Tales of humankind's impending demise have enthralled audiences and filmmakers for generations – from B-movie alien invasion to the wrath of nature, to the grandiose symphony of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia to Neville Shute’s horrible and all-too realistic premise of man’s destruction of man in On the Beach.

The blockbuster favours the man in the high castle (always the President of the USA with a clenched jaw) grappling with the coming apocalypse, intercut with scenes of the man on the street scrambling for safety or to make peace with his maker. It’s a dull old drill which reached its height in the enjoyably ridiculous 2012. However, this understated and nuanced end-of-days tale from director Lorene Scafaria works with the broadest canvas imaginable but takes an almost indie movie approach.

A 70-mile-wide asteroid, which, like a ferocious tornado, has the innocent name of Matilda, will impact with our blue-green globe in just three weeks. Humanity is sinking into an excess of gleeful debauchery in the belief that the only way to deal with oblivion is to drink or drug yourself there first (at one end-of-days party, a guest shouts, ”Where’s Radiohead? I wanna listen to Radiohead when I take heroin!”).

Steve Carell turns in his best performance as Dodge Peterson, a hangdog insurance salesman (chortle) who accepts humanity’s fate with an almost Zen-like serenity. He turns up for work every morning and politely informs his sweetly-oblivious cleaning lady that maybe she needn’t come over to his house for the next few weeks. However, his coping mechanism is shattered when his wife suddenly leaves him and he blots out the pain with a bottle of cough medicine and then his cleaning lady’s container of windolene.

By the time he comes to, he’s inherited a dog called Sorry and come into contact with his free-spirited and also recently heartbroken neighbour Penny (a very good Keira Knightley). Dodge has determined to track down his lost childhood sweetheart and Penny is anxious to see her parents one last time so they form an unlikely team and set out on a road trip which takes on an almost dream-like quality as they travel around an America on the verge of destruction.

The black humour continues to flicker occasionally but director Scafaria skilfully changes tack for a more sombre mood as earth’s final days count down and the enormity of what awaits begins to dawn with a terrifying inevitability. Along the way, Penny and Dodge encounter survivalists, communities dealing with impending death, an over-zealous cop, and, in the film’s funniest scene, the loved-up staff of a restaurant engaged in a sexual free for all. And top marks to the smiley TV weather girl who answers her anchorman’s question about the traffic with the immortal lines, “We’re ****** Bob.”

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World laughs in the face of death and delivers a touching and moving story at the same time. It gives a new spin on an old story and it should leave you asking yourself what you would do as doomsday approaches.

Alan Corr