disaster movies

The Poseidon Adventure, 1972

Are disaster movies comforting during a crisis?

Between the kitsch factor and a certain relatability, this 1970s subgenre may be worth revisiting right now.

Given the global lockdown — when people around the world are being told to stay inside and avoid social contact — movies and TV shows have taken on an increasing importance in our lives. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised last week when I posted on social media that the government should declare Netflix an essential service some people took it seriously (I was kidding).

Quite naturally, many are drawn to the idea of good old-fashioned escapism. As the film history books note, the Great Depression was a boon to Hollywood, when studios cut their ticket prices so more poor, miserable people could be lifted out of their grim lives for a couple of hours. Cinemas, that near perfect symbol of modernity, now sit empty. Thank the gods for telly.

But some have argued we should in fact watch films about pandemics in the time of a pandemic, as such films hold important lessons in dealing with reality. Others have argued apocalit will help us to find a way once this fog has lifted.

It sounds weird, but I actually find looking at the ’70s cycle of Disaster Movies comforting. Full of cornball dialogue, star-studded casts and ludicrous scenarios, they were a short-lived sensation during my childhood, and perhaps that’s why I find them pleasing: I can still recall my parents taking me to them. We watched in awe as a huge number of stars showed remarkable bravery while many less-famous co-stars didn’t. The special effects, which often look quaint by today’s CGI standards, were strikingly good at the time.

Looking at disaster movies through a sociological genre-studies lens, they appealed to audiences because the catastrophes they depicted served as allegories for the disasters American audiences were having to endure at the time, something I argued when the Poseidon Adventure remake came out in 2006. The all-star casts would lead us to feel like we were watching people we knew — the cult of celebrity’s greatest trick­ — as they faced down being burned, drowned, mutilated or worse. For all of their destructive shaking up of the status quo, the genre was essentially a conservative one: the Disaster Hero (played by various stars including Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Gene Hackman and Charlton Heston) was notably always male, and had the kind of square-jawed confidence that was clearly intended as a reminder of the good old days, when the patriarchy got things done and there would be a morning after.

disaster movies
The Towering Inferno

Looking back, it’s clear to me now that this particular cycle of films wasn’t just about America in peril, but about Hollywood’s own collapse and reinvention. After all, since the sexual violence and bank-robbing anti-heroes Bonnie and Clyde had captured the public’s imagination, the traditional Hollywood studio system was being undermined by the original brat pack, a gaggle of directors (including Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, Coppola and De Palma) who were rewriting the rules and by doing so were making conventional formulas look dull and old-school. New Hollywood had arrived and it was making Old Hollywood look ancient. Disaster movies often featured upstart lefties (like Newman, McQueen and Faye Dunaway) next to ornery iconic conservatives (William Holden, Fred Astaire) in their loaded casting. The tremors in Earthquake actually begin as Victoria Principal is trying to escape her rather grim life in a Los Angeles cinema.

I’ve long regarded these films as glorious kitsch. There is nothing better, to point to one scene in particular, than watching Heston battle it out with Ava Gardner in the opening scene in Earthquake. Both stars, past their prime, clearly didn’t have to reach far in their method-acting emotional baggage to play bitter as hell people who felt trapped by social circumstance. It’s like a master class in operatic misery.

But for all of their silliness, they can burn when they get too close to reality. The Towering Inferno was based on two books, both of which were inspired when their respective authors looked at the building of the Twin Towers in Manhattan, and wondered, ‘What would happen if there was a fire in that building? How would people get out?’ That question, of course, was no longer fiction when 9/11 happened. I began watching The Towering Inferno in the months following that disaster and had to turn it off. The imagination of disaster was no longer so fictional.

If the films seem unsettling in this moment, it’s because of one of the basic traits that runs through them all: the audience is left to wonder, who will make it to the end? [Spoilers ahead.] This was the essential suspense, and screenwriters had learned well from Hitchcock, who had famously knocked off protagonist Janet Leigh in the first third of Psycho in 1960, making it clear to the audience that no one—no matter how big their mansion or contract—was safe. Thus even the most lovable characters played by the most lovable actors would get knocked off, from Shelley Winters in The Poseidon Adventure to Jennifer Jones in Inferno. Charlton Heston even insisted his character die at the end of Earthquake; the original script called for him to survive, presumably to spend the rest of his life with the woman he’s been having an extramarital affair with, played by Genevieve Bujold. But Heston argued it would be more poetic and poignant if his character was flushed down the LA sewer with Gardner. They re-wrote the script for the Oscar winner.

And that’s why I’m finding disaster movies less reassuring than I have in the past. The virus has set in, and given its incubation period, many if not most of us may well already be infected. The future could look like Italy or Spain in a matter of a week. My network of family and friends includes seniors, cancer survivors and people with auto-immune disorders, as well as front-line healthcare workers. I’m petrified for all of them.

Disaster movies were over in a couple of hours. If this pandemic has a more contemporary cultural comparison, it feels like one of those TV series that goes on for several seasons too long. Screenwriters and their critics already have a term for it: stretching. It’s when something that could have been movie-length is expanded so a binge-ready TV series could be created. This feels too long: the anticipation, the constant drone of decreasingly-reassuring headlines, the knowledge that the body count is just beginning, the President who sounds just like the mayor in Jaws—it’s all too familiar.

The waiting is the most terrifying part. I want this movie over. ■

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