Just when you thought it was safe to go back into a theater, here comes Roland Emmerich, threatening once again to blow your theater, your city, your country and the rest of the world to smithereens. He did it with 'Independence Day' (1996) and 'The Day After Tomorrow' (2004) and he'll do it again in '2012,' starting around midnight Thursday.

Emmerich does deserve credit for switching apocalypse themes -- alien invasion for 'Independence Day,' environmental disaster for 'Day After Tomorrow' and a solar flare for '2012.' The latest movie exploits the myth of the Mayan Doomsday Prophecy, whose addled adherents believe earth's destruction will coincide with the end of the Mayan calendar, presumed to be Dec. 21, 2012.

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into a theater, here comes Roland Emmerich, threatening once again to blow your theater, your city, your country and the rest of the world to smithereens. He did it with 'Independence Day' (1996) and 'The Day After Tomorrow' (2004) and he'll do it again in '2012,' starting around midnight Thursday.

Emmerich does deserve credit for switching apocalypse themes -- alien invasion for 'Independence Day,' environmental disaster for 'Day After Tomorrow' and a solar flare for '2012.' The latest movie exploits the myth of the Mayan Doomsday Prophecy, whose addled adherents believe earth's destruction will coincide with the end of the Mayan calendar, presumed to be Dec. 21, 2012.

The end of the world has fascinated movie makers since the early Silent Era and has developed a certain rhythm about it. When humanity is stressed --by wars, plagues, nuclear threats, cultural shifts and other great events -- popular art offers temporary escape through movie themes that are far more horrific than what we're actually facing.

The invention and use of the Atom Bomb set off decades worth of paranoia films, mostly horror movies about radiated mutants ('Godzilla,' 'Them') or space aliens ('Invasion of the Body Snatchers,' 'The Day the Earth Stood Still'). The Cold War, with its motto of 'Mutual Assured Destruction,' led the world to the brink in movies as similar and different as 'Dr. Strangelove' and 'Fail-Safe.' The AIDS epidemic spurred a slew of movies about viruses threatening mankind ('Outbreak,' '12 Monkeys').

In recent years, science has provided a rash of villains for end-world movies. In Michael Bay's blockbuster 1998 'Armageddon,' an asteroid is hurtling toward Earth. That same year, 'Deep Impact' had us in the path of a runaway comet. In the 2003 'The Core,' our planet had stopped rotating. The sun is dying in the 2007 'Sunshine,' and with '2012,' it fires off a solar flare that will create meteor showers, volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis.

Regardless of the outcome in '2012,' I'm betting that the world will survive the Doomsday Prophesy. It has survived every other apocalypse that Hollywood has threatened us with. In creating the following list of favorites, I've considered only those movies in which the end is near. In a later post, I'll discuss the best movies in which the end has passed.

1. 'Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb'(1964). Stanley Kubrick's dark, biting, hilariously funny gift to the Cold War West.

2. 'The Day the Earth Stood Still' (1951). A peace-loving alien lands in Washington D.C. and freeze-frames the world while he warns mankind against wars. (Skip the 2008 version; the original alien's robot is more human than Keanu Reeves.)

3. 'Fail-Safe' (1964). A serious account of the same theme of Mutual Assured Destruction behind 'Dr. Strangelove.'

4. 'The Dead Zone' (1983). David Cronenberg's brilliant adaptation of the Stephen King novella about a psychic's attempt to save the world from nuclear destruction.

5. 'Miracle Mile' (1988). Maybe it's because I used to live in this L.A. enclave, but watching World War III start against the backdrop of dinosaur models in the La Brea Tar Pits has special meaning.

6. 'Independence Day' (1998). As corny as the flying saucer movies of the '50s but $100 million worth of special effects makes it an apocalyptic thrill ride.

7. 'Dawn of the Dead' (1978). The granddaddy of zombie movies makes you wish the world had already ended.

8. 'Children of Men' (2006). In this innovative end of the world drama, the hope of mankind rests in the womb of the only fertile woman left on earth.

9. 'War of the Worlds'
(1953). Steven Spielberg's 2005 adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel about a Martian invasion looks a lot better but was nowhere near as scary to its audience as the '53 version.

10. 'Godzilla' (1954). Yeah, the Japanese classic about a giant, radiated lizard is almost unwatchable today, but consider the impact on audiences when it came out -- just eight years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
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