Why Hollywood still loves to court disaster

Severus (Jared Harris) and Aurelia (Carrie-Anne Moss).
Severus (Jared Harris) and Aurelia (Carrie-Anne Moss).
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It’s back, but can the disaster movie ever be anything other than an excuse to bump off stereotypes in inventive fashion? asks Film Critic Tony Earnshaw.

The history of modern cinema can be charted via the phenomenon of the disaster movie.

From Deluge in the 1930s to Gravity in the 21st century the building blocks of the disaster movie have solidified the foundations of what audiences expect to see on screen.

And for generations the appeal of mankind in peril has held a timeless appeal. The elements are constant and rarely alter: take a selection of stereotypes, place them in jeopardy and then, over the course of the movie, whittle them down in unusual ways until only a handful remain.

What’s more the notion can be applied to almost every genre. From the generals’ hubris on the Western Front to sci-fi and horror, to natural and man-made catastrophes to interstellar dramas involving planet-sized asteroids on a path of destruction. The disaster film dominates the movies. And it shows no sign of losing its allure. This week Vesuvius wipes out Roman patricians and slaves alike in Pompeii. And just a month ago it was the mighty hand of God that temporarily drowned His creation in Noah.

There is a natural cinematic link between biblical epics and man-made or natural disaster. Early disaster flicks focused on the natural world: floods, earthquakes, volcanoes. Occasionally there was a historical aspect, such as the destruction of Pompeii. Krakatoa – East of Java was arguably the biggest disaster film of the 1960s. Again it focused on the natural world. The effects were large-scale and, for their time, eye-popping.

Fifties Hollywood tackled disaster under different themes and in different genres. The Rains of Ranchipur won an Oscar for its special effects but the finale – the rains wash away a city – is wrapped up in a CinemaScope romance between a married woman and an Indian doctor.

The finale was the best part of the film but it was just that: a finale. The disaster did not form the core of the film. That would come a decade or more later. In the 1950s it was de rigueur for Hollywood to focus on homeland paranoia over Communist infiltration and the risk of the Red Menace. All too often this was wrapped up in a sci-fi movie: Commies were dressed up as invaders from beyond the stars.

Also fed into this obsessive fear was the very real threat of nuclear destruction. The disaster movies of the 1950s were often based around irradiated monsters such as the giant ants of Them! Who could blame ordinary Americans for thinking household bugs could be their next foe if Mother Russia dropped the bomb? The genre limped on via dramas about plane crashes – such as the 
all-star The Flight of the Phoenix in 1966 – and the occasional real-life drama like Krakatoa.

The producer Irwin Allen invented the disaster movie as we know it. Big stars, big drama and disaster on an 
epic scale. Think fire in a high-rise building that the fire crews can’t fight effectively. Think tidal wave, upside-down liner and a group of survivors battling their way 
to safety. Think an earthquake laying waste to San Francisco.

Twenty-five years later it would be a volcano laying waste to Los Angeles. The central elements don’t change. Allen made his debut with The Poseidon Adventure.

All the stereotypes are there: the priest who has lost his faith, the older man and the younger woman, the peculiar bachelor, the irritating kids, the company man who won’t listen to the experts, the loved-up older couple.

It was fun to see how quickly they adapted to circumstances, and how easily the preacher stepped up as leader.

It’s a film created from building blocks: everything is artificially constructed and telegraphed well in advance. It was a remarkably simple story that is now seen as cheesy and trite.

In 1972 it was a wholly new concept with the biggest new star of the period, Gene Hackman. And when it worked Allen followed up with another project about a high-rise fire.

Arguably the daddy of all disaster movies, The Towering Inferno was a massive blockbuster that attracted a massive cast. The leads were Steve McQueen and Paul Newman.

Then there was the list of potential victims: William Holden, Robert Vaughan, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones, Robert Wagner, OJ Simpson... Who would live and who would die? The Towering Inferno was a smash that paved the way for several more in similar vein.

Allen went for fire, water, earthquakes, bees and volcanoes. It was the natural world. But audiences’ tastes are cyclical and by 1980 when Paul Newman raced against lava in When Time Ran Out the mood had changed. Time had indeed run out for the genre.

The 80s didn’t go for the disaster movie but the 90s did. By then effects technology had moved on to allow filmmakers to move beyond Allen’s limited scope. Hollywood gave us spoofs like Airplane! or pseudo disaster films like The Terminator.

So audiences had Volcano and Dante’s Peak. Alive. Twister. Deep Impact and Armageddon. Air Force One. The Day After Tomorrow. Speed. Independence Day. Arguably the biggest of the lot was Titanic – a disaster movie with a big finale wrapped up in a romance.

Modern movies have seen an evolution of the disaster film. In Snakes on a Plane the genre mocked itself. And in Gravity special effects and 3D, perhaps for the first time, are used as a tool to support the rudimentary storyline. The movie plausibly presents a disaster in space from a very human perspective.

And in the end it should all come down to humanity.

Pompeii (PG) is on saturation release.