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Death to Humans! Visions of the Apocalypse in Movies and Literature

A list of some of our favorite dystopian views of human society facing extinction



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All things must come to an end, but we humans have an endless fascination with the inevitable. Our September 2010 special issue and our web exclusives explore some of those endings. Writers and filmmakers, of course, have been tackling apocalyptic themes for decades, at times using them to highlight emotional aspects of sacrifice, heroism and dedication, to varying degrees of success.

The staff at Scientific American came up with a list of movies and books that show what human civilization would be like if it got short circuited by some sort of catastrophe. Feel free to add your own selections in the comments section.

1. Astronomical catastrophes
Day of the Triffids (novel 1951)
A beautiful meteor shower brings widespread blindness to all who watched it, causing civilization to descend into chaos—resulting in the release of bioengineered plants that move around and attack people.

Lucifer's Hammer (novel 1978)
A chronicle of the end of civilization caused by a comet that impacts Earth.

Armageddon (film 1998)
NASA sends oil-rig workers on a mission to blow up an asteroid that is on course to destroy all life on Earth. An overbaked action version of Deep Impact.

Deep Impact (film 1998)
The world braces for the impact of a seven-mile wide comet that threatens to cause mass extinction. A touchy-feely version of Armageddon.

Sunshine (film 2007)
The sun is dying, so a heroic crew travels by spacecraft to deliver a massive bomb to reignite the Sun.

Death from the Skies (nonfiction 2008)
Phil Plait, astronomer and author of the blog "Bad Astronomy," provides a chilling chronicle of potential hazards from outer space that could wipe out life on Earth and explains the science behind them.

Everything Matters! (novel 2009)
The story of one man who lives his entire life with the knowledge that life on Earth will be destroyed by an asteroid called Destroyer of Worlds.

2012 (film 2009)
Neutrinos released from a massive solar flare melt Earth's inner core, triggering a chain of catastrophic natural disasters, and survivors struggle take refuge on a small number of arks.

2. Biological Calamities
Earth Abides (novel 1949)
After humanity is wiped out by a deadly airborne illness, a small band of survivors set about rebuilding civilization.

A Sound of Thunder (short story 1952, film 2005)
A time-traveling hunter inadvertently crushes a butterfly during an excursion to the Jurassic period. It causes a succession of “time waves” to batter present-day Earth—and its embattled human occupants—and wrenches reality onto a different evolutionary path. Think baboon-dinosaurs besieging your local gas-mart.

I Am Legend (novel 1954, films 1964 (The Last Man on Earth), 1971 (Omega Man), 2007 (I Am Legend))
One lone man is immune to a pandemic virus that ravages humanity. He struggles to develop a treatment to save the infected.

The Andromeda Strain (novel 1969, film 1971, TV miniseries 2008)
A satellite returns to Earth with a deadly microbe that wipes out an entire town except for a baby and an old man.

The Stand (novel 1978)
A deadly virus is accidentally released from a research lab, wiping out humanity. The story chronicles the confrontations that occur among the survivors.

12 Monkeys (film, 1995)
A terrorist release of a virus has devastated civilization, forcing the remainder of humanity underground. Scientists send a convicted felon back in time as part of an effort to stop the release.

28 Days Later (film 2002)
A chimpanzee harboring a deadly virus escapes from a research lab and infects the entire population, resulting in societal collapse. The film focuses on four uninfected people and their struggle to survive.

Reign of Fire (film 2002)
Dragons suddenly populate Earth and wipe out all people in their path. Small bands of survivors across the planet struggle to evade the dragons and fight for their lives.

3. Geophysical Disasters
Soylent Green (film 1973)
The planet has warmed significantly and is overpopulated. Food is scarce; humanity clings to survival by consuming a processed food called soylent green, which contains a horrifying secret ingredient.

Waterworld (film 1995)
The polar ice caps have melted, leaving civilization underwater. Small bands of survivors drift across the waters seeking land.

The Core (film 2003)
Earth's inner core has stopped rotating, and its magnetic field dies. A heroic crew must travel to the center of the planet and detonate a nuclear bomb to restart the inner core and save humanity.

The Day After Tomorrow (film 2004)
A series of severe weather events brought about by climate change triggers a devastating ice age that prompts survivors to flee to warmer latitudes.

Wall-E (film 2008)
A garbage-collecting robot sets about cleaning an Earth so trashed that mankind has abandoned it.

4. War
The World, the Flesh and the Devil (film 1959)
A man emerges from a caved-in mine that trapped him for days to find a deserted world wiped out by nuclear war.

On the Beach (novel 1957, film 1959 and TV movie 2000)
A nuclear World War III has wiped out most of the planet, except for a band of survivors on Australia. This story follows the lives of these ordinary people as an impending radioactive cloud nears their refuge, bringing certain death.

A Canticle for Leibowitz (novel 1959)
Set in a Catholic monastery, the story chronicles the rebuilding of society after a devastating nuclear war.

Planet of the Apes (novel 1963, film 1968)
Astronauts crash land on a distant planet with a civilization of walking, talking apes that are hostile to humans. Sequels to the 1968 movie include Beneath the Planet of the Apes and Escape from the Planet of the Apes.

Stop the Planet of the Apes, I Want to Get Off! (musical 1996 from The Simpsons)
I hate every ape I see, from chimpan-A to chimpanzee…

A Boy and His Dog (short story 1969, film 1974)
A young man and his telepathic dog roam a desolate world obliterated by a nuclear war.

Mad Max (film 1979)
Set in the wastelands of post-apocalyptic Australia, the film tells the story of a vengeful policeman and his clashes with a violent motorcycle gang. Sequels: The Road Warrior (1981) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985).

The Day After (film 1983)
Fictional account of the devastation wreaked by a nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Testament (film 1983)
This film chronicles the lives of people in a small California town after nuclear blasts destroy civilization.

Threads (TV drama 1984)
Documentary-style look at the medical, economic, social and environmental consequences of a nuclear war in northern England.

The Postman (novel 1985, film 1997)
A war has devastated the planet, and bands of people, led by a stranger in a postal uniform, struggle to survive.

Book of Eli (film 2010)
Thirty years after a devastating world war, a man named Eli travels on foot to the west coast of the U.S. to deliver the last remaining copy of the Bible to a safe location.

5. Machine-Driven Takeovers
Logan's Run (novel 1967, film 1976)
In a futuristic society, every aspect of people’s lives is controlled by a supercomputer, and, to keep the population and planet's resources in equilibrium, no one is permitted to live beyond the age of 21.

The Terminator (film 1984)
In a post-apocalyptic future, intelligent machines devise a plan to exterminate the remaining humans. The film led to several sequels, a television series and two gubernatorial victories in California.

The Matrix (film 1999)
Machines harvest humans for energy by keeping their minds trapped in a simulation of the late 20th century. Sequels: The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions

6. Unspecified Catastrophes
The Road (novel 2006, film 2009)
A father and son struggle to survive after an unknown disaster reduced the planet to ash and rubble. They must avoid cannibals and scavenge food from abandoned houses and stores.

The World Without Us (creative nonfiction 2007)
This riveting thought experiment imagines how the planet would respond if humans suddenly vanished.

7. Collected Disasters
Armageddon Science: The Science of Mass Destruction (nonfiction 2010)
The science behind potential apocalyptic threats such as climate change, nuclear blasts, bio-hazards and the Large Hadron Collider.

How it Ends: From You to the Universe (nonfiction 2010)
A scientific explanation of how everything in the universe will eventually end.

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