The Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, sets the agenda for independent cinema. At this year's festival, which runs until 31 January, science-related films are most concerned with disaster scenarios, both real and imagined.

A handful of documentaries chart the spread of man-made catastrophes. Countdown to Zero exposes the post-cold war proliferation of nuclear weapons and public denial of their danger. Climate Refugees tracks the coming wave of human migration caused by rising waters and changing weather, from Bangladesh to Sudan. On a lighter note, Australian film-maker Mark Lewis returns with a sequel to his classic 1988 documentary about the environmental havoc caused by the invasive Australian cane toad — this time in three-dimensional splendour.

A contrasting selection of documentaries offers some hope of escape from these planetary woes. Life 2.0 follows the masses who retreat into the virtual sanctuary of Second Life. Space Tourists tracks a wealthy Iranian engineer's quest to become the “first female private space explorer” with help from the Soviet space programme in Kazakhstan.

The slate of fictional films also reveals a preoccupation with end-of-time scenarios. Pumzi, a Kenyan science-fiction short, depicts a botanist trying to nurture a single plant in parched post-apocalyptic Africa. The monster movie Splice taps into fears of genetic engineering by raising the possibility of a vicious human–animal chimaera. And with a gentler touch, Obselidia follows a salesman whose efforts to compile an encyclopaedia of obsolescent things leads him to a scientist who predicts the end of civilization.

“Not all the films are doom and gloom,” said John Nein, who organized a panel on the 'discovery process' that will bring together film-makers and scientists, sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. “Others provide a beautiful reflection of our relationship to nature.”