The Draw of Disaster Movies
Disaster and Doomsday films have been around almost since the beginning, and are a fairly popular genre of film in terms of marketing. In one way, it’s the highest form of suspense there is. What has more at stake than the entire population of Earth? Everything is (quite literally) on the line. There are no “Happy Ever Afters” or last minute saves. Not everyone makes it to the end of the film. It is, in a word, depressing.
Why, then, are we always flocking to theaters to witness possible projections of our own demise? What is it that keeps drawing us in? Is it the stories? The characters? The idea that by watching it, we can prepare for the inevitable? There are any number of reasons why disaster films have such a pull on us, but here are the ones that I find most appealing to the average viewer.
Leaving out the films in which aliens or Godzilla are responsible for whatever is occurring, disaster movies tend to have a kernel of truth in them or something we recognize as being a threat in our daily lives. Things like global warming, raging fires, floods, hurricanes and tornadoes are all perfect fodder for a disaster film. These are events that do happen, and although they’re taken to the next level in terms of believability, we do recognize events from our own lives in them. I was just outside of Orlando when Hurricane Charley hit Florida in 2004, and I remember the devastation that it left behind. Movies like Twister remind me what is was like to just wait for that first sound of danger.
With disaster movies, there’s always the question of “Could this really happen?”. Even though the 2012 prophecy looked nothing like the movie 2012 (read: nothing happened anyway), there’s still the possibility that it could. Movies like Contagion, The Day After Tomorrow, The Perfect Storm and others have those elements of “Maybe this could happen”. Others like Apollo 13 and Titanic already have, and makes us examine those involved. That alone becomes another reason to watch.
The first time I sat down to watch The Great Escape, I knew not everyone was going to make it. It’s a movie about a POW camp in World War II. It pretty much guarantees that not everyone is going to live. In disaster movies, this is a given. We start by getting introduced to a cast of various characters, either primary, secondary, or simply glimpses, and we then get to watch as the disaster changes them, separates them, or disposes of them.
Going into a movie knowing that not everyone is going to make it should cause audience members not to become attached to anyone they’re viewing. But at times, we tend to do the opposite. It’s because we know that they might not make it that we hold onto them even harder, or look for those clues that might indicate whether or not they may make it out unscathed. It makes you watch them all the more closely, and possibly even appreciate the small moments that you’re getting with them now, just in case they don’t make it back on camera after their exit. We root for the parents and the kids, the grandparents, the underdog, the guy who was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. We see ourselves in them, our friends and family. It’s only human to want to connect with someone, and in disaster films, we want to see them live. We don’t want what’s happened to us to happen to them. Despite the fact that we’re drawn to disaster films we are all, at heart, optimists – wanting that happy ending or small silver lining to take with us.
In disaster movies, there is no real human enemy. I mean, sure, there’s that guy who knew that this gigantic threat was coming and chose to do nothing about it. But in disaster movies, there’s no one human we can point to and say “You! You did this!”. In some ways, it takes the responsibility off the audience to feel a certain way. What some viewers see as villainy, others may not. In a disaster movie, it becomes all about sympathy rather than begrudging. Everyone is at the wrong place at the wrong time, and we’re immediately sympathetic. We have more energy to spend worrying about the audience and less to worry about that one character who’s responsible.
You have to admit, when it comes to disaster movies, nothing looks better visually. Sure there are some great shots and cinematography in other films, but disaster movies almost come to rely on those visuals more heavily than other films. It’s one thing in a disaster movie to have a news broadcast saying that the city is being overcome by a giant spaceship. It’s another thing completely to show it, and show it well (good job, Independence Day!). However, the real danger in disaster movies comes when filmmakers assume that excellent visuals equals an excellent film. That is not the case. Visuals do not a movie make, and certainly not enough to carry an entire film.
Any disaster movie done right will have enough visuals to keep you interested, characters to keep you emotional, an event that keeps you invested, and a story that keeps you guessing. As long as you have that, you can do no wrong (within reason, of course).
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