12/20/2012 04:57 EST | Updated 02/18/2013 05:12 EST

What doomsday films tell us about ourselves

Apocalyptic films can tell us a lot about what scares us as a society, and what it is we think is important and worth saving.

Even if you don't agree with those who believe the Mayan calendar predicts the world will end on Dec. 21, you may still want to witness the end with a good doomsday movie.

Within this genre, some themes have come and gone, while others have been remade time and time again.

Like manmade monsters. They are part of a fear that has evolved with the complexity of human innovation and the knowledge that something we currently own or control will get smart or strong enough to overpower us — or get rid of us entirely.

In many doomsday scenarios, it is non-human creatures and creations that rise up against us, either because they are tired of human domination, or just indifferent to it. Whether these beings are apes or supercomputers, they no longer intend to kowtow or co-exist.

In Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) — a prequel to the 1968 film Planet of the Apes — a human-made medicine gives our primate cousins the intellectual boost they need to break free of test labs and begin an all-out revolution.

The film, like others that involve flora and fauna turning on us, is laced with lines suggesting that human ingenuity should have its limits.

"You’re trying to control things that aren’t meant to be controlled," says the concerned girlfriend of a scientist.

Variations on this theme involve the cold indifference of artificial intelligence, and the destructive power of hazardous material, nuclear energy, and implements of war.

As Dr. Frankenstein, horrified by his famous monster, cautions: we must be careful when we aspire "to become greater than [our] nature will allow."

We're all in this together

Another doomsday theme, with some uplifting value, is that many of these films allow us to feel like a unified human species by pitting us against a common enemy.

Enter alien, mutant, monster or supernatural beings and suddenly we're ushering each other into underground shelters, standing shoulder to shoulder with shovels and sticking up for total strangers.

The face of this common enemy has changed over the decades. We've battled all kinds of aliens, but we've also had run-ins with vampires, warlocks and even killer tomatoes.

In recent years, one slobbering creature has taken a special place in mainstream culture: Zombies have become so popular that they've earned their own sub-genre in the apocalypse field.

In some ways, perhaps, the undead have become almost comforting to us because of their relative consistency.

Sure, the sprinters in Dawn of the Dead (2004) could run circles around the foot draggers from Night of the Living Dead (1968). But all moviegoers now know how to kill one (aim for the head) and we can rest assured that they're not that organized as a horde.

As one of the human survivors observes in Shaun of the Dead (2004) we may even see ourselves in them.

"Just look at the face: it's vacant, with a hint of sadness. Like a drunk who's lost a bet."

Never mind – trust no one

Before we start feeling too good about our ability to band together in the face of the end of everything, doomsday movies also remind us that we can be our own worst enemies — especially in survival scenarios and the lawless brutality that can follow societal collapse.

In The Road (2006) for instance, the natural events that destroy civilization are just the opening act. The real battle takes place between the desperate humans who survived that initial onslaught.

"That boy looks hungry," a stranger says to a man, who is travelling with his young son.

"You look at him again and I'll shoot you in the head," replies the terrified father.

The end of civilization, it seems, means the end of civility — of visiting neighbours, of sharing resources, and of extending our arms for a handshake.

This distrust of other people is front and centre in outbreak movies like Contagion (2011), where a virulent epidemic spreads quickly through an interconnected world. The movies Blindness (2008) and Carriers (2009) highlight just how alienated we can become from one another.

We need only think of headlines that include bird and swine flu, to process how visceral our fear of contracting viruses can be.

In Contagion, the doctor's advice is clear, and almost goes without saying: "Don't talk to anyone. Don't touch anyone. Stay away from other people."

There's nothing we can do

The wrath of God, the forces of nature, the awesome power of the cosmos — some scenarios can really leave a person feeling cosmically insignificant.

Even the most earthbound of examples: earthquakes, tornadoes, fires and floods — or a deadly combination of all of the above — remind us what we're up against.

Images from movies about climate change and environmental disasters are so realistic that some have been passed off as real images during extreme weather events.

The fact that anyone is fooled may give us pause. This sense of impending doom, coupled with no ideas or a longshot plan, is also present when cosmic objects collide.

1998 was a big year for comets thanks to movies like Deep Impact and Armageddon, but we've also been threatened by the sun, the moon, meteors and just about anything else the universe can hurl at us.

But a quick scan of movie reviews that portray humans as sitting ducks indicate that, well, they're not the most popular scenarios.

When there's little the protagonist can do, audiences and critics alike feel frustrated. One San Francisco film critic noted that in Knowing (2009), leading man Nicolas Cage could do little more than "freak out or act depressed."

Movies that draw on biblical themes — Legion (2012), Left Behind (2001) The Rapture (1991) and the Apocalypse film series, for instance — haven't really been crowd pleasers, either. They have been open to accusations of being overly moralistic or blasphemous.

It will be all right in The End

Fear, uncertainty, terror. They are all there in the doomsday cinema — but the genre is not all gloom. There are some movies about the end that are refreshingly nonchalant about the total annihilation of human civilization.

Humour may be the best sign that our humanity is still intact, as our grim jokes about our own mortality might help us come to terms with our imminent demise. Movies featuring protagonists that are rather resigned to the Earth's demise seem to have become especially popular in the last decade or so.

(Perhaps we were feeling more upbeat after all the Y2K hype turned out to be so turn-of-the-century.)

It isn't always a stoic president that lets protagonists know the end is nigh. In Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012), a mellow radio DJ plays the role of messenger.

"The final mission to save mankind has failed. The 70-mile-wide asteroid known as Matilda is set to collide with Earth in exactly three weeks time," he begins.

"We'll be bringing you our countdown to the end of days — along with all your classic rock favourites."

Instead of panicking, most people stumble about their daily lives as if in shock. And amid the requisite looting and stockpiling of food, some people attend damn-it-all dance parties or kiss strangers.

Likewise, in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005), the motto is "Don't Panic."

Sure, alien construction crews are going to blow up the Earth to make way for an intergalactic highway, but there's still time for a few quick pints. And why not a round of drinks everyone at the pub.

"Shouldn't we lie down and put paper bags over our heads, or something?" asks the unemotional bartender in the Hollywood version of the 1978 radio comedy.

Good advice, perhaps, when you are picking your Friday night entertainment.