'The Road" opens with the sound of explosions and the vision of a fire that obliterates the sky. Is it a nuclear holocaust? Planetwide environmental disaster? Rogue comet? The thing about the post-apocalyptic wasteland in the film, which opens Nov. 25, is that whatever turned Earth into a pestilential wasteland is never really specified.

So, as a father and son (played by Viggo Mortensen and newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee) make their way across a bombed-out landscape, trying to avoid cannibals, thieves and other subhuman life-forms, "The Road" mirrors the concerns of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Cormac McCarthy novel on which it is based: What is important isn't why things happened, but what happens afterward. And how the bond between a father and son can triumph over adversity.

An extreme environment like the one in the movie "is a projection of our worst fears," says "The Road" director John Hillcoat. "In a way, as individuals we face that day when we have to leave this world, and it's a projection of that fear on a global scale. It also brings out the best and worst in humans. How do you hang onto humanity?"

"The Road" is not the only film to ask this question. In fact, apocalyptic fantasies seem to be all the rage these days. The animated feature "9," released last summer, is about a group of automatons dealing with an Earth in which humans have died off. "2012," opening Friday, is a cosmic disaster flick based on Mayan prophecy that alleges the world will end on Dec. 21, 2012. And "The Book of Eli," opening in January, stars Denzel Washington as a hero who carries a book that could save a post-apocalyptic society.

This fascination with total destruction is because "we're all prophets of doom," says James Berger, author of "After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse." "In part, it has to do with our relation to our mortality," he adds. "There is also this total critique of the world as it is, the corruption of society is so tremendous, it can't be reformed. There is the perverse pleasure of seeing it go down. It's done, it's cooked, stick a fork in it."

These films are about "our lack of control over our own destiny - our fear that larger forces are at work that we know nothing about or that we have no say in," adds critic Marshall Fine of Hollywood

andFine.com "It's the issue of control - that we want it and, for whatever reason, suddenly find out we don't have it."

 

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In the beginning

Not that this is anything new. The concept of the apocalypse has been with us since biblical times - the Book of Revelations, anyone? - but really picked up speed beginning in the late 19th century, when writers like H.G. Wells began to explore the negative consequences of the industrial revolution. Then World War I, with its mass slaughter, only made these fears more palpable.

"The advent of new military technologies made war brutal and grotesque in new and overwhelming ways," Berger says. "It was hugely destabilizing."

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But then came the nuclear age, and the idea of total global destruction became a reality. Add in environmental-, biological- and terrorism-related concerns, and you get the perfect cocktail of paranoid, or maybe not so paranoid, fears.

"You don't have to be a scientist to know that if we don't change our ways, the end of the world is here," says Harald Kloser, co-writer and producer of "2012." "The end of the world is not a fiction if we don't change real soon. And the question is, have we passed the point of no return?"

 

Things that came on screen

Hollywood, never afraid to plug into the zeitgeist, picked up on the End Times mentality pretty quickly. The 1936 film "Things to Come," written by Wells, pictures a prenuclear world destroyed by a catastrophic war. Pictures like "Panic in Year Zero" (1962) and "On the Beach" (1959) dealt with the aftermath of nuclear terror. "Silent Running" (1972) and "The Omega Man" (1971 - remade in 2007 as "I Am Legend") channeled environmental and biological fears. And "The Road Warrior" (1981), probably the best of the end-of-the-world films, dealt with nuclear war, political paralysis and a post-apocalyptic fight over resources (in this case, oil) that seemed all too real.

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"There's always something that's scaring people, which can be used as an overlay on movies with a disaster or threat at their center," Fine says. "Communism, nuclear war, terrorism, global warming - there are plenty of things that have [made] or will make us worry about the world coming to an end that movies can exploit to make a buck."

If anything, "The Road" takes this genre and gives it a new twist, since it is so intimate and character driven. In fact, Hillcoat says two non-apocalyptic movies served as a sort of template for the film: the 1948 Italian film "Bicycle Thieves," about a desperate father searching for the stolen bike that is his source of income, because " are starving and trying to survive, and the father's morals start to slide"; and the 1940 feature "The Grapes of Wrath," in which farmers are driven from Oklahoma by drought, since it involves "a complete sort of breakdown, and the people are on the road, and there are apocalyptic overtones."

No matter what the source material they refer to, however, it seems apocalyptic films are not going away. And that's because the fears they plug into will always be with us - especially in a post-9/11 world.

"There is an undercurrent of the possibility of an apocalypse happening that makes these movies go deep emotionally," says Kloser. "That's why people are drawn to destruction; it connects them with their deepest inner fear."

 

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APOCALYPSE THEN: 6 classic doomsday movies

Interested in wallowing in End Time scenarios? Here are a few of the best.

Planet of the Apes (1968) - A war between humans and simians ends with the apes ruling the planet. One of the most famous, and best, sci-fi movies ever, with a muscular lead performance by Charlton Heston and a truly memorable last scene.

The Omega Man (1971) - Heston again, seemingly the only human in a post-apocalypse L.A., which has been devastated by germ warfare and is ravaged by night-stalking mutants. Remade in 2007 as "I Am Legend," with Will Smith.

Silent Running (1972) - Earth's last plant and animal life has been preserved on a spaceship. When the order comes to destroy the ship, a renegade scientist murders the rest of the crew and, with the help of several robots, plots to keep the natural world alive. Bruce Dern gives a totally compelling performance in the lead role.

The Road Warrior (1981) - Hands down the best film in the genre, featuring pedal-to-the-metal direction, groundbreaking costume design and an impossibly young Mel Gibson. Set in the Aussie Outback, it's all about a post-apocalyptic world in which various groups are fighting for the most precious resource of all, oil. And let's not forget that great villain, the Lord Humungus, the "Ayatollah of rock 'n' rolla."

The Day After (1983) - A made-for-TV movie about what happens in Lawrence, Kan., after a nuclear war between NATO forces and the Warsaw Pact. Concentrates more on the human element, which makes the film even more provocative and emotionally compelling. With Jason Robards, JoBeth Williams and John Lithgow.

28 Days Later (2002) - A mysterious virus originally spread by chimpanzees devastates the United Kingdom. When protagonist Cillian Murphy wakes up after 28 days in a coma, he discovers a world where humans have practically disappeared, and zombielike humans have taken over the streets. - LEWIS BEALE