Is There an Upside to a Disaster Movie?
Disaster movies were a dime a dozen in the 1970s. Titles like The Andromeda Strain, Airport and Earthquake were splashed all over cinema marquees. The movies sported huge casts including A-list actors of the time like James Stewart, Jack Lemmon, Olivia de Havilland, Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, Steve McQueen, William Holden, Paul Newman and Faye Dunaway. There were always multiple storylines and the trick was to guess who in the group would go first. If you were incredibly wealthy, selfish or nasty, don’t count on making it to the credits. Pets and children however usually fared better.
During the 70s, producer and director Irwin Allen was nicknamed “The Master of Disaster” thanks to his work on The Swarm, The Poseidon Adventure and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. These films helped resurrect the disaster genre and make them box office successes. More recently we’ve seen Pompeii destroyed, The Core of the Earth shut down and an ice storm engulf New York City in The Day After Tomorrow.
But destruction isn’t isolated to the disaster movie genre. Almost every big blockbuster includes some kind of mass devastation.
Nicholas Barber from The Guardian writes, “We are living, it seems, in the golden age of the disaster movie. We may call them monster movies or action movies, superhero blockbusters or ancient epics, but let’s face it: they’re all disaster movies in fancy dress. Whichever genre you think you’re paying for, it’s harder and harder to find any big-budget Hollywood entertainment that doesn’t include the demolition of a major conurbation, and a body count in the tens of thousands.”
So what’s behind the fascination with destruction?
Matthew Connolly believes “the disaster genre fulfills this basic desire to experience what we have never seen, and perhaps cannot even conceive of. It does so through the construction of spectacular and terrifying imagery…that entrance and frightens us with both its aesthetic power and it unsettling implication that what can be created on screen might one day be duplicated in reality.”
But what happens when reality collides with fiction. Shortly after an earthquake in Nepal killed over 5,000 people, a Warner Bros. spokesperson said the company was reconsidering the release date for San Andreas. In the end they decided to stick with their schedule. But Universal is facing a similar question around their movie Everest. The film tells the story of the disastrous 1996 Mount Everest expedition. In light of the 18 people killed in an avalanche sparked by the Nepal earthquake, the studio is revisiting the September release date of their film.
Yet can disaster movies do more than feed a dark obsession with destruction and a fascination with special effects?
In the movie San Andreas, Dwayne Johnson’s character herds people to the side of a building where they take cover from falling debris. Paul Giamatti’s character tells his fellow seismologists to drop, cover and hold on when their lab at Cal Tech starts shaking. Both are good advice to help survive a tremor.
While it is hard to predict what every natural or man-made disaster that might crop up, making efforts to be prepared by having some food, water and medical supplies on hand is a good thing. Having evacuation plans in place and alternative methods of communicating with family or friends is also good.
However if aliens arrive and start blasting people with intergalactic weapons, we’ll just have to hope the superheroes show up to save us.