A woman screams as the ground shakes beneath her. Paved streets split wide open–a gaping maw taking in everything it can, mailboxes, streetlamps, a bicycle. A man desperately tries to hold onto his wife as she loses her balance and begins to fall into blackness. He fails. A helicopter surveys the damage from above, until it’s sent careening from the sky in flames after being struck by lightning. It crashes through the 58th story of a major metropolitan landmark. But this damage seems trivial in the larger scheme of things. Skyscrapers begin to lean and crumble at their foundation, until all anyone can see are the looming shadows of their world falling apart. And in the face of all this devastating loss of life and irreparable damage, we sit back and grin while shoving handful after handful of popcorn into our mouths. This is the American disaster movie, and we love it.
As children, most of us played with blocks and Legos, and for many it was just as much fun to destroy the giant structures we created as it was to build them. The game Jenga has made serious bank on this idea alone. Children tend to enjoy the sound of things breaking, the sight of something big collapsing, as long as they are in control. So what happens to this enjoyment as we grow older? Before we get into all the history that plays into our cultural fascination with disaster films and all the good and bad films that have resulted from it, there’s one thing that stands paramount to all these other factors. Humanity as a whole has a preoccupation with seeing things destroyed, a gleeful, wide-eyed wonder at watching something majestic and seemingly permanent unmade, and it’s something that doesn’t stop at childhood. As we grow into adulthood, most of us find a means to temper that fascination with destruction. Most of us aren’t going around blowing things up and hoping for natural disasters, and I’d argue that humanity’s desire to create ultimately outweighs its fascination with destruction. But there’s also a reason why The Weather Channel shows blocks of programs showcasing natural disasters and nature overpowering man. There’s a reason why there are events solely dedicated to the destruction and explosion of objects, and there’s a reason why most of our highest-grossing movies have a penchant for mass destruction.
America has been in the disaster film business for almost as long as they’ve been in the film business. While these early disaster films may have been dressed in the trappings of historical epics, musicals, and science-fiction, the first steps towards the creation of the sub-genre were already underway. Disaster films didn’t really begin in earnest until the 1970s, where The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake, and nearly a dozen others of similar intent collected box office receipts and awards nominations. Though Jaws and Star Wars are largely credited with ushering in the blockbuster film era, these disaster films deserve just as much credit and actually have more in common with our modern summer blockbusters than the works of Spielberg and Lucas have had for some time.
So what was it about the 70s that made the disaster film such a popular market? The Vietnam War, the first war that Americans could witness the destruction first hand on their television sets, was winding down. The Cold War continued to raise concerns of nuclear annihilation. The man-made pollution that accelerated global warming began in the 70s, as did the oil crisis. Really all the signs for a real-world disaster were there. Hollywood is known for nothing if not being able to strike iron while it’s hot and the disaster films that followed were a way to tap into the zeitgeist. But because Hollywood is in the business of making money, these movies weren’t warnings so much as a means to play into the seemingly impossible notion of America’s destruction—impossible, because at least according to the movies, there would always be some brawny hero around to prevent the maximum destruction of life. But more important than the heroes, and even the story, were the special effects that could create a certain realism unlike audiences had ever seen before. And as we got better with our special effects techniques, we got better at our scenes of destruction and our taste for new and exciting entertainment was satiated.
The introduction of CGI in the 90s did wonders for cinema. Suddenly we no longer had to rely on matte paintings and miniatures, we could up the ante on explosions and the ruins left in their wake. Before the age of superhero blockbusters, our highest grossing films were disaster movies. Given their scarcity these days, it seems almost impossible to believe. Nearly the entire marketing strategy around Independence Day revolved around the White House being blown to oblivion by an alien laser. That same year (1996), Twister became the second highest grossing movie, largely because of its special effects sequences. In 1997 James Cameron’s Titanic made the disaster film into a prestige pic, and in some ways took the genre back to its earliest, romance-centric roots. But it didn’t stay there. The success of these films only meant that Hollywood had to go bigger. Enter Michael Bay’s Armageddon and its rival Deep Impact, movies so outrageous in their destruction that they barely needed scripts to hold them together. Instead of just relying on the destruction of neighborhoods, single-cities, and famous landmarks, we could now witness the near complete destruction of the world with nary a thought given to the lives lost within these films. Then things changed and watching buildings collapse was no longer seen as fun…at least for a time.
September 11th rightfully made studios wary of massive explosions and ashes falling from the sky. Disaster films became scarce and the few that were released had an environmental focus like Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow and 2012. The former did everything in its power to avoid replicating 9/11 imagery and the later was far enough removed to earn a little leeway, but even then it’s level of destruction is less skyscraper centric. Post-9/11 Hollywood turned to superhero films, characters meant to inspire and prevent destruction and disaster. If you look at the comic book films from the early 2000s they are notably different in their construction of climaxes than the films that make up the genre today. Raimi’s Spider-Man series featured a complete lack of city-wide destruction, its action taking place in abandoned areas. Even Spider-Man 2, which featured a plot-device that could destroy the world, did nothing more than bend a few signs and destroy a pier. If it was made today, the city would be in shambles. But the farther away we moved from the events of 9/11 the more our superhero films began to merge with disaster films. Bay’s Transformers series, Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and Whedon’s Avengers and Snyder’s Man of Steel all feature copious amounts of city-wide destruction. Superheroes became less of protectors against disaster and more so representations of America’s questionable world politics and willingness to put the needs of the many above the needs of the few. Still, fifteen years removed from the event, the level of mass destruction we seen in these films are occasionally criticized as manipulating 9/11 imagery. While this criticism dismisses the fact that film has always manipulated real-world imagery and forgets our disaster film history, there’s an interesting argument to be had about how much destruction is too much for these big-budget superhero and science-fiction films. Just because you can destroy the world from a computer screen, doesn’t always mean you should.
The disaster film as we recognize it today is about forty years old and while its popularity has come and gone in spurts, and it’s been blended with other genres with other intentions, the fact that America likes to see things destroyed on film remains. Other countries contribute a large amount of money to disaster films, mostly because they’re special effects-centric and the star power of key players. With the exception of the Japanese Kaiju films, which are a similar but slightly different subgenre all together, the production and release of them is almost solely an American effort and everything about the way we showcase disasters speaks to this. In the 20th and 21st centuries, we’ve never had to deal with war in our country, never had to see heaps of bodies dead in the streets, never faced a natural disaster that wiped out our historical landmarks and left the face of our country forever changed. As bad as Hurricane Katrina and Sandy were, our country’s disaster relief programs prevented the situation from becoming anything like it would be in numerous other countries. If you look at the pictures of the aftermath of the Tsunami in the Philippines and those after Sandy, there’s really no comparison. And 9/11 for all its horrific tragedy did not erupt in a war on our soil. While the Japanese Godzilla films come from a place of allegory to shed light on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we’ve never had to deal with that level of disaster in a state of poverty or civil unrest like so many other countries which allows us to continue to make these films soley under the guise of entertainment. As good as our Godzilla (2014), Pacific Rim, and Cloverfield are, they aren’t coming from the same place historically as their Japanese cinematic ancestors. Our disaster films are mostly bloodless and bodiless affairs where empty buildings can fall and whatever death toll there is can be briefly mentioned before the smiling ending and hit-single to play over the credits. Our disasters are the ones we have control over and no matter how we arrange them, there’s little room for or interest in overt allegory. Ultimately, we as Americans, don’t truly understand mass destruction which allows our disaster films to remain inconsequential and unproblematic for many audiences.
With this weekend’s release of San Andreas, we see the first true, big-budget, majorly released disaster film in years. And it isn’t a prestige pic like 2012’s The Impossible. It’s purely grand, nonsensical destruction with brawniest of all brawny men, Dwayne Johnson, at the center. It looks set to make a decent amount of money (probably more money than it should), which would be evidence that even without costumed characters, people will go watch cities and monuments reduced to rubble. I’d made the joke early this year that San Andreas looked like the hottest movie of 1997, that it looked like an odd anachronism that I couldn’t believe got made. What I failed to see was that, as an audience, we’re not so different from those of 1997, or 1977 for that matter. We’re still children, watching our friends create towers of building blocks only to knock them down, still excited by it because we don’t know any better.