Posted on Jun 11, 2017 | No Comments
Disaster Flicks

It all began when I was fourteen and my Dad took me to see The Day After Tomorrow on the big screen. On the ride home from the theater we bonded over picking apart the obvious Hollywood tropes in this massive blockbuster about an ice age hitting Manhattan. After all, The Day After Tomorrow is a prime example of the disaster movie (or “disaster flick” as my Dad would call it) formula. Features of the formula we devised include: a smart scientist as the hero, who knows what impending disaster is coming; a stupid politician who refuses to believe the smart scientist, leading to set backs in the face of certain destruction; animals going crazy and fleeing before things start picking up (let’s face it, the birds are always smarter than us prior to these events); plenty of warning signs, such as hail the size of baseballs, that everyone ignores as an anomaly; and finally, the destruction of beloved landmarks as the first sign that that the catastrophe has begun. We found it particularly funny that in the case of The Day After Tomorrow, two of the film industry’s favorite landmarks are hit: the Hollywood sign gets taken out by a massive tornado, and the Statue of Liberty is engulfed in a tidal wave. As an extension of the formula, these cataclysmic events draw out the core personality traits of the film’s subjects. The scientist decides to face his (never her) shortcomings and become the father/husband/[insert relationship here] that he always wanted to be, not to mention, the macho hero Hollywood needs. Mostly these movies are totally action packed, taking the audience from one adrenaline rush to another; or in this case, from a helicopter crash to a massive twister in LA to a tidal wave in Manhattan to a faceoff with wolves who escaped from the Central Park Zoo (because again, the animals are much smarter than us and know when to get the hell out of there).

After this movie experience, disaster flicks became our thing. We love to make fun of them, while secretly enjoying them at the same time. The fact is that there are truths at the heart of these movies, buried beneath the blockbuster tropes. In recent years, it has become a lot harder to find humor in watching The Day After Tomorrow in particular. The message about global warming is the same as it was thirteen years ago, but in the light of current political events, it feels a lot more urgent. We realize that our politicians are making the same poor decisions that the misguided vice president does in the movie and that’s a terrifying thought. Also, I’ve noticed we are seeing less Indiana-Jones-like scientists or academics appear as the heroes of recent films, reflecting our culture’s ongoing rejection of intellectualism and scientific reason. Disaster films of the past like Dante’s Peak often featured a highly intelligent hero who understands the disaster as it unfolds. Even Titanic frames the film with a clinical explanation of the causes for the disaster to come. This can’t be said for more recent disaster flicks like San Andreas and Pompeii, which both feature a strongman character who has no idea what’s going on, but will make sure to face it with pure brute strength and courage.

Now Pompeii is a much easier disaster flick to mock. For one, the disaster itself is much further removed from our place in history, but also, this movie is just plain ridiculous. This gladiator-faces-a-volcano-disaster-movie abounds with terrible scripting and even worse acting (particularly on the part of Kiefer Sutherland who we’re inexplicably supposed to believe is Italian). That said, Pompeii excels in epic visual effects, displaying Kit Harington’s abs every chance it gets, and of course, non-stop action. One of our favorite moments was the part where a tidal wave sweeps through the city of Pompeii. The wave picks up a large ship in its current which it jams in to the city gateway effectively acting as a giant sink stopper and allowing the hero to escape. Also, there is a very realistic chariot chase scene that occurs once the volcanic eruption is in full force. There are fireballs hitting the street left and right with buildings crumbling all around them, yet nothing manages to block their path through the street for an unreasonably long stretch of time. Pure cinematic magic!

Most of all, these disaster flicks feed on dramatic irony. We as the audience all know what’s coming, putting us in a privileged position over the characters in the film. While my Dad and I watch these films primarily to enjoy picking apart the way Hollywood exploits this dramatic irony, we also recognize the principles at the center of these movies. The characters are forced to drill down to their core motives in the face of near certain death. The villains always have a corrupt value system informing their actions whether it be greed, hunger for power, or their honest belief in their own indestructability. For the heroes, the driving force is always love; they accept their fate and try to save as many people as they can. These heroes show the potential of human strength and fortitude in dire situations. Also, let’s admit it, the special effects are awesome and it’s fun to watch the Statue of Liberty turn in to a giant icicle.

The man versus nature theme has a long history in works of both literature in cinema. Exploring this theme uncovers many truths of the human experience; whether it’s the realization that eventually we all will die as in Pompeii, or that we are all members of an interconnected global community as in The Day After Tomorrow. Natural disasters play the role of a great equalizer in these films, and remind us of our own mortality, even from the privileged position of our IMAX theater seats. In re-watching The Day After Tomorrow, the irony was not lost on me that in the end, all the characters in the movie (not to mention all of the Southern US states) escape to Mexico. At the time of the film’s release, this felt like a pointed jab at American feelings of superiority over developing nations. Thirteen years later, this portentous conclusion carries an emotional weight and a greater call to introspection as our nation becomes more and more isolated. I’m reminded that even though it’s fun to watch Dennis Quaid or The Rock beat the odds, and though that may alleviate our fears for the moment, we should never let this feeling of mastery over nature make us complacent. This formula continues to reemerge because it drives at deeper themes, which have a poignancy that most standard action films rarely achieve. Maybe that’s what really keeps my Dad and I coming back time and time again.