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The end is always near

March 27, 2003|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

Ever since the deepest freeze of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union more than half a century ago, filmmakers have used the sci-fi genre to exploit people's fears about the tenuous, fragile state of the world. Plots of these films follow one of three paths: The Earth is confronted either by murderous aliens, out-of-control meteors, comets and asteroids, or some sort of natural disaster caused by human meddling.

In Paramount's old-fashioned disaster flick, "The Core," which hits theaters Friday, scientists discover the Earth's core has stopped spinning. Disasters threaten to destroy all life on the planet, so scientists in an experimental ship head to the center of the Earth to set off nuclear bombs to restart the core.

"The Core" is the latest in Paramount's long line of flicks about the end of the world. Back in 1951, the studio scored a huge hit with "When Worlds Collide," a campy thrill ride about the survival strategy devised when astronomers discover that a rogue planet is on a collision course with Earth. Barbara Rush and lantern-jawed Richard Derr star in this Technicolor release that won an Oscar for special effects.

Even more entertaining is "The War of the Worlds," Paramount's 1953 adaptation of H.G. Wells' story about invaders from Mars who turn their death ray onto Southern California. Gene Barry and Ann Robinson star; the film also picked up a special effects Oscar.

One of the best "Star Trek" movies, 1986's "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home," also from Paramount, is a romp that finds Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest of the USS Enterprise gang traveling back in time to contemporary San Francisco to extract a pair of humpback whales (extinct in the Trek era) to communicate with an alien probe that is disintegrating everything in its path on its way to Earth.

Just five years ago, Paramount released "Deep Impact," a big-budget CGI effects-filled disaster flick/soap opera that follows the lives of several people in the weeks before a big comet collides with the world. The cast includes several Oscar winners, including Robert Duvall, Vanessa Redgrave and Maximilian Schell.

Here's a look at other notable end-of-the-world sci-fi flicks:

"The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951): Robert Wise directed this intelligent antiwar film about a soft-spoken alien (Michael Rennie) who arrives in his spaceship in Washington, D.C., with a warning.

"Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" (1961): Irwin Allen was the "Master of Disaster" in the 1960s and 1970s. This dopey thriller is set aboard the world's most advanced experimental submarine. As the ship travels to the North Pole, the Van Allen radiation belt catches fire, causing Earth temperatures to rise. The sub's obsessed captain (Walter Pidgeon) changes course to the South Pacific to fire a nuclear missile into the core. Along the way, he must battle a saboteur, giant squids and an angry crew. Barbara Eden and Frankie Avalon (who sings the title tune and plays the trumpet), Joan Fontaine and Michael Ansara are also along for the ride.

"The Day the Earth Caught Fire" (1961): Val Guest directed this compelling British thriller that finds the Earth speeding toward the sun after the U.S. and the Soviet Union secretly fire nuclear devices. A London newspaper editor dispatches his science reporter and an alcoholic columnist to get to the bottom of the crisis. Janet Munro, Leo McKern and Edward Judd star.

"Crack in the World" (1965): Another import from England. Dana Andrews plays a terminally ill scientist who decides to tap the geothermal energy of the Earth's interior by detonating a thermonuclear device. The resulting fissure threatens to split the planet in two.

"The Andromeda Strain" (1971): Twenty years after he made "The Day the Earth Stood Still" director Wise returned to the sci-fi genre with this well-crafted film based on Michael Crichton's first best-seller about a group of doctors who must find a way to stop a deadly alien virus before it spreads. Arthur Hiller, David Wayne, James Olson and Kate Reid head the sturdy cast.

"Meteor" (1979): An overstuffed turkey. A group of very talented actors -- Natalie Wood, Sean Connery, Karl Malden, Trevor Howard and Martin Landau -- are trapped in this disaster of a film about an errant meteor on a collision course with Earth.

"Independence Day" (1996): Aliens arrive in giant spaceships and begin to decimate the planet in Roland Emmerich's blockbuster. Spectacular special effects and exciting action sequences almost make up for the melodramatic plotlines, cardboard characters and bad accents. Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Judd Hirsch and Mary McDonnell are among the stars.

"Armageddon" (1998): Just a few short months after "Deep Impact," Disney countered with its asteroid-on-a-collision-course-with-Earth extravaganza. The special effects are nifty, but the dialogue and characters are strictly earthbound. Bruce Willis heads the cast for director Michael Bay.

"Signs" (2002): Aliens that look like knockoffs of the Jolly Green giant arrive en masse in M. Night Shyamalan's erratic thriller. Mel Gibson is an embittered widower with two children bent on keeping his family safe.

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