins might say in this situation, though.

Disease (The Satan Bug, The Andromeda Strain, Outbreak, Contagion, 28 Days Later, etc.)

A comparatively mundane scenario compared to some of the others in this article, the spectre of a global pandemic is nevertheless a very real one. It’s such a real possibility, in fact, that it often makes for extremely exciting (and sometimes depressing) movies. The Andromeda Strain depicted the influx of an extra-terrestrial disease which caused madness and fatal blood clots. Movies such as Outbreak and Contagion show the efforts to contain a potentially devastating disease, while 12 Monkeys and 28 Days Later hinted at the aftermath – the latter taking the form of an engineered virus that turns people into shrieking, running maniacs.

How we might survive:  The huge variety of diseases presented in the movies makes a contingency plan difficult to put together, but we’ve already started constructing our own Hazmat suits out of carrier bags and Marigold gloves.

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