Apocalyptic Cinema – Making Disasters Entertaining in Movies

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One thing that we often see in human nature are destructive impulses; or to be more specific, we all like to see something get destroyed.  Whether it is a benign thing like blowing down a house of cards or something more extreme like an implosion of a building, we just enjoy watching something that was built up be taken down.  Hell, we even do it to each other through schadenfreude; whether it’s in politics like the Anthony Wiener scandal, or the rise and fall of a Hollywood star like Lindsey Lohan.  Our culture seems to relish destruction as a part of entertainment.  I don’t necessarily find this to be a bad thing, as long as it doesn’t get out of hand.  And that’s usually what we find in a lot of movies as well.  Disaster films have been a staple of movie-making for generations, but in recent years, we’ve seen visual effects work become sophisticated enough to the point where destruction looks authentic enough to be believable.  But, when we start to see movies become ever more comfortable showing widespread destruction as a part of their storytelling, there starts to be a question about where the line must be drawn.  Is it right for us to feel entertained when we see things like the White House or the Capitol Building being destroyed?  How about the entire world?  In this article, I will look at the highs and lows of disaster film-making and how the audiences reactions to them reveal the extremes to which people want to be entertained.
A lot of the reason why Disaster films exist is because they are a great showcase for special effects.  Going all the way back to the silent era, we’ve seen filmmakers use primitive but successful effects work to create larger than life destruction.  You could even look at some of the early Biblical epics like Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 version of The Ten Commandments as early examples of a disaster movie.  The film had a moral message yes, but there were many audience members I’m sure who saw the film just because they wanted to see the grandiose destruction caused by the ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea.  As special effects have become more sophisticated, so has there been an increase in disaster movies.  Soon films were crafted around some of the most famous disasters in history, like In Old Chicago (1937), which depicted the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, or San Francisco (1938), dramatizing the famous 1906 earthquake.  It wasn’t until the 1970’s, however, when Disaster films could be declared a genre all to itself.  In that period, we saw a glut of disaster related movies made specifically for the purpose of being epic, star-studded extravaganzas, with the latest is special effects work on display.  These films included Earthquake (1974), starring Charlton Heston; The Poseidon Adventure (1971), with Gene Hackman and Ernest Borgnine; and The Towering Inferno (1974), with Paul Newman and Steve McQueen, just to name a few.
The rise of the disaster movie genre in the 70’s began to die down in the 80’s, mainly due to the rise of Science Fiction and Fantasy films as a showcase for effects work, but the genre lived on as it began to evolve.  In the 1990’s, we saw the emergence of a filmmaker who would go on to not only redefine the genre, but make it all his own.  This filmmaker was German born director Roland Emmerich, and over the course of his career, you can see that nearly 80% of his filmography is made up of disaster movies.  The movie that put him on the map in the film industry was a film that actually redefined two genres in one, and that was 1996’s Independence Day.  The movie was essentially an alien invasion narrative, but what Roland Emmerich did was to use the techniques utilized in popular disaster films as a means to make the destruction caused by the aliens look and feel as real as possible.  In the movie, we see catastrophic explosions engulf entire cities, destroying landmarks before our very eyes, including the White House itself.  This was a film that not only drew upon our greatest fears of total annihilation, but it also made it feel completely real.  Independence Day was a phenomenal success when it premiered, and it made the disaster genre a force to be reckoned with.  As for Emmerich, he has stuck mostly with the genre that had made him a player in Hollywood, with mixed results, with successful but ludicrous films like Godzilla (1998), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), and 2012 (2009) all falling into that same mold as Independence Day.
But, what was interesting about the success of Independence Day was that it revealed something about how we react to seeing destruction on film.  In the movie, famous landmarks like the Empire State Building are blown to pieces and thousands of people are destroyed in seconds before our very eyes.  And this is what we consider entertaining?  Maybe entertaining isn’t the right word.  I think movies like Independence Day do well because it allows us to face our fears and indulge that sinking feeling of helplessness.  It’s not so much the scenes of destruction themselves that we find so entertaining, but the framework around them.  While watching a disaster movie, we need to feel the impact of the destruction, and that’s why so many disaster films have to finish with a happy ending.  In Independence Day, the colossal destruction closes the first act of the film.  The rest of the movie details how humankind copes with the aftermath, and how they fight off the invaders despite the odds against them.  You have to go through a lot of darkness before you can appreciate the light at the end of the tunnel, and that’s what has defined the best films in the genre.  If a film takes a bleak outlook and doesn’t give the movie a satisfying resolution, then it’s going to fail.  This has been the case with other disaster films, like 2009’s Knowing, which leaves everyone dead and earth uninhabitable at the end; sorry to spoil it for you.  Even the laughable 2012 left room for some hope for humanity, and not surprisingly, it did much better.
Disaster films have to thrive on that feeling of hope.  We become enthralled when we see something grand get destroyed, but it’s what rises from the ashes that makes us feel grateful in the end.  That’s why we enjoy watching controlled demolitions; old buildings must come down in order to make way for something better.  That’s helps us to understand why we accept destruction as entertainment.  Many films skirt that line very often, but the way a disaster film can get the audience on its side is through the characters.  Characters in disaster movies must be likable and easy to identify with.  It also helps if they are not thinly drawn stereotypes as well, but fully defined people.  Emmerich’s films have tended to have lackluster characters, which is why casting makes a difference in his movies, and other ones like them.  Independence Day worked well because you had charismatic performances from actors like Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith, who helped to balance the film out by creating characters you wanted to root for.  Other disaster films tend to miscast their roles, making their characters’ story-lines a little more hard to swallow.  Case in point, John Cusack in 2012.  Cusack is a fine actor when a movie calls for it, but when your character is a mild-mannered author who somehow is able to outrun the eruption of a Supervolcano; that I have a hard time buying.  Now it’s difficult to say that a character needs to believable in a movie centered around a fictional disaster, but sometimes it does matter.  Likability of the characters is what separates the good disaster films from the bad ones, and unfortunately that’s something you rarely see work effectively.
For the most part, disaster films exist because they are showcases for the newest techniques in special effects.  The human element in the films are crucial, but they do play a lesser part in the creation of the movies as a whole.  But, when the balance of these films aren’t settled in the right way, then they do run the risk of seeming either lackluster or worse, exploitative.  This was an issue in Hollywood in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks in New York City, where we saw a level of destruction in real life that we could only comprehend in movies before.  Soon after, the Independence Day style destruction of city-scapes in movies stopped for a while, because that imagery became all too real for us and seeing it on the big screen afterwards would’ve been seen as insensitive.  Now that time has passed, we are seeing that kind of destruction depicted again, but it took a while for us to get there.  What I think makes audiences understand the level of acceptability in disaster imagery is the balance between the level of destruction in the movie and how it functions within the narrative.
Even though it came out months before 9/11, I think that the Michael Bay film Pearl Harbor (2001) feel into that unacceptable exploitation category because it didn’t find that right balance.  In the movie, the famous attack is depicted in gruesome detail, but it lacks any resonance because it is just the backdrop to a rather lackluster love triangle plot.  A lot more respect could have been paid to the real men and woman who died on that day instead of having everything hinge on fictional characters that we care so little about.  Pearl Harbor felt more like a shallow Hollywood attempt to exploit a tragedy for the purpose of creating a film that showcased impressive production values and matinee idol stars.  In other words, it was a movie driven more by marketing than actually informing audiences about the real event.  If you don’t find that right balance in a disaster movie, than your film will not be believable, as was the case here.  Pearl Harbor failed as a movie mainly because it knew what it wanted to be, but the filmmakers didn’t know how to make it work.  They were trying to follow in the footsteps of what has ultimately been the only disaster film to date to ever win the Academy Award for Best Picture; that being director James Cameron’s Titanic (1997).  The reason why Titanic worked and Pearl Harbor didn’t was because it had a balance to it.  The love story at the center of Titanic, while not the most engrossing, did keep the narrative moving and it did endear the characters involved to the audience before the pivotal event happens.  Also, James Cameron put so much detail into the recreation of the ship’s sinking, and every moment of that is well executed on screen. No shaky cam or needless destruction is present in the climatic moments of the movie.  It works because the film was, dare I say, respectful to the actual disaster and to the victims of the event as well.
Making disaster movies thoughtful turns out to have been a secret to the genre’s success.  Going back to my example film once again, Independence Day, we see that the film works despite it’s more ludicrous moments by actually having characters work out logical answers to their dilemmas. It’s not enough to have the characters just move from one disaster to another without explanation, like in 2012   Or to have our characters helplessly standby as the world crumbles around them and inject stale philosophical points about why it all has happened, like in The Day After Tomorrow.  We want to see our characters be problem solvers and actually deal with the apocalypse like its something they can come back from.  That’s why, despite it’s many flaws, Independence Day succeeds.  Mankind coming together to help “Take those sons of bitches down,” is an ultimately inspiring thing.  Whether it’s against nature, or the extraterrestrial, or against our own selves, we enjoy watching characters pull themselves out of a struggle.  That’s why I think World War Z succeeded this year, despite all the naysayers who predicted it would fail (myself included).  The movie looked like another exploitative take on the zombie sub-genre, but the finished film was a more thoughtful examination about how the survivors of the catastrophe try to deal with the problem and learn to survive.  Sometimes it helps to treat your audience to a more thoughtful story about survival, rather than just destruction.
Disaster films will always be around as long as there is an audience for them.  And as long as filmmakers actually treat its audiences’ intelligence levels more respectfully, then we’ll also see the Disaster genre gain more respectability in the film community.  I like the fact that Disaster films have become such an acceptable part of cinematic history, that it’s now commonplace to spoof it as well.  This summer, we got not one, but two comedies centered around apocalyptic events: Seth Rogen’s This is the End and Edgar Wright’s The World’s End.  Both films are hilarious takes on the genre, but they both know what makes a good disaster film work in the end and they exploit those elements perfectly.  It comes down to characters you want to root for and wanting to see them overcome even the complete destruction of society as we know it.  Even though the film’s are played for laughs, the same basic elements hold true and the filmmakers who made them know that. Overall, destruction becomes entertainment because we look forward to the process of renewal.  Disaster movies fail if they indulge too heavily in the destructive parts or leave the audience with no satisfying resolution.  It’s human nature to enjoy seeing something blow up, but we also enjoy seeing something good rise out of the rubble of the destruction, and in the end, that’s why we enjoy good a disaster movie.

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