Every blockbuster wants to destroy the world. We explore where that impulse comes from.
Human beings are funny creatures. Summer after summer, year after year, we fork over countless dollars to catch the latest iteration of an ancient story: the sky is falling; the Earth is dying; bring on the end of the world. It’s the season of the disaster film. Of course, all fiction thrives on conflict and calamity, in part because storytelling allows us to live out our nightmares without cost or consequence. But there’s something undeniably odd about the impulse toward apocalypse that characterizes so much of our popular cinema. We should expect alien visitors, were they not so frequently featured in such films, to be deeply puzzled at this peculiar human ritual.
The oddity is compounded by the fact that, in recent years, the trappings of the disaster film have overtaken other genres as well. None of this summer’s major blockbusters is a disaster film in the classical sense, but The Mummy, Wonder Woman, War for the Planet of the Apes, and Transformers: The Last Knight all feature collapsing buildings and existential stakes. It often seems that, against the backdrop of the 24-hour news cycle, only extinction events feel consequential enough to propel blockbuster drama. Exceptions exist, of course, including James Mangold’s admirably humble Logan and Christopher Nolan’s Gotham-centric Dark Knight trilogy. But for the most part, a blockbuster that doesn’t put the world on the line is no blockbuster at all.
Certain obvious explanations for this trend present themselves. The imperatives of the international box office drive all big-budget films toward bigger, clearer narratives, and it’s easy to see why a global threat might have broader appeal than a provincial one. The subtleties of language and gesture that make up a small-scale drama are far harder to translate than a meteor demolishing a skyscraper. Plus there’s the fact that disaster spectacles remain, for the time being, unique to the big screen. Promise to level an entire city and fewer viewers will want to wait for the streaming release.
But in our rush to turn every conceivable conflict into a colossal one, we’ve forgotten what disaster films, at their best, can offer. The purpose of the disaster film is not to make small conflicts bigger but to make big ones smaller – to reduce unthinkable catastrophes to a human scale. Our indifference to genocides and natural disasters the world over suggests that we are poorly equipped to care about massive tragedies. It is only when these tragedies are expressed through individuals that we are able to empathize. We don’t care about the people because of the disaster; we care about the disaster because of the people.
Andrei Tarkovsky once wrote that the meaning of cinema was “relating a person to the whole world.” And though it’s difficult to imagine Tarkovsky lining up for a Roland Emmerich film, his aphorism describes the potential toward which great disaster films can aspire. For all the ethical abandon with which some disaster films kill off their characters, the perspective they can afford is accurate. Most of the dramas we tend to care about are, in the scheme of things, insignificant – and so they would seem, were we faced with impending doom. We are apes on a rock tearing through a void. It’s about time we stuck together.
Widely maligned by critics upon its release, Twister holds a special place in the heart of many a millennial, thanks in part to the popular ride at Universal Studios. The film’s plot is laughable on its face: a retired storm-chaser returns home to get his divorce papers signed, only to be wrapped up in a quest to study an F5 tornado. Silly though it may sound, the film is executed with such flare and infectious enthusiasm that it’s difficult not to get swept up (pun intended). Led by the charming Bill Paxton and the always-stellar Helen Hunt, with supporting performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Cary Elwes, the film transcends its hokey storyline to become a first-rate entertainment.
There’s a profound satisfaction to be found in loving a film that others find ridiculous. I have loved many such films — The Village, Across the Universe, Airheads – but none of my favorites is so broadly hated as The Core. The film, which concerns a ragtag team’s attempt to restore the spinning of the earth’s core, could easily be relabeled “generic disaster movie.” Its trailer is full of lines like “everybody’s dead in a year” and “we killed the planet.” Aaron Eckhart stars in a role that failed to establish him as a leading man, but he admirably holds together a cast that includes Hilary Swank and Stanley Tucci. At the very least, The Core is instructive for laying the conventions of its genre so blatantly bare.
The Day After Tomorrow
Disaster films nearly always contain some not-so-subtle commentary on our mistreatment of the environment, but this one was so topical upon its release that it could have been shown as a double-feature with An Inconvenient Truth. Directed by disaster filmmaker extraordinaire Roland Emmerich, The Day After Tomorrow tells the story of a paleoclimatologist played by Jake Gyllenhaal who’s forced to lead a group of survivors when a superstorm floods, then freezes, New York City. It is a hamfisted cautionary tale about global warming (which, via the film’s scientific hand-waving, produces an ice age), but it also functions as a powerful 9/11 allegory, celebrating the ability of New Yorkers to unify in the face of tragedy.
Independence Day set the stage for the modern disaster film, lending new levels of visual spectacle (the film picked up an Oscar for visual effects) and global appeal to the genre. There is something refreshing about the film’s eschewal of any subtlety in its treatment of alien invasion: they’re here to kill us, we’re told, so we have to kill them first. It is in reaction to a film like Independence Day, which features a mad-dog Randy Quaid blowing up an alien ship kamikaze-style, that a film like Arrival gets made, which features a somber Amy Adams writing messages on a whiteboard. I, for one, am glad that the cinematic ecosystem can bear both.
No list of disaster films would be complete without some Bayhem. Armageddon, like The Core, is positively ludicrous from a narrative perspective: a group of oil-drillers are sent to space to stop an asteroid from destroying the planet. But as an exercise in style and genre, the film stands up – if only because Michael Bay’s shameless, sweeping, dynamic style has been so influential in Hollywood since. Even the Criterion Collection, those great arbiters of cinematic taste and distinction, saw fit to recognize the film with a laserdisc. Perhaps in fifty years time, we’ll be reevaluating Bay’s work the way French critics reevaluated Hitchcock. That is, if an asteroid doesn’t wipe us out first.