How we learned to stop worrying and love earthquakes, tidal waves, and shipwrecks
Disaster: a sudden calamitous event bringing great damage, loss, or destruction (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).
A disaster movie is a type of film that has an impending or ongoing disaster as its subject matter and primary plot device. Disasters include natural disasters such as earthquakes, tornadoes, and tidal waves. They also include accidents such as train wrecks, airplane crashes, and shipwrecks. They may even involve worldwide diseases and epidemics.
Disaster movies are often a sub-genre of action movies although not always as there have been disaster movies that are primarily suspense thrillers and even romances.
Disaster movies often have larges casts of characters with multiple plot lines focusing on the characters’ efforts to avert, escape, or cope with the disaster. Sometimes it is their dealing with the aftermath of the disaster.
The casts are generally made up of familiar actors and are often all-star casts. Once the movie gets started the characters are then confronted with their own human weaknesses in the midst of the disaster. Some of the characters rise to the occasion while others falter. There is generally a romance or two and almost always there is a bad guy or someone we can jeer and blame for what is happening.
Disaster movies generally give us a hero or heroine, or combination that lead the struggle against the disaster. Interestingly enough often the heroes are ordinary people who find themselves in an extraordinary situation.
Disaster movies have been around since the inception of film. THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEI (1908) and THE WIND (1928) are examples of silent disaster movies. KING KONG (1933), SAN FRANCISCO (1936), and THE HURRICANE (1937) are examples of early-talkies disaster movies. By the way KING KONG is one of my favorites.
Within the Disaster Movie category there are distinct types. Please remember these are generalizations and not all movies are going to fit neatly into a particular type.
Natural Disaster: Nature gone wild such as THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW (2004).
Accidental Disaster: When man-made technology goes wrong such as in GEOSTORM (2017).
Extraterrestrial Disaster: When the threat comes from outer space such as INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996).
Monster Disaster: When one or more monsters cause destruction such as GODZILLA (2019).
Apocalypse Disaster: Humanity is threatened with extinction as in 2012 (2009).
And of course there are disaster movie mashups such as TITANIC (1997), which is a disaster movie known mainly as a romance. By the way TITANIC is the highest grossing disaster movie of all time having made over 2 billion dollars and was the highest grossing film of all time for twelve years.
Why do we love them?
Fear – we love to be afraid. Roller coaster rides, haunted houses, and horror movies – we love the adrenaline rush of being afraid. And movies are the best place to experience this because ultimately, in the back of our minds, we know we are safe.
Death – hand in hand with our love of fear is our fear of death. We fear the end of our lives and we fear the end of the world. In the fifties it was bomb shelters. For Y2K we bought tons of bottled water and canned foods. When we watch humanity survive a disaster in a movie it gives us hope and reassures us that we can survive as well.
Vicarious experience – We live movies vicariously. When James Bond beats the bad guy it is each of us standing triumphant over the forces of evil. In a disaster movie with empathize with the survivors and feel as if we overcame the odds and came thru whole in the end.
Everyman the hero – While it is not true in all cases in many cases the hero or heroine in a disaster movie is an ordinary person who rises to the occasion to overcome the odds. We love this and it makes us sympathize with the hero more. For example, while it is true that in THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974) one of the two leads played by Steve McQueen was a fire chief – hardly an ordinary person. But the other lead was played by Paul Newman who was an architect.
Patriotism – This may sound funny but stick with me on this. Often in disaster movies there is a moment where one of the heroic characters gets up and rouses the crowd into a fever pitch. For example, the President right before the climax in INDEPENDENCE DAY, or the hero Fin in SHARKNADO 2 (2014) inciting the crowd of New Yorkers to defend their city. This sings to our patriotism, to our love of country or city or ethnic group and we love it!
Disaster movies have been with us since the beginning of motion pictures and there is no end in sight. So long as people continue to love action, thrills, and chills they will continue to plop down with popcorn to watch and Hollywood will continue to make disaster movies. And I’ll be one of those sitting there with popcorn enthralled.