Surviving the Disaster Movie
In film studies, historians often discuss the very first years of film (1895 to 1910 or so) as being a cinema of attractions. Like other fairground attractions, early film had to grab its audience by the throat, giving people a jolt of pure excitement and sending them on their way wanting more, with no time for complicated stories or characterisation. The first films were all about physical sensations and visual spectacle.
But then, so the story goes, cinema grew up. It became longer, developed dialogue, became more sophisticated and complex. It told big, ambitious, adult stories. But did it really? Does anyone go to watch blockbusters for their rich and involving storylines?
The genre that feels closest to the crash-bang-wallop appeal of early film is the disaster movie. Although the genre enjoyed its golden age in the Hollywood of the 1960s and 70s, you can trace its roots and influences right back to early film, such as Georges Méliès’ Le Catastrophe du Ballon ‘Le Pax‘ (Catastrophe of the Balloon ‘Le Pax‘) (1902).
The broad disaster genre comprises numerous sub-genres that are defined by their combination of the following aspects:
The major threat: Nature, weather, giant mutated insects and so on.
The setting: Transport, skyscrapers, historical.
The tone of the film: Horror, thriller, comedy.
Like any other genre, the disaster movie has certain narrative conventions that audiences come to expect:
Group dynamics: The cast of characters under threat is diverse in order to symbolise the whole of society. This convention leads to ensemble narratives, which are perfect for re-launching fading stars’ careers. For example, see Fred Astaire not dancing in The Towering Inferno (1974).
Man versus something: The disaster film tends to isolate its puny characters from the rest of society to emphasise human helplessness against nature (or mythical monsters): for example, the island community attacked in Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). This tendency is different to genres such as the musical or the western, which tend to emphasise community and family.
Regular yet resourceful: The hero tends to be a regular guy or gal who proves to be practical and resourceful under extreme pressure from killer bees or zombies. A love interest may pop up, although romance is often cut short by random beheading.
A chatty specialist: A scientist or other expert is required to reinforce the futility of human knowledge ‒ and explain stuff.
Film scholars have found the disaster movie to be particularly sensitive to cultural anxieties. In this sense, 1950s sci-fi is all about the Cold War, and recent examples, such as War of the Worlds (2005), play with post-9/11 paranoia. Indeed, Steven Spielberg’s disaster-sci-fi remake is also a fascinating example of how films can wear big issues such as 9/11 on their sleeve, while also playing with hidden tensions around class and gender. Ray (Tom Cruise) not only has to fight giant aliens, but also discover how to be a good father to his estranged daughter. Honey, I’m a little busy right now. . . .