Confession time: I may spend this weekend watching a cheesy disaster flick.
The movie in question is the special-effects laden The Day After Tomorrow wherein global warming decides to attack on Tuesday. There are tornados in Los Angeles, tidal waves in New York (not much, apparently, in Des Moines), and a killer freeze that chases beautiful scientists down corridors.
Apparently some environmentalist groups in the United States are using this film as an opportunity to bring the message about climate change to a wider audience. Given how bad this movie is likely to be, some have wondered whether it's wise for these environmentalists to tie themselves to this falling star. Strangely, though: I've not heard of any campaign in Canada to hand out brochures before and after showings of The Day After Tomorrow, and I think that's significant. I'm the circulation manager of Canada's leading environmental journal, and I'm innundated with so many notifications of political and environmental campaigns, it takes me a half-hour to go through my inbox each day, not including spam. Number of announcements of environmentalist campaigns to panphlet the movie? None. Zip. Zilch. Nada. I have to believe that news reports of environmentalists using this movie as a campaign ploy are, at best, exaggerated. Nobody's taking The Day After Tomorrow as a serious environmentalist tome. This is your typical disaster movie borrowing (but not really understanding) scientific jargon from the headlines of the week.
That doesn't mean it won't be fun, however...
A Sucker For Disasters
So, why am I seeing a movie if I know it's going to be bad? Well, it's a weakness: I am a sucker for disaster movies, especially bad disaster movies. Erin and I enjoy doing our best Mystery Science Theatre 3000 impersonations when films get really bad, and a part of me is also entertained at the destruction (assuming that the special effects are good). Erin and I have a special appreciation of films wherein things blow up, while not insulting our intelligence (see the X-Men franchise), but that type of film is sadly rare. If we can laugh at the hokey dialogue and the bad science and yet see Los Angeles get destroyed (again), it's a worthwhile waste of two hours.
I have to say, though, that they don't make disaster movies like they used to. Back in the day, Irwin Allen only needed to overturn a cruise ship in order to get some satisfying destruction. Only one volcano needed to erupt. But as moviemakers became more adept at special effects, the players in the disaster movie business started to one-up each other. It was no longer enough to just destroy Los Angeles (again). And as the moviemakers anted up the disasters, the disasters soon grew to a scope that was either ridiculous in itself, or simply dwarfed the characters' ability to handle them. Independence Day took out Los Angeles, New York, and the White House (oh, and a whole bunch of cities across the world, but nobody cares about them). 10.5 threatened to dunk the entire west coast of North America into the Pacific Ocean. Eventually, the Earth is going to crack in half and drift into two separate orbits, and the inhabitants will have to use magic to put everything back together again.
But that's part of the fun of watching bad disaster movies. It's humourous to see just how out of touch some writers are from scientific reality, not to mention human relations.
Keys to Making Good Disaster Movies
Some disaster movies are better than others. The genre has at its core one of the simplest stories to tell: humans in peril against overwhelming forces of nature. In the hands of any writer worth his or her salt, compelling stuff will come of this, and it has. The better disaster movies in my lexicon all follow the three same basic steps.
Step One: Be realistic.
Of course, if all disaster movies were written realistically, half the time there would be no disasters. In terms of plot, especially movie plots, a threat has to be huge, but it has to be contained. It has to be resolved within the span of the movie. This way, characters race against time, they face one major threat, the climax is quickly resolved, and everyone goes home happy. The problem is, true disasters rarely occur as a single event. This is why we made disaster movies about asteroids and volcanic eruptions before we tackled the more esoteric threat of global warming.
The Day After Tomorrow bears superficial similarity to the book, The Coming Global Superstorm by Art Bell, a real (if hyperbolic) environmentalist tome which postulates Earth re-entering the ice age through a single, massive, hemisphere-spanning storm. In my opinion, the book would make for a good movie (and I have to wonder if Art Bell isn't handed a writing credit in The Day After Tomorrow), but it wouldn't be the simple special-effects thriller that the producers of The Day After Tomorrow want. For one thing, the superstorm takes over two months before it spins itself out and its effects are so far reaching as to last for generations. This does not transfer well onto film unless in the hands of an adept filmmaker.
Now compare and contrast Deep Impact and Armaggedon, two movies released at roughly the same time dealing with imminent contact between Earth and a celestial object. For the most part, Deep Impact takes the realistic route: a comet seven miles in diameter is discovered two years before it hits Earth. A spaceship is hastily built and sent up to deflect it. It fails, and the characters deal with the looming threat as it takes months to arrive. Possible, say the scientific experts.
"Not fast enough!" says (or, rather, shouts) Armaggedon. Instead of a comet, give us an asteroid! Instead of having it seven-miles-wide, make it as big as Texas! Instead of giving Earth two years warning, give humanity eighteen days! Now try to destroy it! Not a chance, say the scientists. In the real world, the Earth would be doomed.
For Armaggedon, the real world disaster isn't big enough or fast enough for the feature film. Not when Hollywood expects their apocalypses to be large but defeatable. For this reason, the worst (funniest) disaster movies will fudge their science to make their overblown dramatic point. They will also lobotomize their characters to get them into peril on cue, but that's another story.
Step Two: Resolve it Properly
Then there is the disaster movie's need for a quick resolution that sends everybody home happy. Had Armaggedon's asteroid-the-size-of-Texas actually hit Earth (as it would likely have done in the real world), audiences might go away thinking that the end was something of a downer. Roller coasters aren't supposed to end in doom.
When movies deal with smaller asteroids or volcanic eruptions, a quick-and-happy resolution is easy: the event happens, most of the asteroid is blown up, people come out from under cover and get on with their lives. End of movie. But as the desire for bigger and better booms force each subsequent movie to top the last, the realism of the resolution gets progressively strained. Consider the dire made-for-tv movie Countdown: The Sky's on Fire where the scientist hero gets his fighter-pilot brother to spackle a hole in the ozone layer above Los Angeles using an F-16 and a guided missile.
Some remarkable disaster movies accept the consequences of their plots. In Deep Impact, despite the hokey inspirational ending, the Eastern Seaboard still has to be rebuilt. Now compare the recent made-for-tv earthquake flick 10.5 with its older, better cousin The Great Los Angeles Earthquake: in the latter film, the narrative ends with Los Angeles devastated, and communications severed with the rest of the United States. Too much of a downer for 10.5, which hives California off into its own island, but everybody's okay.
Deep Impact and The Great Los Angeles Earthquake are rarities in the disaster movie genre. Most disaster movies want to have their cake and eat it too, putting their characters through hell, but in the end setting most of them back in their normal life. This usually leads to the ridiculous resolutions described above.
Step Three: It's About Character, Stupid!
I know, I know: I go to disaster movies because I want to see special effects. I stay and laugh because of the hokey dialogue and the ludicrous plot twists. But occasionally, I encounter a disaster movie that shakes up the world, but still tells a compelling story about the characters that get shaken up.
Much to my surprise, in Deep Impact the payoff strike of the comet in the Atlantic Ocean comes almost as an afterthought. The movie's focus is on how American society prepares for the event. We have President Morgan Freeman imposing wage and price controls, marshalling the resources of the world into two attempts to try and destroy or deflect the comet before it hits. We have young Elija Wood marrying in his teens so that he can take his high school sweetheart and her parents with him as he's sent to the deep-underground shelters in Montana. We have journalist Tea Leone struggling to maintain her professionalism against a growing desire to make peace with her estranged father. We have real people with whom the audience can actually sympathize with, rather than props for the disaster beast to beat upon.
For people expecting bombs to fall from the sky, Deep Impact's lengthy storytelling is frustrating. This explains the wide gap that separates fans of Armageddon from Deep Impact affectionados. Some fans of Armageddon criticized the characters of Deep Impact for "waiting around to die", showing how little Armageddon fans know about what makes good drama. In the disasters of the real world, the real stories won't be about the beauty of the tidal wave as it topples the Manhattan skyline or the sinuous might of the twisters swarming Los Angeles. It will be the quiet courage of the people who waited it out, set against the backdrop of those many who panicked.
The best disaster movie of all time, in my opinion, is Don McKeller's Last Night. This Canadian production has no major special effects (that goes without saying); it shows no riots, no exploding buildings, twisters, asteroids, or whathaveyou. The sun explodes at the end of the movie, but it does so by fading everything to white. Last Night focuses on individuals who know that this is the last night of the world and are done with looting and rioting and now live with a curious sense of resignation.
Last Night is a creepy tale, shot and set in Toronto, focusing on various characters as they live out their last six hours. One ordinary man organizes his first (and only) piano recital in a posh concert hall, and people actually come out to listen. Another man makes it his goal to have sex with as many different women and in as many different situations as possible. One family gets the children back together and celebrates Christmas, even though it's midsummer outside. Last Night has the air of a million terminal patients quietly accepting death. True disaster drama, repeated nowhere else.
The title of this post is a quote from one of Erin's poems (scroll down this page to Remission), about how close all of us are to the edge. I think one facet of the popularity of disaster movies (and, to some extent, storm porn) is that we thrill to seeing awesome destruction separated from the panic of actually being there, but there is also the compelling story of characters under pressure. In the right hands, this is the central story of a disaster movie.
Unfortunately, especially in these days of effective special effects, lesser disaster filmmakers try to have their apocalypse and their happy ending too, at the expense of good plotting or even realism. You can't spackle the ozone layer, and once the climate does change it might take something equivalent to our previous three-hundred years of effort to change it back. Most movie makers are too frightened to show society rationing its food for decades to come, or dealing with massive displacements of population in North America. Such things do not transfer well to film, and don't leave a feel-good feeling in the audience's heart. Taking on the risk of personal reactions to disaster may make for a better movie, but it may not be a recipie for box office success.
Best Line From Bad Disaster Movies
Paraphrased from Bats! (starring Lou Diamond Phillips)
Incredulous Innocents: You bred bats to be carnivorous, intelligent and social, and then you transferred this into a contageous disease which you unleashed on the wider bat population?
Incredulous Innocents: But why?!
Scientist: I'm a scientist. It's what I do.
- You have got to check out Bad Astronomy! Phil Plait's visceral takedown of the goofs of such movies as Armaggedon make for real enjoyable reads. His made-for-tv section has a lot of material on bad asteroid movies the networks have run. He does, however, like Deep Impact.
- Reviews of bad movies.
- Another review of the disaster genre - Did Airport start it all?
- A Geologist Reviews 10.5.