While cinema’s disaster movies have long threatened to eradicate our Mother Earth by way of earthquake, tornado, flood, global warming, asteroid, hurricane, and every other naturally occurring enviro-villain imaginable, the genre itself died off long ago. Oh, the irony. The traditional “disaster movie” is currently extinct – even its big daddy director, Roland Emmerich, has downgraded to just blowing up single buildings, not entire planets – though perhaps someone will one day extract a bit of disaster movie DNA from a chunk of hardened amber and replicate it for big screen glory.
By this particular genre, it must be noted, we mean true “natural” disasters, downed airplane dramas, “Sharknado” spinoffs, and alien invasion thrillers are, sadly, disqualified from this round of genre analysis (even “Titanic” doesn’t really count, simply because it’s easy to chalk that one up to human error). The mid-nineties marked the heyday of the disaster film as we know it – including the release of films like “Twister,” “Armageddon,” “Deep Impact,” “Volcano,” “Dante’s Peak,” and “White Squall” – and what used to be an assured way to bring in massive movie-going droves has dropped off big-time. Back then, disaster movies were so popular that dueling features about the same topic could both be a success at the box office within mere months of each other – “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact” both opened in the summer of 1998 and each made over $140m at the box office (Michael Bay’s film even cracked the $200m mark and got a Criterion Collection release to boot) and “Volcano” and “Dante’s Peak” opened within less than three months of each other and still pulled in a combined take of over $100m at the box office – but those glory days of destroying the Earth for fun and profit have long since passed.
The early part of this century featured a scant selection of disaster samplings – including the fact-based “The Perfect Storm” and Roland Emmerich’s last two features in the genre – “The Day After Tomorrow” and “2012,” both over-the-top takes on the genre that were critically panned, despite pulling in a combined worldwide box office take of $350m. Once the gold standard for the “popcorn film” genre, the theatrical disaster movie has split off into two very different factions, one that uses what used to be a tried-and-true plot device as mere background to tell other, more high-brow stories, and another that’s just blowing stuff up in order to show off different kinds of technology.
Last year’s award season contender, “The Impossible,” featured a series of top-notch performances all wrapped up inside a wrenching, fact-based tale. This wasn’t a film that audiences turned out to see for kicks – it was a serious, dramatic experience that required the sort of treatment reserved for other serious, dramatic films that didn’t feature a massive tsunami as a plot point. Last year’s other disaster-based awards contender, Sundance darling “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” also utilized an ocean flood to drive its story, though the flood itself was not the only story. Watery cinematic upheavals aren’t quite done yet, either, as next year’s “Noah” may have its roots in the Biblical tale of the Earth-ending flood, but Darren Aronofsky’s film is, by no stretch of the imagination, meant to be taken as “a disaster film.” Even this month’s “Gravity” took a somewhat natural disaster (we’ll give space junk a pass on this one, simply because its destructive power was amped up by gravitational force) and used it to tell an intimate story of a woman adrift. “Armageddon” this was not.
Kit Harrington in "Pompeii"
But not all modern disaster films are going for dramatic force – the genre is also beginning to get the technological advancement treatment, with directors using these types of films to jump into the 3D and found-footage game. The newly-minted Dwayne Johnson-starrer “San Andreas” sounds like a very traditional disaster film, as it centers on a state-crushing quake that forces a man to desperately search for his daughter amongst the rubble, but it will be bolstered by 3D. Similarly, Paul W.S. Anderson’s loosely historical upcoming offering, “Pompeii,” is being billed as a 3D film, not a disaster film (and what’s more disastrous than the world’s most famous volcanic eruption?). 3D isn’t the only techy twist to go disaster – next year’s “Into the Storm” will tell the tale of a town-destroying tornado, by way of different kinds of found footage.
Even this year’s single “traditional” disaster film, "Aftershock", came with a twist – after a country-rocking earthquake destroys large chunks of Chile, our wily band of survivors must compete with far more than just, well, aftershocks – they also have a band of prisoners intent on raping and pillaging and murdering what’s left of a human population. The Eli Roth-penned feature is an outlier, it’s certainly not an awards contender and its low budget wasn’t meant to show off flashy new production pieces, but its reliance on an added element of terror sets it apart from more traditional fare.
The disaster film as we once know it (and as it ruled the theaters of the mid-nineties) went out with a whimper, not a planet-shaking bang, free of high-flying cows and deeply impacting asteroids, and is now relegated to background work. Is it, like most things, destined for a resurgence? Or is it time to break out our Criterion-approved “Armageddon” DVDs and reminisce about the glory days of a genre bent on destroying the very world that created it? For now, let’s just let this one run its course, the last thing cinema needs at this moment is dueling hurricane films free of proficient acting or without 4D wind-blowing action to put us in the belly of the beast. (Cue the world’s first 4D film.)