Disaster Films

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Disaster Films


Naturally, the disaster film began by accident. When Georges Méliès (1861–1938) jammed his camera and a bus inexplicably turned into a hearse, the accidental merging of two documentary images created the spectacle of disaster. That begat films such as Collision and Shipwreck at Sea (1898). Ever since, audiences have relished the vicarious terror and awesome spectacle of films where comfort turns into catastrophe.

The disaster film is defined less by conventions and imagery than by its plot situation: a community confronts natural or supernatural annihilation. As a result, the disaster tends to overlap several more formal genres. Nonetheless, it is possible to define ten basic types—four by the nature of the threat, five by the situation, and the last by tone.


One group of disaster films features attack by creatures, from ants normal (The Naked Jungle, 1954) or abnormal (Them!, 1954) to elephants (Elephant Walk, 1954). Monsters created by nature run amok include The Giant Gila Monster (1959) and the mutants Godzilla, Mothra, Reptilicus, Gappa, and Rodan, which relived Japan's atomic nightmare. The United States's 1950s nuclear anxieties spawned more modest monsters, from the Black Lagoon, from 20,000 fathoms, and from beneath the sea. Smaller threats undercut mankind's higher link on the Great Chain of Being, most notably in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1961), but also in the second threatening group, "bully bacteria."

Seen killers—such as David Cronenberg's phallic little bleeders in Shivers (or The Parasite Murders, 1975)—are terrifying, but those unseen are worse. Anthrax (2001) anticipated North America's post-9/11 fear of chemical attack, and Wolfgang Petersen's Outbreak (1995) unleashed an ebola crisis. The television film Plague Fighters (1996) reminds us that a disaster film can also be a documentary.

Worse than terrestrial creatures, aliens frighten whether they are peaceful (The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951), malevolent (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956; 1978), or even vegetable (The Thing, 1951). Man creates his own monsters from mud (Der Golem, 1920), body parts (Frankenstein, 1931), or computer (Westworld, 1974). The monster is a primeval shapeless evil in The Quatermass Experiment (or The Creeping Unknown, 1955) and The Green Slime (1969). Ang Lee's Hulk (2003) provides a green personification of rage—a monster for our post-psychoanalytic age. These first three types overlap with the horror and science-fiction film, with their threats of dehumanization and our suppressed dark energies.

The unleashed elements can be even crueller than nature's creatures. Volcanoes have lavished lava from The Last Days of Pompeii (1908) to Deep Core (2000). Whether working with wind (The Hurricane, 1937), water (The Rains Came, 1939), both wind and water (The Perfect Storm, 2000), or quaking earth (Earthquake, 1974), these films draw moral weight from the renewal stories of Noah and Sodom and Gomorrah. Natural-disaster films remind us that our technology shrinks before the forces of nature. The communal confrontation with nature distinguishes the disaster film from the action-adventure genre that centers on individual hero and human villainy.

Disasters based on situations begin with cities destroyed (the "edifice wrecks" cycle), which shatter our urban security. From Pompeii to the terrorist attack on New York on September 11, 2001, films have imagined the destruction of our cities, which are emblems of both community and comfort. The Towering Inferno (1974) gave a modern Babel a fire on the eighty-fifth floor. In The Neptune Factor (1973) giant fish threaten an underwater living experiment. Invasion USA (1952) and Red Planet Mars (1952) annihilate America and Russia, respectively. Anti-materialist destruction is celebrated in the endings of two 1970 films, Michelangelo Antonioni's Zabriskie Point and John Boorman's Leo the Last, examples of explosive flower power. As the United States grew more city-centered, instances of urban destruction outnumbered the rural; few disaster films are set in Kansas anymore.

An alternative community is the ship of fools, where a cross-section of humanity on a micro–journey of life face disaster. Sometimes the folks are all at sea, as in the various Titanic films (1915, 1943, 1953, 1997) and A Night to Remember (1958)—or under it, as in The Abyss (1985). Or they're up in the air, as in The High and the Mighty (1954) and Airport (1969). Nor are we safe in the earth, as shown in The Core (2003). As in the nature disasters, mankind is punished for the hubris of complacency.

Survival films detail the aftermath of a disaster, as in Lifeboat (1944) and Marooned (1970). Some films begin after a war is over: Soylent Green (1973), The War Game (1967), Teenage Caveman (1958), and George Miller's Mad Max series (1979, 1981, 1985). The edifice, ship, and survival disaster types share the melodrama's focus on societal conflicts.

Similarly, the war genre edges into disaster when the film emphasizes carnage and the human conflict tends to be internecine, as in Slaughterhouse Five (1972) and the post-battle scenes in Gone with the Wind (1939). Some space war films such as The Day the Sky Exploded (1958) and The Day the World Ended (1956) visualize the disaster as Day of Judgment.

In the more general, history disaster, a doom is set in the distant past—most notably in the tradition of biblical epics, as well as films such as San Francisco (1936) and Cabiria (1914). A variation on the period disaster projects into the future, as in the Planet of the Apes series (1968–1973), When Worlds Collide (1951), Things to Come (1936, 1979), and War of the Worlds (1953, 2003, 2005). Arguably the best historical disaster film is Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957), which used the period angst of the Black Plague in the Middle Ages for an art-house meditation upon the life of honor and the dance of death.

The disaster includes—and perhaps is apotheosized as a genre by—the comic treatment. Much slapstick comedy exults in massive destruction, from Mack Sennett to Buster Keaton. The Bed-Sitting Room (1968) and A Boy and His Dog (1976) provide comic takes on nuclear apocalypse. Jim Abrahams and David Zucker sent up Airport with their Airplane! larks (1980, 1982). Woody Allen parodied the monster film in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, But Were Afraid to Ask (1972) when a giant breast threatens an isolated countryside, and in New York Stories (1989), when the hero's dead mother fills the sky, nagging. In The Big Bus (1976), the detailed parody virtually defines the conventions of the journey disaster film, in the preposterous context of a nuclear-powered bus.


Film conventions are recurring elements that distinguish works in a particular genre. They are tendencies and cross-referents, not rules. Thus, for example, notwithstanding the period disasters, dramatic immediacy prefers that films be set in the here and now. The first US film version of H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds (1952) shifted the setting from Victorian London to contemporary Los Angeles. Cornel Wilde set his survival film No Blade of Grass (1970) in London to emphasize the culture threatened by anarchy ("Keep up your Latin, David; it will stand you in good stead"). Volcano (1997) pours Pompeiian lava through the streets of modern Los Angeles. In the Sensurround Earthquake, our first tremor comes when the film shows people at a movie. In Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Cujo (1983), the attacks on women in cars played most effectively at drive-in screenings.

b. New York, New York, 12 June 1916, d. 2 November 1991

The "master of disaster" started from science. Irwin Allen wrote, produced, and directed an adaptation of Rachel Carson's The Sea around Us (1952), which won an Oscar® for best documentary feature. His documentary The Animal World (1956) featured prehistoric effects by master animator Ray Harryhausen. Oddly, Allen's The Story of Mankind (1957) marked the last collective appearance of the Marx Brothers (Groucho, Harpo, and Chico respectively played Peter Minuit, Isaac Newton, and a monk). Allen switched to fiction to direct The Lost World (1960), based on the Arthur Conan Doyle novel, which was a precursor to Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park (1997).

Allen also had a prolific career in TV. His Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea ran from 1964 to 1968 (110 episodes). Although his favorite of his TV series, The Time Tunnel (1966), folded after only thirty episodes, Allen returned with Lost in Space (83 episodes, 1965–1968), about an outer-spaced Family Robinson; Land of the Giants (51 episodes, 1967–1970); Swiss Family Robinson (20 episodes, 1975–1976); and Code Red (13 episodes, 1981–1982).

Allen is best known as the producer of the two key 1970s disaster-film prototypes. The Poseidon Adventure (1972) set the pattern: a large, famous cast, a dramatic crisis, clear moral lines, and spectacular special effects. When a luxury cruise ship capsizes in a tidal wave, the survivors struggle to reach the top (i.e., the bottom) of the vessel. Inverting the formula, in The Towering Inferno (1974), the all-star cameos struggle to get down safely from a burning skyscraper. Though it lost the Oscar® for best picture (to Godfather II, not unjustly), The Towering Inferno won Oscars® for cinematography, editing, and song ("We May Never Love Like This Again"). Allen directed the action scenes in Poseidon and Inferno, and all the scenes of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961), Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962), The Swarm (1978), and the Poseidon sequel Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979), which was symptomatically about attempts to loot the earlier success.

Addressing the inevitable tragedy in human life, Allen used expensive disaster effects to lure viewers away from TV, for which he later produced three smaller disaster films: Hanging by a Thread (1979), and Cave-In and The Night the Bridge Fell Down (both 1983). He was reportedly planning another Lost in Space movie when he died of a heart attack in 1991.


The Sea around Us (1952), The Story of Mankind (1957), The Lost World (1960), Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961), Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974), The Swarm (1978), Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979)


Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Lost World. New York: Doran, 1912.

Fox, Gardner. Jules Verne's Five Weeks in a Balloon. New York: Pyramid Books, 1962.

Leinster, Murray, and Irwin Allen. Land of the Giants. New York: Pyramid Books, 1968.

Sturgeon, Theodore. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. New York: Pyramid Books, 1961.

Maurice Yacowar

To reflect the makeup audience, disaster films usually feature a social cross-section. The disaster challenges humanity rather than the individual. The group fractures variously: the businessman will clash with the ethicist, the character who knows from experience with the theoretician, the rich with the poor, the black with the white. In Jaws (1975) the mayor in the sharkskin suit sells out safety for

business, while the noble savage Quint (Robert Shaw) spars with college man Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) until they bond over beer and wounds. In Lifeboat the key tensions are between the working-class guy (John Hodiak) and the rich bitch (Tallulah Bankhead), and between the American "family" and the outsider Germans (both the Nazi and the assimilated Schmidt/Smith). In this respect, John Ford's classic western Stagecoach (1939) is exemplary, as it afflicts various social antitheses with savage nature, as problematically embodied by the Indians, and with the dubious "blessings of civilization," represented by the puritan bigots and the crooked banker. The genre dissolves internal squabbles before a common enemy.

Often society is imaged as a besieged family. In Hitchcock's The Birds, Mitch'scold, tightfamily stretches to admit Melanie. In the last shot the caged lovebirds seem a tentative talisman against the feathered force poised around the retreating characters. In Twister (1996) the family/crew are threatened not just by flying tanker trucks and cows but by unscrupulous corporate rivals. In the isolated setting the besieged are left to their own resources, with no help from the outside.

Confirming the characters' need for self-sufficiency, the disaster film plays with ideas of religion in an irreligious age. Religious figures question their faith rather than assert it. Crackpots such as the drunken seer in The Birds recall Old Testament prophets, calling down punishment for our godless pride and corruption. The San Francisco earthquake seems prompted, at least in part, by Clark Gable's knocking down a priest played by Spencer Tracy. Rene Auberjonois's priest in The Big Bus, a doubter who gloats over God's giving him the window seat but who wants to date, is a parody of Gene Hackman's pragmatic priest in The Poseidon Adventure (1972). The disaster film's happy ending derives from the hero's intuition/experience/courage—but it is often preceded by a prayer. Absent a presiding god, the disaster characters often gamble, flipping a coin or drawing straws or cards for guidance. The Seventh Seal typically privileges the individual quest for salvation over the corrupted church.

In the disaster film the law and the learned prove as impotent as the church, as the genre reminds us of the fragility of our social institutions. A rare policeman hero in a disaster film is James Whitmore in Them!. The heroism of the cop (George Kennedy) in Earthquake is tempered by his disillusionment with the force and his suspension from it. Disaster usually includes a specialist—a scientist, professor, or an amateur such as the ornithologist in The Birds—but even their factual framework can't handle nature. Mystery dwarfs science, even when impressive new science enables the adventure, as in outer-space disasters and the underground burrowing in Deep Core. Specialists start out smug, but as the disaster's complacent characters slip from security into terror, the genre teaches old-fashioned humility.

Against all this fragmentation, the obligatory romantic subplot serves more than box-office appeal. It confronts chaos, dehumanizing antisocial individualism, and the opposite dangers of emotional excess and suppression, with the positive value of love. It signifies community renewal and generosity.

Older than the Old Testament, the disaster genre can speak pointedly to its particular time. During the Red Scare in the 1950s the favorite disaster threats were inhuman, cold monsters from outer space (representing Communists from Russia) and atomic science backfiring. With the United States divided over the Vietnam War, Hollywood generally steered clear of making war films and featured amoral cops and spies, projecting the war's moral dilemmas onto civilian genres. The disaster cycle of the 1970s made the United States the battleground that TV news depicted as elsewhere.

Armageddon (1998), in which a Texas-size asteroid threatens to wipe out Earth, demonstrates how the disaster film's conventions work in practice. Oil-driller Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) and his maverick crew are despatched to nuke the asteroid from within. Implicitly evoking Planet of the Apes, Charlton Heston's opening narration evokes cataclysm: "It happened before. It will happen again. It's just a question of time." We see digital destructions in New York City, Paris, Shanghai, then on the asteroid itself. As if Earth's annihilation wasn't a sufficient enough cause for concern, Stamper's crew clash with the more conventional NASA staff and Harry has to deal with the love affair between his daughter Grace (Liv Tyler) and his best worker, A. J. Frost (Ben Affleck). On both the personal and global levels, explosive dangers require explosive solutions, a strategy that gained momentum after 9/11. As the despairing Stamper asks God for "a little help here," A. J. rises from the presumed dead to save mankind. Stamper accepts him as his son and—despite the straw draw—sacrifices himself to restore A. J. to his Grace. Extending the allegory, of the team's two rockets, the Independence is destroyed and the Freedom survives. Religion here is subordinated to (a not unrelated) American patriotism. Apart from the asteroid, our heroes' biggest danger comes from the dilapidated Russian technology and the lunatic Red astronaut (Peter Stormare). Post–Cold War, the Russian threat is just a vodka-addled fool rather than the malevolent foe of the Cold War. In the American populist tradition, the maverick Willis, Affleck, and Steve Buscemi characters prove more humane and effective than the textbook officers. After fighting all film long, our two heroes express their mutual love at the end. The film's emotional conclusion provides a catharsis, even for the viewer not seduced by special effects.

The disaster film's commercial appeal has been strengthened by new technology's ever more special effects and surprising imagery. Yet the deeper pleasure derives from the familiarity of its human material—the characters, their challenges, their resolutions. In virtually every particular, Armageddon, this representative film draws upon the viewer's familiarity with the earlier films and legends of its type. The genre continuity facilitates the viewer's identification with the characters, intensifying both the vicarious chill at their peril and their heartening survival.

SEE ALSO Action and Adventure Films;Genre;Science Fiction


Annan, David. Catastrophe: The End in the Cinema. New York: Bounty, 1975.

Broderick, Mick. Nuclear Movies. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1988, 1991.

Dixon, Wheeler Winston. Disaster and Memory: Celebrity Culture and the Crisis of Hollywood Cinema. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Forshey, Gerald E. American Religious and Biblical Spectaculars. Westport, CT and London: Praeger, 1992.

Keane, Stephen. Disaster Movies: The Cinema of Catastrophe. London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2001.

Neale, Steven. Genre and Hollywood. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.

——, ed. Genre and Contemporary Hollywood. London: British Film Institute, 2002.

Newman, Kim. Millennium Voices: End of the World Cinema. London: Titan, 1999.

Maurice Yacowar