Disaster movies are getting relentlessly predictable. Parvathi Nayar on why a well-told story is integral to success
Roland Emmerich's 2012 is actually a quiz disguised as a movie. It's a test of how attuned your disaster-meter is, to its references to other disaster movies. The rapid-fire Q & A would go something like this: Large ship flipped over? The Poseidon Adventure (1972). Giant killer wave? Deep Impact (1998). Erupting volcanoes? Dante's Peak (1997). The earth's core collapsing? The Core (2003). Earth in peril from the sun? Sunshine (2007). The unlikeliest protagonists to live through cataclysmic end-of-world disaster? The Day After Tomorrow (2004).
And on and on.
The Golden Age
The last-mentioned film, along with Independence Day and 2012, crowns Emmerich as the King of Disaster, in more ways than one. Which is not to be sniffy about disaster films. The Poseidon Adventure — the original Gene Hackman starrer — was a visceral experience, for instance, as were many disaster movies from the 70s. That era was quite the Golden Age of the disaster movie. Airport (1970), with a starry cast headed by Burt Lancaster, earned over US$45 million at the box office, and paved the way for other critically and commercially acclaimed disasters: The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake (1974) and The Towering Inferno (1974).
The huge revival of the genre from the mid-1990s was largely thanks to the advances made by computer graphics. Yet, even as CGI evolves, its inherently problematic relationship with disaster films becomes more apparent — i.e., there is no sense of danger left in the film.
The viewer knows that everything from volcanoes spewing lava to swathes of humanity being decimated by tsunamis is achieved by the clicks of a computer technician's skilled hands. The disaster movies of the 70s had way more edge-of-your-seat tension. Sure, the stuntmen were the ones doing the leaping and jumping, but there was a physical reality to the film that was effective.
Moreover, the dreaded “F” word — Formulaic — has crept into the scripting of recent disaster films that are variations on the theme of how a small group of unlikely heroes with personal problems battle cataclysm. Overall, more is invested in the resolution of the personal problem — irresponsible fathers, estranged lovers — than in the fact of the world collapsing round them. With an eye on multiple-hankie movie events, an animal of some sort is involved in the unfolding disaster, and it's a surefire bet that the animal will survive.
The disaster, to be fair, is not just limited to over-bloated special effects and paper-thin characters. We have the obligatory destruction of iconic monuments; meteors and shifting tectonic plates all prove to be startlingly aware of how to make their presence felt near the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower. Also obligatory are crowd scenes where people run and scream in orchestrated chaos.
While there are many subgenres to choose from — threatened airplanes, nuclear disasters, alien invasions, mutating viruses — topicality helps. Climate change being a top-of-the-mind topic these days, weather-related disaster flicks such as the ho-hum Day After Tomorrow have done well.
Scale is another factor. Large canvas disasters such as 2012 are often predicated on obscure doomsday predictions, preferably by the Mayans, who are currently more fashionable than Nostradamus. Not that smaller scale is any the less effective. One of the seminal disaster movies of all time, The Towering Inferno, dealt with fire threatening a single building — even if it was the tallest in the world.
Disaster movies such as The Towering Inferno have found a wide audience; in fact, Hollywood's all-time top box office earner is James Cameron's 1997 version of a maritime disaster. The Titanic on celluloid proved to be an unsinkable ship, earning over US$1.8 billion and 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Hype aside, the film had several things going for it — not the least, Cameron's essential ability to tell a good story.
At the end of the day, nothing beats the well-told story, which in the disaster genre, ought to offer suspense and thrills, surprise at how events unfold, inherent danger in who will live and who will die. But recent disaster movies such as 2012 have been relentlessly predictable. And even Emmerich seems to have had enough; “I think it's enough for disaster movies for now,” he is quoted as telling the German Press Agency dpa. It would seem the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty can take a well-earned break — well, at least till the next disaster.