Disaster Films


One group of disaster films features attack by creatures, from ants normal ( The Naked Jungle, 1954) or abnormal ( Them! , 1954) to elephants ( Elephant Walk , 1954). Monsters created by nature run amok include The Giant Gila Monster (1959) and the mutants Godzilla, Mothra, Reptilicus, Gappa, and Rodan, which relived Japan's atomic nightmare. The United States's 1950s nuclear anxieties spawned more modest monsters, from the Black Lagoon, from 20,000 fathoms, and from beneath the sea. Smaller threats undercut mankind's higher link on the Great Chain of Being, most notably in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1961), but also in the second threatening group, "bully bacteria."

Seen killers—such as David Cronenberg's phallic little bleeders in Shivers (or The Parasite Murders , 1975)—are terrifying, but those unseen are worse. Anthrax (2001) anticipated North America's post-9/11 fear of chemical attack, and Wolfgang Petersen's Outbreak (1995) unleashed an ebola crisis. The television film Plague Fighters (1996) reminds us that a disaster film can also be a documentary.

Worse than terrestrial creatures, aliens frighten whether they are peaceful ( The Day the Earth Stood Still , 1951), malevolent ( Invasion of the Body Snatchers , 1956; 1978), or even vegetable ( The Thing , 1951). Man creates his own monsters from mud ( Der Golem , 1920), body parts ( Frankenstein , 1931), or computer ( Westworld , 1974). The monster is a primeval shapeless evil in The Quatermass Experiment (or The Creeping Unknown , 1955) and The Green Slime (1969). Ang Lee's Hulk (2003) provides a green personification of rage—a monster for our post-psychoanalytic age. These first three types overlap with the horror and science-fiction film, with their threats of dehumanization and our suppressed dark energies.

The unleashed elements can be even crueller than nature's creatures. Volcanoes have lavished lava from The Last Days of Pompeii (1908) to Deep Core (2000). Whether working with wind ( The Hurricane , 1937), water ( The Rains Came , 1939), both wind and water ( The Perfect Storm , 2000), or quaking earth ( Earthquake , 1974), these films draw moral weight from the renewal stories of Noah and Sodom and Gomorrah. Natural-disaster films remind us that our technology shrinks before the forces of nature. The communal confrontation with nature distinguishes the disaster film from the action-adventure genre that centers on individual hero and human villainy.

Urban disaster in The Towering Inferno (Irwin Allen, 1974).

Disasters based on situations begin with cities destroyed (the "edifice wrecks" cycle), which shatter our urban security. From Pompeii to the terrorist attack on New York on September 11, 2001, films have imagined the destruction of our cities, which are emblems of both community and comfort. The Towering Inferno (1974) gave a modern Babel a fire on the eighty-fifth floor. In The Neptune Factor (1973) giant fish threaten an underwater living experiment. Invasion USA (1952) and Red Planet Mars (1952) annihilate America and Russia, respectively. Anti-materialist destruction is celebrated in the endings of two 1970 films, Michelangelo Antonioni's Zabriskie Point and John Boorman's Leo the Last, examples of explosive flower power. As the United States grew more city-centered, instances of urban destruction outnumbered the rural; few disaster films are set in Kansas anymore.

An alternative community is the ship of fools, where a cross-section of humanity on a micro–journey of life face disaster. Sometimes the folks are all at sea, as in the various Titanic films (1915, 1943, 1953, 1997) and A Night to Remember (1958)—or under it, as in The Abyss (1985). Or they're up in the air, as in The High and the Mighty (1954) and Airport (1969). Nor are we safe in the earth, as shown in The Core (2003). As in the nature disasters, mankind is punished for the hubris of complacency.

Survival films detail the aftermath of a disaster, as in Lifeboat (1944) and Marooned (1970). Some films begin after a war is over: Soylent Green (1973), The War Game (1967), Teenage Caveman (1958), and George Miller's Mad Max series (1979, 1981, 1985). The edifice, ship, and survival disaster types share the melodrama's focus on societal conflicts.

Similarly, the war genre edges into disaster when the film emphasizes carnage and the human conflict tends to be internecine, as in Slaughterhouse Five (1972) and the post-battle scenes in Gone with the Wind (1939). Some space war films such as The Day the Sky Exploded (1958) and The Day the World Ended (1956) visualize the disaster as Day of Judgment.

In the more general, history disaster, a doom is set in the distant past—most notably in the tradition of biblical epics, as well as films such as San Francisco (1936) and Cabiria (1914). A variation on the period disaster projects into the future, as in the Planet of the Apes series (1968–1973), When Worlds Collide (1951), Things to Come (1936, 1979), and War of the Worlds (1953, 2003, 2005). Arguably the best historical disaster film is Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957), which used the period angst of the Black Plague in the Middle Ages for an art-house meditation upon the life of honor and the dance of death.

The disaster includes—and perhaps is apotheosized as a genre by—the comic treatment. Much slapstick comedy exults in massive destruction, from Mack Sennett to Buster Keaton. The Bed-Sitting Room (1968) and A Boy and His Dog (1976) provide comic takes on nuclear apocalypse. Jim Abrahams and David Zucker sent up Airport with their Airplane! larks (1980, 1982). Woody Allen parodied the monster film in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, But Were Afraid to Ask (1972) when a giant breast threatens an isolated countryside, and in New York Stories (1989), when the hero's dead mother fills the sky, nagging. In The Big Bus (1976), the detailed parody virtually defines the conventions of the journey disaster film, in the preposterous context of a nuclear-powered bus.

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