We see it every summer. It's always different, but somehow always the same. We watch in awe as the ground cracks and fissures, buildings topple in on themselves in symphonies of twisted metal, airplanes swoop, guns fire, and sweaty heroes save the day at the last minute.
Yes — it's the blockbuster disaster movie, and it's always around. Whether the disasters are natural, manmade, or literally from out of this world, we'll happily come back year after year to watch them destroy our biggest cities.
A Genre As Resolute As Its Characters
The disaster movie has been around for almost as long as Hollywood movies have existed, even while the fashion for other genres may wax and wane. For example, you couldn't avoid seeing a Western in the '60s, but these days they're a cinematic anomaly. Even Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers couldn't revive the genre.
Science fiction has suffered peaks and troughs, too, and it's difficult to know if studios would consider sci-fi bankable were it not for the success of Star Wars. Even then, blockbuster sci-fi movies that don't feature a known franchise or superheroes are a rarer beast in modern-day cinema.
It makes it all the more amazing to think that disaster movies are always getting made. The 1990s may have marked the genre's heyday with big-budget blockbusters like Independence Day, Armageddon, Deep Impact and Twister, but the disaster movie hasn't gone away even today.
Recent years have brought us the likes of The Day After Tomorrow, San Andreas, 2012 and the forthcoming Independence Day sequel. Even the ubiquitous superhero movies owe a debt to the disaster genre — those movies frequently climax with city-leveling destruction, as seen in the likes of The Avengers and Man of Steel.
“A lot of these Marvel and DC movies are using the same method now,” says Roland Emmerich, director of disaster films like Independence Day, 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, and the upcoming Independence Day: Resurgence. “They also like to destroy the world and there are a lot of alien invasions. So you have to come up with new images, new story elements, and new effects that the audience will get a kick out of. It's a much tougher world out there for these kind of films than it was in 1996.”
As Emmerich references, the box office returns of the out-and-out disaster movie may not be what they once were — it's tough to imagine a movie like Twister being the second-highest-grossing movie of the year these days, like it was 20 years ago — but they are popular enough to make a profit and seem near enough critic proof.
The History Of The Disaster Movie
Back in the '70s, the melodrama of Airport started this trend. It had a poor critical reception, but made more than 10 times its budget at the box office. We've seen it more recently with the Dwayne Johnson vehicle San Andreas. It was not well-received by critics — it currently stands at a 48 percent on Rotten Tomatoes — but was Warner Bros.' highest grossing film of 2015. It's pretty obvious why critical maulings don't really matter in this genre.
After all, we don't usually go to a disaster movie for nuance or character development — we go to watch nonstop action, destruction and save-the-day heroism. Yet there has to be something in these films that captivates the audience beyond simple carnage, to keep them coming back time after time.
“I think what you have to do in disaster films is not to just make a disaster film. There always has to be one additional element to it,” explains Emmerich. “In Independence Day, the aliens are the disaster and they do disastrous things to our planet. In Day After Tomorrow, it was climate change, which I thought was interesting at that time and still is. In 2012 I told a story about the 1%. Now everybody talks about this. It was a criticism about how things happen in our world.”
Is that why these movies hold such consistent appeal? Perhaps, no matter when they are made, they speak to our fears and preoccupations. Japan used the disaster movie to confront very real fears — from the apocalyptic destruction of the atomic bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II, to nuclear testing in nearby waters — with the sub-genre of kaiju, unspeakable monsters like Godzilla that wrought citywide destruction.
America leaped aboard the disaster movie train, too, perhaps most famously with 1933's King Kong, but the true blockbuster era of disaster movies started later. When the 1970s introduced the world to real-life destruction beamed straight into homes via news reports of the Vietnam War, cinema responded. Not just with anti-war epics, but disaster movies like The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure that reflected real-life disasters playing out live on the small screen, often with decidedly non-Hollywood endings.
“I really like The Poseidon Adventure,” Emmerich admits. “It's one of the best; it's a very unique idea and I still think it's genius that Shelley Winters schlepps along and saves everybody and then dies.”
For a populace numbed by a seemingly never-ending, unwinnable war, and unconvinced their leaders could get things right, there was undoubted relief in seeing ordinary men and women come together to prevent the kind of apocalyptic scenario the war was turning into.
Emmerich is compelled to continue that idea to this day. “In my movies, it's always regular, normal people,” he says. “They can't do anything with superpowers. Also, they wear normal clothes. There are no capes in my movies. It's a little bit more reality based. I never quite understood and that's why I never did [a superhero movie]. Maybe because I grew up in Germany; kids in Germany don't read comic books. For me, it has to be a real character that I can relate to.”
It wasn't just war, either — the ongoing energy crisis made the ruined wastelands of Mad Max resonate all the more strongly. Such preoccupations continued into the '80s, with the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over the world like the sword of Damocles (perhaps best exemplified by the ultra-bleak, all-too-realistic British movie Threads). The '90s soon rolled around and brought with it the end of the Cold War and new optimism across both sides of the pond.
On our cinema screens, though, destruction still ruled, and advances in CGI meant that audiences could see unprecedented levels of it (if you weren't there in '96, you probably can't appreciate how much of a big deal it was to see the White House destroyed by alien lasers). The fear of nuclear war may have receded, but other concerns had come to the fore — environmental issues were a growing problem and fears over the dreaded millennium bug that some thought could send society back to the dark ages meant that disaster movies could still speak to larger societal fears.
They ruled the cinematic landscape in much the same way superhero movies do now, but it wasn’t going to last forever — and it didn't.
The Post-9/11 Disaster Movie
On September 11, 2001, two hijacked planes brought down the World Trade Center in New York City, while a third hijacked plane crashed into the Pentagon at Arlington, Virginia. And everything changed.
Understandably, American audiences were not as keen to watch their cities destroyed up on the big screen in the aftermath of witnessing something so similar in real life. Scripts were rewritten, scenes were reshot, existing films were edited, and in many cases planned movies were shelved — an adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's 1999 novel Survivor was cancelled due to a plot point revolving around the hijacking of an airplane.
Where once it made sense to have entire countries, armies, or Mother Nature wreak havoc, 9/11 proved that the enemy was much more difficult to pinpoint. It meant that disaster movies gave way to superhero movies and gritty thrillers like The Bourne Trilogy or the soft-rebooted Bond movies. Hollywood dealt with the murky world of modern-day terrorism by providing all-American (or British, in Bond's case) heroes winning the day against shadowy cabals or crazed, lone-wolf madmen — but even they were muted early on.
Sam Raimi's Spider-Man moved its action away from heavily populated civilian areas, while Metropolis remained intact throughout Superman Returns, where the Man of Steel saved the city from a Lex Luthor plot involving real estate. Compare either movie's subdued action to the pure carnage of what preceded and followed those movies; the landmark-destroying Independence Day, the explosive third acts of almost every Marvel movie, or the rampaging destruction in Man of Steel.
That's not to say the early 2000s saw the death rattle of disaster movies. Superheroes largely took over, but not entirely — post-9/11, the disaster movies that did actually get made simply had to do more than just offer wanton explosions for us to drool over. In 2004 Emmerich — who gleefully blew up the White House less than a decade before — justified the destruction in The Day After Tomorrow with an environmental message and got political with 2012, which also tapped into fears that the ancient Mayan civilization had successfully predicted the end of the world. In doing so, he made sure to give audiences that extra something beyond simple action.
“My movies have to always have some sort of criticism in there. Something that makes it worth it to me to make the film. I like stories with a lot of characters. I like the fact that they have to make moral decisions. They are very moral films.”
Disaster In The Modern Age
We still live in a post-9/11 world where Bond, Bourne and even Batman provide gritty, realistic takes on counterterrorism, but it seems we're back to watching cities being gleefully destroyed at the same time. The key difference now is that where the camera used to pan away from the smoking ruins of big cities as the credits roll, it metaphorically zooms in.
Our disaster movies (and their offshoots) are as concerned with the aftermath of the chaos as the chaos itself. The two huge superhero movies of this year, Captain America: Civil War and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, had plots that revolved around that very thing.
There was outcry among fans and critics at Man of Steel's unprecedented destruction of Metropolis in its final act, so in the sequel an outraged Bruce Wayne acts as the audience's avatar, confronting a Superman that is distrusted and feared for his potentially city-leveling powers.
Civil War, meanwhile, saw the Avengers at loggerheads over government oversight after the destruction of Sokovia in the previous Avengers movie, Age of Ultron. Now, Independence Day: Resurgence is set to make us think it's 1996 again, but Emmerich confirms that while the movie has his trademark disaster elements, it's much more than that.
“The people in this world refer to the first film as ‘The War of '96.’ It's a post-war generation,” he says. “It's a generation that's stayed united — the world has stayed united; there are no wars anymore. Everybody is working toward one common goal. They know [the aliens] are coming back — they don't know when, but they know they're coming back. The one common goal is to defend the planet.”
All of this leaves us to wonder: Will we ever tire of seeing all we have built get torn down? Whether our real-life preoccupations are with war, terrorism or unstoppable natural disasters, the rush of endorphins we get from viewing that destruction, getting as close as we can without actually being involved, never seems to end.
Disaster movies may get usurped at the box office, and morph and change with the times, but it looks like they will never, ever go away.