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Social breakdown

When civil order crumbles and survival of the fittest takes over

By Sean Axmaker
Special to MSN Movies

What is society but a mutual agreement that we live under a certain collection of laws and the unspoken understanding that we will behave toward one another with a certain respect? That doesn't stop folks from breaking the law, but it keeps the rest of us from following suit.

So what happens when all rules are suspended? Are we, by our nature, kind and benevolent and able to hold things together despite a social contract, or do we plunge into an every-man-for-himself attitude, preying upon others to survive? "The Purge" takes our fears of runaway crime into a realm where the social contract is suspended and we're left to fend for ourselves in the face of the worst elements of the human race.

Bing: More about 'The Purge' | More about Ethan Hawke

The movies have been performing this kind of social experiment for decades, especially in the shadow of the atomic bomb, but most end-of-the-world films jumped directly to the aftermath of scorched earth and dwindling survivors, as if visualizing society descended into chaos might actually trigger the real thing. It took the chill of the Cold War and the heat of civil unrest and political protest for studios to breach that taboo. Now the fear seems all too contemporary.

Here are some of the most interesting cinematic propositions for life in the face of social breakdown, where there are no more rules and survival of the fittest becomes a social competition. The one thing that binds all these films, and gives us reassurance as the end credits roll, is that we get to walk out of the dark and back into the light of society. At least until one of these comes true.

"The Purge" is out in theaters Friday, June 7.

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(Universal Pictures)