In disaster movies, natural disasters, accidents, and terrorist actions provide the setting for daring escapes and incredible heroism. The films rely heavily on special effects to recreate on screen the violent consequences of earthquakes, plane crashes, and meteorite storms; the category also includes monster-disaster movies in which an enraged, oversized creature destroys buildings and other large objects. It is an important part of disaster movies that in them heroic acts are performed by unlikely heroes—by people with psychological wounds, with limited experience of the things they are asked to do, and in situations where the odds against success seem impossibly high. Because these films are about averting and surviving disaster, it may be significant that disaster movies began to be produced in large numbers in the years after the horrors of World War II. If the twentieth century has seen great advances in technology, disaster movies reflect a fear that technology alone will not save us. Although their plots are often unrealistic and the acting and special effects unconvincing, they offer the message that, through self-belief and the right moral choices, people just like us have the ability to save themselves.
Disasters featured in disaster movies can be divided into three main types: natural disasters, disasters caused by technology failing or being accidentally damaged, and disasters caused by terrorism or by the recklessness of an individual or agency. The most successful disaster movies are usually the simplest, but popular disaster-based films can contain elements of one, two, or even all of these scenarios. The actual type of disaster involved is only one of many reasons for a particular film's popularity. Among other things, audiences want to know how the characters will escape with their lives, they watch for the special effects, and also for sentimental reasons; popular disaster movies almost always include a love affair developing alongside the disaster plot. When the type of disaster is significant, it is often because it reflects current or local concerns. In the 1990s, for example, perhaps cashing in on pre-millennium fears, a rash of films such as Independence Day (1996) and Deep Impact (1998) appeared, with plot lines based around threats to life on earth posed by attacks from extraterrestrials or from asteroids. Similarly, in the 1980s films such as Testament (1983) and The Day After (1983) appeared in response to the threat posed by the nuclear arms race. Because most disaster movies are made in Hollywood and Japan, it is probably no
coincidence that a large number of them feature earthquakes, tidal waves, and volcanic eruptions.
The history of disaster movies is a relatively short one. Although disasters have featured in movies from the beginning of the twentieth century, films in which the disaster is the reason for making and watching the film did not become common until the 1950s when alien invasion and monster movies were popular. Before then, disasters of various kinds had appeared in adventure films and films about war, but true disaster movies were rare. One precursor to modern monster-disaster movies such as Jurassic Park (1993) is Cooper and Schoedsack's King Kong (1933), but the film is really an exotic adventure thriller with only a small element of disaster movie action. Such extravagant special effects as were needed to make the famous scene on the Empire State Building are remarkable for their time, but it was not until the 1950s that such effects could be achieved with much regularity.
In the 1950s, advances were made in film technology that allowed filmmakers to make better use of special effects techniques pioneered in the 1930s. Many of the resulting films were a combination of science fiction and horror, but disaster was often at their heart, as titles such as When Worlds Collide (1951) and War of the Worlds (1954) suggest. It has been suggested that the new threat of nuclear destruction meant that filmmakers and audiences became concerned with global, rather than local, conflicts and many of the monster-based disaster movies of the 1950s involve mutant creatures terrorizing and destroying cities. New film techniques such as "3-D," made possible by improvements in color film, made monster movies still more thrilling as giant creatures appeared to step off the screen and into the audience. Perhaps because of the Japan's own experience of nuclear destruction the Japanese film industry has been prolific in the field of atomic monsters, its most famous being Inoshiro Honda's Godzilla, King of Monsters (1954).
In the 1960s, science fiction disaster movies and nuclear accident films remained popular in Japan, where Honda's Godzilla and other monster series continued until late in the decade. Although extra footage of well-known American actors was added to Honda's films for American distribution, disaster movies in the United States generally did less well in this period. American disaster movies in the 1950s had mostly upheld Hollywood's conservative values and, in the 1960s, the genre perhaps seemed less suitable for exploring the new moral climate than, for example, the westerns of Sam Peckinpah or the thoughtful science fiction of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was not until 1970, with the release of Airport, that disaster movies became popular again.
The Golden Age for American disaster movies was the 1970s. As Hollywood re-embraced the idea of making popular, big budget features, the disaster movie became an important format for demonstrating spectacular special effects and for drawing in audiences to watch destruction on a large scale. Exactly what appeals to audiences in watching planes crash, ships sink, trains collide, and tall buildings burn will probably never be known for sure, but films like The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974), and the Airport series gave Hollywood some of its most lucrative successes. Unlike the futuristic films of the 1950s, disaster movies in the 1970s often dealt with familiar events and situations, ones that already caused anxiety for many people. For example, the number of miles Americans travelled by air doubled between 1965 and 1970, and air travel is one of the most common themes for disaster movies of the 1970s. Similarly, at a time when many new highrise blocks were being built and planned, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen braved flames and smoke to rescue people from a party on the top floor of "the tallest building in the world" in John Guillermin's The Towering Inferno.
While the special effects in films like The Towering Inferno are impressive for their time, as with many disaster movies the biggest challenge its makers faced was to prevent the record-breaking skyscraper—the "Tower of Glass"—from looking like a model. In the 1990s the situation has been helped by improvements in digital technology and, in particular since the late 1980s, the ability to mix live action with what are known as Computer Generated Images (CGI). CGI has become widely used in the production of many kinds of films, but it is used most spectacularly in disaster movies which, in the 1990s, have become much more realistic in terms of sound and vision. The turning point in the relationship between conventional filmmaking and CGI was James Cameron's deep-sea disaster movie The Abyss (1989). The plot of Cameron's film peripherally involves a research team working on the edge of a deep ocean trench, whose seabed living quarters seem certain to be dragged down into the abyss. The discovery of friendly aliens living at the bottom of the trench allows the opportunity for some impressive effects, such as a suspended column of seawater known as a "pseudopod," exploring the corridors of the deep-sea craft. Cameron used CGI and improved digital sound technology to excellent effect in his 1997 disaster film Titanic, creating convincing footage of the great ship's final hours. Director Steven Spielberg used similar techniques to bring dinosaurs back to life in Jurassic Park (1993) and the more overtly disaster-based The Lost World (1997).
Disaster movies have a tendency to take themselves too seriously and if improvements in special effects mean that comical visual effects are rarer in the 1990s, disaster movie plots have improved very little. Emotions are still crudely acted and contrived situations—such as the appearance of a dinosaur in San Diego in Spielberg's The Lost World —still challenge audiences to believe. Because of these weaknesses and responding to the popularity of disaster movies in the 1970s, parodies of disaster movies have also proved popular. In particular, the Airport series of films, the last of which appeared in 1979, was parodied in 1980 by Airplane!, a film advertised with the tag-line "What's slower than a speeding bullet, and able to hit tall buildings in a single bound?" The film spoofs the typical disaster movie plot when a pilot who is afraid of flying becomes the only person capable of flying the plane, while the score by Elmer Bernstein parodies the melodramatic music that accompanies all popular disaster movies.
While disaster movies have tended to be made as fictional entertainment, other categories of disaster movie have taken a more serious approach. There are films based on the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Mount St. Helens volcanic eruptions, while others, such as the many Titanic disaster films, add a fictional or semi-fictional dramatic element to the real-life story. Still others, such as the British-made semi-documentary Threads (1985), mix documentary reporting with dramatization to make a serious point, in this case about the threat of nuclear war and its long-term effects. Whatever the reason for their appeal, in the 1990s disaster movies continue to be produced in large numbers and with great commercial success. Hard-core disaster movie fans will argue that they watch for the scenes of destruction and to revel in the special effects, but the importance of even a basic human story unfolding alongside the disaster suggests that their popularity has as much to do with sentiment as with spectacle.
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