We can thank God for the disaster movie. In His Old Testament wrath lie the blueprints of the form – the stories that have put millions in the Hollywood Bank of Death and Destruction. Where would the movies be without the Great Flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah or Luke, 21:11:
‘And great earthquakes shall be in divers places, and famines, and pestilences; And fearful sights and great signs shall there be from heaven.’
In Deepwater Horizon (spoiler ahead), Mark Wahlberg and Kurt Russell kneel and pray with the other survivors of the burning drilling rig, after fire and corporate greed have taken their toll in the Gulf of Mexico. The film is based on a true story, the 2010 explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. The accident killed 11 workers and led to the largest oil spill so far in American waters.
The prayer at the end is unusual. Most disaster movies don’t get that explicit about their godliness, but it’s there if you dig around in the sub-text in many of them. Titanic isn’t about the iceberg; it’s about punishment for hubris, because the men who designed and built it thought they had made a ship that ’even God couldn’t sink’. Big mistake.
Titanic is mostly a natural disaster film: the icebergs are always there for the unwary to run into. Deepwater Horizon is the other kind – a man-made disaster film. There are hundreds of these, with only one thing in common – human stupidity. In Deepwater Horizon, the greed of BP executives, led by John Malkovich, causes the rig to explode. He pushes Kurt Russell to get the floating rig moving to its next location before the cement foundations around the well have dried. This is extremely dumb given that Malkovich’s character is still on board.
The range of human frailty gives the man-made disaster film ultimate flexibility. We keep coming up with new ways to stuff things up, so there is an inexhaustible supply of scenarios. Another in the ‘greedy and stupid capitalist’ division of this genre would be The Towering Inferno (1974) from the Master of Disaster himself, Irwin (Poseidon Adventure) Allen. Paul Newman, as an architect, specifies some very high quality nuts and bolts for the building, but the contractor skimps, which allows the fire to get started. This is no doubt the favourite disaster film of all quantity surveyors. Fears about genetic engineering gave us Deep Blue Sea (1999), in which two scientists re-engineer the brains of Mako sharks, trying to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Instead they create a form of super shark that’s faster and more dangerous than the original.
Sharks are a good feature for any disaster movie. If you can’t get people in the water, you can always bring the sharks to the people, as in Sharknado (2013), in which a freak waterspout dumps a load of sharks on a flooded Los Angeles. You don’t need a bigger boat in this movie: you’re not even safe in a helicopter.
Freak storms are becoming more popular, as global warming affects our weather. In The Day After Tomorrow (2012), the debate about climate change is front and centre, when a paleo-climatologist played by Dennis Quaid fails to convince the US Vice-president that it’s not just real, but accelerating. A new ice-age follows on cue, and New York City becomes a wintry nightmare, with roaming packs of wolves. The supreme irony is that the American president has to ask Mexico to allow millions of Americans to cross its border, to escape the cold. Luckily they had not yet built Donald Trump’s wall.
Australia has played its part – mainly as a good place in which to film the end of the world. Neville Shute’s 1957 novel On The Beach depicted the aftermath of a nuclear war in the northern hemisphere. In the 1959 film, made by Stanley Kramer in Melbourne, Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner, Anthony Perkins and Fred Astaire wander around Melbourne waiting to die from the approaching radiation cloud. Meanwhile, they drink and fall in love. The original Mad Max (1979), also made around Melbourne, posits a post-apocalyptic world in which petrol has become the most precious commodity, worth killing for. Is there something about Melbourne?
Almost all post-apocalyptic films are man-made disaster movies. The Terminator posits a catastrophic global conflict that has yet to happen. It’s already happened in the various Planets of the Apes films, the 28 Days and Weeks films, the Escape from New York and Los Angeles films and Waterworld – which was its own kind of disaster, in terms of box office versus cost of production. The new kids on the block, the Hunger Games franchise and the less successful Divergent series, are about girls trying to cope with worlds ruined by men. Cormack McCarthy’s The Road became a nightmarish journey in the hands of expat Australian director John Hillcoat, as a father and son try to outrun what’s left of the human race after an apocalypse. Even when we don’t know what caused it, the apocalypse is always our own fault.
This end of the man-made disaster film spectrum comes full circle back to the Bible, where apocalypse is the result of straying from God’s path or law. In the silent film era, this was regularly filmed as spectacle, by the likes of Cecil B DeMille, who knew the value of sin. In The Sign of the Cross (1928), naked ladies cavort before DeMille burns Rome while Nero fiddles (actually it was a lyre). Biblical disasters/epics went out of fashion in the 1960’s, but they are well and truly back, in the new version of Ben Hur, Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, and Darren Aronofsky’s Noah – both from 2014.
The appeal of the disaster movie, man-made or natural, is that it reaffirms life – which is somewhat paradoxical. Like comedy, a disaster film is built on other people’s misfortune. Watching someone fall in a hole in the road is only funny if it’s not you. When you make it bigger – a whole city falling into a hole – it moves from comedy to tragedy, but still with a reassuring sigh: I’m still here. Disaster stories feel good, as long as you’re not in one.
It’s true that the genre has returned strongly since 9/11. The world seems a much more dangerous place and movies sell that fear back to us in a number of ways, one of which is the disaster movie. A film like Deepwater Horizon can thus become reassuring, as well as horrifying: it wasn’t terrorism that caused it, but venality. It was really a mistake, not something evil and deliberate.
At bottom, most of the man-made disaster films contain a message about preservation of the planet. They’re full of easy ecology lessons for young minds. Don’t mess around with nuclear power, the climate, genetic experiments or even super computers (Fail Safe, WarGames) unless you want trouble. God will punish you and if he doesn’t, Mother Nature will. The ideas have not changed that much since The Bible, except that we blame ourselves now, rather more than Providence.
Top Five Man-Made Disaster films
(click title to see trailer)
The Towering Inferno
Irwin Allen’s skyscraper on fire has it all: huge star power with Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway and William Holden; stunning spectacle, even with the limitation of 1974 visual effects. Large amounts of courage and stupidity.
A leaky valve causes an explosion that disables an American spacecraft on its way back from the moon. It becomes an exercise in human ingenuity and hope, based on a true story. And it has Tom Hanks and Kevin Bacon, so you know it’s good.
Starting with a Pulitzer-prize winning book is a good idea, if you have the nerve. John Hillcoat’s version of a chilling book is masterful, with Viggo Mortensen and Aussie kid Kodi Smit-McPhee trudging across a threatening landscape.
Even if James Cameron did borrow from all the earlier versions, he pulled off a major transformation in the idea of what was now possible with CGI and a true story. Horrific effects, great casting, superb recreation of the ship.
from Alfonso Cuaron, based on PD James’s book. A young woman falls pregnant 18 years after the human race has become infertile. Clive Owen has to protect her. Gripping, terrifying, sobering.