What Disaster Movies Say About Us
We see it every summer. It’s always different, but somehow always the same. We watch in awe as the ground cracks and fissures, buildings topple in on themselves in symphonies of twisted metal, airplanes swoop, guns fire, and sweaty heroes save the day at the last minute.
Yes — it’s the blockbuster disaster movie, and it’s always around. Whether the disasters are natural, manmade, or literally from out of this world, we’ll happily come back year after year to watch them destroy our biggest cities.
A Genre as Resolute as its Characters
The disaster movie has been around for almost as long as Hollywood movies have existed, even while the fashion for other genres may wax and wane. For example, you couldn’t avoid seeing a Western in the ’60s, but these days they’re a cinematic anomaly. Even Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers couldn’t revive the genre.
Science fiction has suffered peaks and troughs, too, and it’s difficult to know if studios would consider sci-fi bankable were it not for the success of Star Wars. Even then, blockbuster sci-fi movies that don’t feature a known franchise or superheroes are a rarer beast in modern-day cinema.
The disaster movie has been around for almost as long as Hollywood movies have existed.
It makes it all the more amazing to think that disaster movies are always getting made. The 1990s may have marked the genre’s heyday with big-budget blockbusters like Independence Day, Armageddon, Deep Impact and Twister, but the disaster movie hasn’t gone away even today.
Recent years have brought us the likes of The Day After Tomorrow, San Andreas, 2012 and the Independence Day sequel. Even the ubiquitous superhero movies owe a debt to the disaster genre — those movies frequently climax with city-leveling destruction, as seen in the likes of The Avengers and Man of Steel.
The box office returns of the out-and-out disaster movie may not be what they once were — it’s tough to imagine a movie like Twister being the second-highest-grossing movie of the year these days like it was back in 1996 — but they are popular enough to make a profit and seem near enough critic-proof.
The History of the Disaster Movie
Back in the ’70s, the melodrama of Airport started this trend. It had a poor critical reception but made more than 10 times its budget at the box office. We’ve seen it more recently with the Dwayne Johnson vehicle San Andreas. It was not well-received by critics — it currently stands at a 48 percent on Rotten Tomatoes — but was Warner Bros.’ highest grossing film of 2015. It’s pretty obvious why critical maulings don’t really matter in this genre.
After all, we don’t usually go to a disaster movie for nuance or character development — we go to watch nonstop action, destruction and save-the-day heroism. Yet there has to be something in these films that captivates the audience beyond simple carnage, to keep them coming back time after time.
Perhaps, no matter when they are made, they speak to our fears and preoccupations
Is that why these movies hold such consistent appeal? Perhaps, no matter when they are made, they speak to our fears and preoccupations. Japan used the disaster movie to confront very real fears — from the apocalyptic destruction of the atomic bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II, to nuclear testing in nearby waters — with the sub-genre of kaiju, unspeakable monsters like Godzilla that wrought citywide destruction.
Japan used the disaster movie to confront very real fears.
America leaped aboard the disaster movie train, too, perhaps most famously with 1933’s King Kong, but the true blockbuster era of disaster movies started later. When the 1970s introduced the world to real-life destruction beamed straight into homes via news reports of the Vietnam War, cinema responded. Not just with anti-war epics, but disaster movies like The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure that reflected real-life disasters playing out live on the small screen, often with decidedly non-Hollywood endings.
For a populace numbed by a seemingly never-ending, unwinnable war, and unconvinced their leaders could get things right, there was undoubted relief in seeing ordinary men and women come together to prevent the kind of apocalyptic scenario the war was turning into.
It wasn’t just war, either — the ongoing energy crisis made the ruined wastelands of Mad Max resonate all the more strongly. Such preoccupations continued into the ’80s, with the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over the world like the sword of Damocles (perhaps best exemplified by the ultra-bleak, all-too-realistic British movie Threads). The ’90s soon rolled around and brought with it the end of the Cold War and new optimism across both sides of the pond.
Disaster movies could still speak to larger societal fears.
On our cinema screens, though, destruction still ruled, and advances in CGI meant that audiences could see unprecedented levels of it (if you weren’t there in ’96, you probably can’t appreciate how much of a big deal it was to see the White House destroyed by alien lasers). The fear of nuclear war may have receded, but other concerns had come to the fore — environmental issues were a growing problem and fears over the dreaded millennium bug that some thought could send society back to the dark ages meant that disaster movies could still speak to larger societal fears.
They ruled the cinematic landscape in much the same way superhero movies do now, but it wasn’t going to last forever — and it didn’t.
The Post-9/11 Disaster Movie
On September 11, 2001, two hijacked planes brought down the World Trade Center in New York City, while a third hijacked plane crashed into the Pentagon at Arlington, Virginia. And everything changed.
Understandably, American audiences were not as keen to watch their cities destroyed up on the big screen in the aftermath of witnessing something so similar in real life. Scripts were rewritten, scenes were reshot, existing films were edited, and in many cases planned movies were shelved — an adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s 1999 novel Survivor was cancelled due to a plot point revolving around the hijacking of an airplane.
Where once it made sense to have entire countries, armies, or Mother Nature wreak havoc, 9/11 proved that the enemy was much more difficult to pinpoint. It meant that disaster movies gave way to superhero movies and gritty thrillers like The Bourne Trilogy or the soft-rebooted James Bond movies. Hollywood dealt with the murky world of modern-day terrorism by providing all-American (or British, in Bond’s case) heroes winning the day against shadowy cabals or crazed, lone-wolf madmen — but even they were muted early on.
Where once it made sense to have entire countries, armies, or Mother Nature wreak havoc, 9/11 proved that the enemy was much more difficult to pinpoint.
Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man moved its action away from heavily populated civilian areas, while Metropolis remained intact throughout Superman Returns, where the Man of Steel saved the city from a throwback Lex Luthor plot involving real estate.
Compare either movie’s subdued action to the pure carnage of what preceded and followed those movies; the landmark-destroying Independence Day, the explosive third acts of almost every Marvel movie, or the rampaging destruction in Man of Steel.
That’s not to say the early 2000s saw the death rattle of disaster movies. Superheroes largely took over, but not entirely — post-9/11, the disaster movies that did actually get made simply had to do more than just offer wanton explosions for us to drool over. In 2004 Emmerich — who gleefully blew up the White House less than a decade before — justified the destruction in The Day After Tomorrow with an environmental message and got political with 2012, which also tapped into fears that the ancient Mayan civilization had successfully predicted the end of the world.
Disaster in the Modern Age
We still live in a post-9/11 world where Bond, Bourne and even Batman provide gritty, realistic takes on counterterrorism, but it seems we’re back to watching cities being gleefully destroyed at the same time. The key difference now is that where the camera used to pan away from the smoking ruins of big cities as the credits roll, it metaphorically zooms in.
Where the camera used to pan away from the smoking ruins of big cities as the credits roll, it metaphorically zooms in.
Our disaster movies (and their offshoots) are as concerned with the aftermath of the chaos as the chaos itself. Two huge superhero movies from recent years, Captain America: Civil War and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, had plots that revolved around that very thing.
There was an outcry among fans and critics at Man of Steel’s unprecedented destruction of Metropolis in its final act, so in the sort-of sequel an outraged Bruce Wayne acts as the audience’s avatar, confronting a Superman that is distrusted and feared for his potentially city-leveling powers.
Civil War, meanwhile, saw the Avengers at loggerheads over government oversight after the destruction of fictional Sokovia in the previous Avengers movie, Age of Ultron. Independence Day: Resurgence meanwhile, was an attempt to make us believe it is 1996 again.
All of this leaves us to wonder: will we ever tire of seeing all we have built get torn down? Whether our real-life preoccupations are with war, terrorism or unstoppable natural disasters, the rush of endorphins we get from viewing that destruction, getting as close as we can without actually being involved, never seems to end.
Disaster movies may get usurped at the box office, and morph and change with the times, but it looks like they will never, ever go away.
A version of this article originally appeared on Movie Pilot, including quotes from an interview with Roland Emmerich. As I did not conduct the interview myself, and do not know the name of the interviewer to credit, I have not included those quotes here.