Voyagers is one of many films about dealing with the end of our life on Earth

A scene from Voyagers. Picture: Supplied
A scene from Voyagers. Picture: Supplied

Science fiction movies not infrequently deal with what we will do when facing The End Of The World As We Know It. Sometimes the imminent catastrophe, whether fast or slow, is a major part of the story and other times it, or at least the threat of it, is the set-up for what happens next.

Voyagers is a recent example of the latter. The problem on Earth is dealt with swiftly in the opening titles and the focus is on the space flight to another planet of a group of specially bred and raised young people. The story deals with how the kids react to their fate - should they accept how and why they are being used or just live it up and say the hell with humanity?

Climate change seems to be the reason for the problems there. Voyagers illustrates two of the enduring fascinations about the end of the world - how it will happen and what humankind's response will be on the both the individual and societal levels. It conjures up all kinds of questions to ponder - is it better to know or not know what's going to happen? Does it make a difference how much foreknowledge there is? If there is a chance of survival for at least some people, how should these few be determined - and is it better to be one of them or not? Movies can be a good way to explore many of these ideas.

In When Worlds Collide (1951) the source of doom is a rogue star that will destroy Earth in less than a year. Scientists must race to build an "ark" that will transport a small number of people to a planet, called Zyra that is conveniently like Earth and orbiting that star.

Construction of the ark is largely financed by a wealthy business magnate who gets a seat in return; otherwise, the few dozen passengers are selected by lottery (which doesn't seem a terribly effective or scientific way to go about it, especially if you want to keep humanity going). Natural disasters and chaos ensue as doomsday - courtesy of the star and the planet - approaches and denial becomes impossible.

Armageddon (1998), showed a more proactive approach to a similar problem, presumably because technology was more advanced and heroic Bruce Willis played the lead role. Here, an asteroid is hurtling towards Earth and scientists plan to drill a hole in it and insert nukes that will split the rock in half, sending the pieces harmlessly past our planet. Who said the nuclear bomb is all bad?

But while the plans are being made, humanity is - surprise - not behaving stoically, and martial law is introduced. I wonder how such a situation would be handled scientifically and politically in real life?

In one of those not infrequent Hollywood "coincidences", Deep Impact (1998), released the same year, had a very similar subject - comet heading towards Earth to be destroyed by nukes - with, once again, martial law being imposed and a lottery choosing some people to go into bomb shelters while others were pre-selected.

The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) had a different way to destroy the world. This British film seems to be in the vein of other Cold War bomb threat yarns but here that's only the starting point. In fact, the film provides us with an alternative cause of global warming. After the US and USSR simultaneously test atomic bombs, the Earth is knocked off its axis and out of its orbit and starts heading towards the sun.

While the premise might be scientifically dubious, it's handled soberly and the cautionary aspect and depiction of society going bad under threat ring true - and the ending doesn't wrap things up neatly.

In On the Beach (1959) - set in Melbourne and based on Australian Neville Shute's novel - is a story of the dangers of nuclear war, with the survivors in the southern hemisphere awaiting the inevitable arrival of fallout from the destroyed north. Some opt for suicide, others simply to wait, while still others have something they want to do before the end comes.

The Australian movie These Final Hours (2013) deals with similar ideas. An asteroid crash means that a global firestorm will reach Perth very soon. The main character, James, abandons his pregnant girlfriend and decides to attend one last big party - but is wild hedonism really the last experience he wants to have?

Others react to the imminent destruction in different ways, from suicide to sadism, but he has to decide for himself what he wants. Will he be selfish or altruistic? Given the end of the world is very literally nigh, does it matter? Philosophers, theologians and everyone else will have their own answers.

Spectacle, obviously, is one way filmmakers can show the end of the world, and that's fine as far as it goes. But what really engages the heart and head is seeing how people react to potential or imminent catastrophe, both on an individual and a wider level.

It's nice to think that we could do something about such danger, or if that isn't possible that we would meet the end gracefully, in whatever way we chose, but human nature being what it is, it's hard not to be sceptical: a quick death might be preferable to surviving in most circumstances.

Let's hope nobody reading this ever has to deal with such an eventuality.

This story Confronting the end of the world first appeared on The Canberra Times.