Monday 19 November 2012

It can't happen here: on the power of disaster movies

Bees! Terrorists! Floods! SARS! Monsters! The elderly! Life is a dangerous place to be but what makes it preferable to the alternative is disaster movies.

Disaster is one of those film genres which can be distinguished thus: there has never been a disaster film, there are only disaster movies. But each is such a finely crafted opera of hysteria and catastrophe that not even Sight and Sound magazine could complain. Normally, cinema works on a very strict moral code. Bad things never befall good people and children and people with dogs. But in the disaster movie, all bets are off. Fred Astaire can be burned alive in a tower block, Steve Gutenberg's hair can fall out and Olivia De Havilland can be stung to death by bees. Nothing you do can save you from the wrathful vengeance of nature, or greed, or the worst excesses of humanity, or bees. In some of my favourite disaster movies, no-one is left alive at all and the Earth left to adjust to this cataclysmic event as best it can, but how it goes about doing so is not addressed. It's a sobering prospect for anyone familiar with the basic tenets of narrative structure, with Steve Gutenberg or the behavioural patterns of bees.

Disaster movies are interesting, too, because there's no guarantee that the events that take place can't ultimately conspire to smite your ass. Most days we all get up and try and stave off indigestion, death and bees long enough to make it to bedtime: it's all very humdrum and routine. But some days there are people who find themselves on fire, or in the wrong place at the wrong time during a terrorist attack or a natural disaster, or as collateral during the final climactic battle in the war between atomic bees and space wasps. There's no guarantees that, just by watching a film where a monstrous pre-historic sloth rampages through downtown Pittsburgh, you have achieved any kind of immunity.

So, I suppose there are two main reasons to relish disaster movies. Firstly, you never feel more alive than you do when you're watching someone else have their face chewed off by a doberman or falling out of a cable car in forlorn pursuit of their last Rolo. But secondly, it's a useful place to pick up tips. Do you know where you'd go during a zombie plague, tsunami or beetastrophe? That's right: upstairs. And I learnt all of that from watching disaster movies. Being someone who finds it difficult to learn any new skill without doing, disaster movies are as close as I can get without there being a snake biting my glans at 30,000 feet.

Today, then, I'm going to look at the main types of disaster movie and share some of the key lessons that they have taught me. You might want to print this post out later and then paste it to the wall of your inner sanctuary. Next to the bucket for shitting in.


Human beings are a bunch of idiots. They are greedy, self-serving and beholden to contrary ideologies. Even when they try to be helpful, they drop a load of water onto sodium metal and accidentally destroy half of Denver. The majority of man-made disaster films revolve around these topics, usually involving transportation or buildings. Terrorism is also a popular subject, although after September 11th 2001, American film producers decided that it was actually quite a serious subject after all and started to use it more sparingly.

Atomic Train: Rob Lowe saves the world, then doesn't

And how does one go about making any situation worse? Put an atomic bomb in it! A prime example here is the monumental TV movie Atomic Train, which touches on most of the classic man-made disaster film staples: greed, corruption, cutting corners, transportation gone awry, human relationship problems being put into sharp perspective and atomic bombs. Bees, mercifully, were absent but even so most of Denver copped one right in the flue, despite the best efforts of Rob Lowe.

So what can we learn from man-made disaster movies? Well, first, regulations exist for a reason. You may save yourselves a few thousand dollars in fees but if you sneak a decommissioned Soviet nuke onto a locomotive disguised as chemicals, half of Denver will be blown up. Secondly, things can always be worse in your life, so even if you are stuck in a disastrous marriage or demeaning career, just suck it up you loser. You'll be looking back to these days with enormous fondness once the atom bees arrive.


Biological includes animals, monsters and their perky but microscopic cousins, diseases. Some disaster movies successfully combine both: Outbreak, for instance, features a gruesome pandemic sparked by a manky monkey which leaves even Renee Russo unable to keep her insides from coming outside. Bees and birds and other swarming things also feature heavily, although we are still awaiting a disaster movie featuring a particularly malicious shoal of fish.

Biological disaster movies have also given the world the most important and best (i.e worst) disaster movie ever made: The Swarm, in which a deluge of African killer bees lay siege to an all-star cast, leading to some magnificently hysterical acting from Michael Caine, hallucinatory huge bees haunting everyone's nightmares and the large-scale destruction of Houston.

JIM LOVELL: Houston, we have a problem.
NASA MISSION CONTROL: Is it bees? Because frankly we've got a problem and it's bees.

The Swarm: believe it or not, this film is EVEN BETTER than this looks

What we can learn from biological disaster movies is that human beings are all idiots. Human concerns are all to blame for massing bees, rage-filled birds or drug-resistant strains of monkey rot. No good can come of it and all we can do is give thanks to the people who do their best to save us from ourselves, then rail against their voice being ignored but then do their best to save us all anyway. Or stay on shift even though people are hocking up bits of their lung on your shoe, as in Plague City: SARS in Toronto.


Natural disaster films are always popular: earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires and tidal waves can all really ruin your day and fling your cows about the joint. These are particularly beloved of anyone making really apocalyptic disaster films, such as 2012 or The Day After Tomorrow.

The Day After Tomorrow: the dreariest apocalypse ever imagined by man

But even notwithstanding the fact that human beings are largely powerless to contain the fury of nature anyway, these films like to really rub it in by blaming us anyway. Environmentalism is usually the leading boot that gets stuck in when we're down and on fire, but greed and corruption can also be covered - often with a karmic alignment bent. So if there's anything you can learn from natural disaster movies it is that you should always recycle, turn your TV off and not just leave it on standby and don't touch up kids.


Science fiction is something of a misnomer here, as these films actually deal with science FACT. However, the incidents of cosmic madness that these films depict unfolding are almost exclusively so cataclysmic that they haven't happened yet, or at least not for a sufficiently long time that humans have evolved sufficiently to make films about it with kick-ass special effects.

Deep Impact: possibly Morgan Freeman's fault

One particular device popular here is to make the President of the United States black. It gives films an other-worldly feel. It teaches us all that, while this can happen, it's statistically rare enough that it would be deeply counter-productive to invest too much emotional energy in worrying about it in your day-to-day life. However, then the damn fool Americans elected Barack Obama, which had the duel effects of effectively halving Morgan Freeman's earning power and also emphasising the fact that all bets are off.

What we can learn from these films is that when your number's up, you've had it. So keep smiling, carry an umbrella and come election day, always vote for middle class white males.

Now please, don't have nightmares. I almost invariably will, but there's no need for you to as well.

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