On International Asteroid Day, consider how we and movies handle imminent doom

As if coronavirus and climate change weren't big enough threats to humanity, the United Nations has reminded us of another.

June 30 is International Asteroid Day, the anniversary of the Tunguska impact over Siberia on June 30, 1908, and a day meant to "raise public awareness about the asteroid impact hazard and to inform the public about the crisis communication actions to be taken at the global level in case of a credible near-Earth object threat."

Whether or not we could successfully deal with the challenge of a potential asteroid strike - like the one that wiped out all the dinosaurs 65 million years ago - remains to be seen. But Hollywood has long been taken by the ways that heavenly bodies might wreak havoc on our planet. The nomenclature might be flexible - meteor, asteroid, comet (you can check out the differences here) but the destructive - and dramatic - possibilities remain much the same.

A scene from the film Deep Impact. Picture: Paramount Pictures

A scene from the film Deep Impact. Picture: Paramount Pictures

In one of those periodic Hollywood coincidences, Deep Impact and Armageddon were both released in 1998. Armageddon, directed by Michael Bay, grossed more, but Deep Impact could at least claim it was more scientifically accurate, as if anyone cared.

In Armageddon, an asteroid the size of Texas - bigger than any in our solar system - has somehow not been detected until it is a mere 18 days from hitting Earth. Can Bruce Willis and his team carry out the plan to destroy the asteroid by drilling a hole into it and inserting a nuclear bomb? Note the temptation to use the phrase "kick asteroid" was resisted.

Deep Impact's impending threat is a comet the size of Mt Everest and again, the idea is to nuke the bastard. But what happens if the explosion merely splits the thing in half rather than obliterating it?

These films were anticipated decades earlier by a 1958 Italian sci-fi film. The Day the Sky Exploded (aka Death Comes from Outer Space), the problem is caused - unintentionally - by an astronaut who jettisons a malfunctioning rocket. It dislodges a group of asteroids from their orbit and they coalesce and - you guessed it - head towards Earth. The nations of the world must join forces to send all their nuclear missiles to blow up the threat (so building up arsenals was a good idea after all).

Meteor (1979) was a star-studded Cold War disaster movie in which the US and USSR had to put aside their differences to confront the eight-kilometre titular threat. Smaller chunks of Orpheus, as the meteor is named, are already causing lots of destruction (and keeping audiences interested while the characters stare at screens) but the main rock hitting Earth would be the end of everything. Henry Fonda plays the US president (as he not infrequently did), Sean Connery is a retired NASA scientist brought back into action during the crisis, and Natalie Wood is a Russian interpreter. The actress was of Russian descent, born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko, so it makes far more sense than her playing a Puerto Rican in West Side Story.

In When Worlds Collide (1951) the destruction of Earth is a given because a "rogue star" named Bellus will collide with the planet in eight months. In addition to scenes of carnage, the film examines the process of choosing who will have a chance for survival on an "ark" being built to transport a lucky few to Bellus's sole planet, Zyra. Like other disaster movies, it's not optimistic about human nature in the face of catastrophe.

If there's no changing things, why not spend the remaining time doing whatever you like? In Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012), Dodge (Steve Carell) decides to spend the few weeks before the big one hits in search of his high-school sweetheart, but others have different reactions and priorities.

On a lighter note, Night of the Comet (1984) answered the burning question: What would two teenage Valley Girls do if they were among the few Los Angelenos who weren't killed or turned into zombies by a comet? Go to the mall, for sure.

Asteroids - and the like - don't have to be on a collision course with Earth to entertain. In The Empire Strikes Back (1980), an asteroid field provides the Millennium Falcon with the opportunity to outfly and evade pursuing Imperial forces - and allows for a breather to up the sexual tension between Han Solo and Princess Leia.

Even animation gets into the asteroid act. Ice Age: Collision Course (2016) is set in a prehistoric world after two asteroids have wiped out previous sets of beasties, in which the characters must try to prevent a third from wiping them out too.

As we mark International Asteroid Day, then, it's worth thinking about the possibilities if we knew the end - not just our own as individuals but everybody's - was definitely and irreversibly nigh. What would you do?

This story Life on Earth might go out with a bang first appeared on The Canberra Times.