Tuesday 11 December 2012

Disaster recognition protocols

The other day I wrote a post here about my favourite disaster movies and in the distance there was a faint sound of howling. It turned out that this was my friend 5olly, esteemed film blogger and vegetablist. For some time he'd been planning to make the top 100 disaster movies his next film blog project and was worried that I was about to ruin everything. I was, of course, but not in the way he'd expected. As ever, my plans for ruining everything were more broad.

The key problem, he explained, was that unlike many other shitter genres of films, it's very hard to come by a definitive list of the best disaster movies. Indeed, opinion is divided as to exactly what constitutes a disaster movie and what doesn't. In order to help society, then, we decided to try and come up with a definitive list of the criteria required for a movie to be a disaster. This is essentially the minutes of that meeting, only with less swearing. Or more. Who knows?

1. A disaster must happen in your disaster movie

This may seem fairly self-evident but it rules a lot of wannabe movies out. Post-apocalyptic films where the key is survival, for instance, fall at this first hurdle, unless there are a series of subsequent disasters depicted in the plot. Having a disaster is pretty much essential for a disaster movie, and the bigger the better. It's also best to not be too coy about your disaster. A bit of build-up adds to the dramatic tension but it's always a mistake to wait too long, because:

2. The disaster must be the only reason for making your movie into a movie

Life's mundanity must be to the fore in the early stages of your disaster movie. There should be no reason whatsoever for turning the stories we see unfold into a movie, other than a disaster happening. You shouldn't make an intriguing espionage thriller and then put a tornado in it, essentially.

3. In another set of circumstances, your disaster may not have happened

By this I mean that it is important that things could have gone another way. That plane could have landed and a merry Christmas been had by all. The tsunami could have missed your farmyard and not played havoc with your insurance premiums. The tantalising prospect of what might have been must hang heavily over your story. If possible, at least one of your characters should have been only days away from retirement.

This, of course, rules out completely monumental disasters where every single thing on the planet is destroyed. In the cases of films like that, the audience will always be left wondering if they story they'd been watching up to that point was really the most interesting thing happening that you could have showed them. SO:

4. Some characters must survive your disaster

A movie must have a beginning, a middle and an end. A disaster movie must have a beginning, a disaster and an aftermath. This aftermath will struggle to hold the audience's attention unless there are some characters walking around in it. It goes without saying that these characters probably ought to include some that we'd already met. What kind of state they are in is entirely up to you: teeth, no teeth, arms fallen off or fused to a passing cow. Go nuts.

5. Your disaster must be made-up but not fanciful

This is where a lot of aspiring disaster movies fall down. Science fiction walks a very fine line: if the film is based on a disaster which, given all we know, could possibly happen then OK. Asteroid strikes or nuclear wars have not yet afflicted us, at least not since the dawning of Sight and Sound Magazine, however, it is well-established that they could and boffins with lots of furrows on their brow and pens in their pockets have considered their outcomes and effects in serious scientific papers. But ones based on pseudoscience, alien invasions, zombie plagues or monsters are on rather shakier ground. It's not that they could not happen - anything COULD happen, I suppose - but it's hard to see them as anything other than sci-fi monster movies or horror films. Of course, come the day that the dead rise, aliens invade and they are particularly angry, or a load of Godzillas and Mothras make merry all over Tokyo, then generic reclassification will of course be the first order of business.

Case study: 1998, a good year for asteroids

Maybe it was a case of pre-millennium tension but in the years leading up to 2000 the summer blockbuster movie became increasingly fixated with the annihilation of all we hold dear. In 1998 the dish of the day was shit dropping out of space onto middle America's well-manicured lawns. In Armageddon, a rogue asteroid works its way through all the space junk to threaten Earth with inevitable extinction unless a ragtag group of scientists, miners and alcoholics can land a spaceship on the object and blow it to bits. In Deep Impact, meanwhile, a vast comet is discovered by an amateur astronomer and will invariably extinct us all right up unless NASA can pull a fast one. Two films released in the same year, dealing with a very similar problem and an almost identical solution. However, one of them is a disaster film and the other is not. This is not even due to the application of one of my more arcane and absurd points, but because of a more fundamental one. Namely, of the two films only one - Deep Impact - actually has a disaster in it. Armageddon sees the get out of jail card played successfully just in time, thus becoming what can only be described as a near-disaster movie. Which are better for biodiversity but much worse for people trying to make a list of disaster movies.

Which is what I have done. Collaborating with 5olly, we have come up with that rarest of beasts, a top 100 list of disaster movies. The tentative plan is to make this a project for 2013, watching and reviewing all these titles in order to document our twitching collapse into complete paranoid psychosis. And here it is, in order of their rating on - with sequels expunged as far as possible and in the case of movies based on real-life disasters, only the top-rated or best known one is included. Sorry, A Night To Remember. Any suggestions for any we might have missed will be welcome, because we don't want to have to watch Titanic. It is rubbish.

The 5ollymund Official Top 100 Disaster Movies

Special Bulletin
When The Wind Blows
Variola Vera
On The Beach
San Francisco
The Hurricane
The Andromeda Strain
The Day the Earth Caught Fire
Colossus: The Forbin Project
The Poseidon Adventure
By Dawn's Early Light
Perfect Sense
The World, the Flesh and the Devil
The Day After
Miracle Mile
The Towering Inferno
When Worlds Collide
Panic in Year Zero!
Zero Hour!
The Last Voyage
Where Have All the People Gone
The Perfect Storm
The Day After Tomorrow
Back from Eternity
The Devil at 4 O'Clock
The Cassandra Crossing
The Night the Bridge Fell Down
Night of the Comet
Right at Your Door
End of the World
The Hindenburg
Gray Lady Down
The Crowded Sky
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea
Crack in the World
No Blade of Grass
St. Helens
Deep Impact
World Trade Center
The Peacemaker
Crash Landing
This Is Not a Test
Dante's Peak
Hard Rain
Tidal Wave
The Night the World Exploded
Japan Sinks
Night of the Twisters
The Big Bus
Chain Reaction
Cold Harvest
The Core
Krakatoa, East of Java
The Happening
Damnation Alley
Countdown: The Sky's on Fire
Atomic Train
When Time Ran Out...
The Day the Sky Exploded
The Swarm
Def-Con 4
A Sound of Thunder
Atomic Twister
The Last Patrol
City on Fire
Doomsday Machine


Fizz said...

Now I have to say I Loved the film Cassandra Crossing. I am terrified of Gray Lady Down, that gave me nightmares. But I do prefer Sci-fi movies than the disaster movies also love horror ones but prefer the older ones, the mordern ones seem to be an advertisement into how much blood & guts they can make look real. Good luck.
Lol, if you want good horror try listening to the word verification.

5olly said...


You have reached the bottom of the internet