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Commercial Catastrophes

Read Tuesday, 2 Jun 2015

Why are there so many disaster movies these days? It’s got more to do with commerce than culture, argues Anthony Morris.

Image: Hollywood crumbles in San Andreas (still)
Meta: *San Andreas* (2015)
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If superheroes go out of style, maybe giant monsters will work. When people get tired of giant monsters, maybe tidal waves or meteors can fill the gap.

San Andreas is a new disaster movie that throws scene after scene of jaw-dropping destruction at you – yet somehow makes levelling the entire west coast of continental USA feel like old news. All your favourite disaster movie clichés are here: the family so shattered by a past tragedy that only the stress of having to survive a new tragedy can bring them together; the step-parent who turns out to be both cowardly and evil the second the chips are down; the grim-faced scientist who warns that the worst is yet to come; the flag fluttering over the ruins while our hero solemnly intones that ‘we will rebuild’; Kylie Minogue running through a doorway not realising that it now leads to nowhere but an 80-storey drop. Actually, that last one is unique to San Andreas, but here’s hoping it becomes a disaster movie regular like all the rest. 

Image: The Golden Gate prepares to meet an improbably huge tsunami in San Andreas (still)
San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge prepares to meet an improbably huge tsunami in *San Andreas* (2015)

Clichés become clichés because they resonate with people. There are few genres that express an audience’s anxieties as openly as the disaster movie genre. Every of these movies is, at its heart, a reminder that the world we live in could turn on us at any moment, that human civilisation is an extremely fragile thing – and when things start to go wrong, survival is not necessarily on the cards for all of us.

They also have an upside: in most disaster movies, people pull together and help each other to survive. It’s surprising how often an impersonal natural disaster seems to know when someone’s only looking out for themselves…and then squashes them flat. The ‘we will rebuild’ ending has been a staple of the genre since Noah; having characters find love in the middle of devastation is a more recent addition.

Since the 1970s, when films like EarthquakeThe Towering Inferno and Airport 1975 (all released in 1974) dominated the box office, the disaster genre has been seen as a reflection of the zeitgeist. In the wake of the upheaval of the 1960s and with the economic downturn of the 1970s, disaster movies reflected the concerns of America and the West. Even if people weren’t specifically worried that they’d be trapped in a fire in the world’s tallest building, the old certainties were no longer solid. Things were starting to go wrong.

Image: The Towering Inferno (still)
*The Towering Inferno* (1974)

The Reagan years saw disaster movies fade away, but as the millennium – advertised as a time for looking forward to the future with anxiety – loomed, disasters returned to the big screen, from Titanic to Independence Day to a Godzilla remake to 1998’s duelling asteroid movies Deep Impact and Armageddon. Since September 11, disaster movies – or at least, movies reliant on mass destruction – have become regular big-screen fare. What’s the third act of every superhero movie but a disaster movie where someone is able to punch the disaster?

The last decade has been one of social unease, a time of uncertainty in a world where our safety is conditional and nothing is certain – not even the ground under our feet. And our big-screen fantasies have tapped into that, reflecting the tenor of the times in a way that’s no less accurate for being blown up to giant proportions. Right?

Well, maybe not. Movies aren’t generated spontaneously by cultural forces: they’re made by businesses seeking to generate a profit. And over the same period that disaster movies have reigned at the box office, movies have undergone a series of major changes. For one thing, star actors aren’t the box office draw they once were. Instead, special effects have become the big selling point in blockbuster releases. That’s partly because Hollywood films now make their money all over the world. While an actors’ charisma may not translate to international audiences once they’ve been dubbed or subtitled (which also means the less dialogue in general the better), everyone understands explosions, screams and collapsing buildings.

To get people into the cinemas they have to offer something the small screen can’t. And that’s pretty much limited to hugely expensive scenes of massive devastation.

Also, Hollywood wants people to see their movies in cinemas. DVD is no longer the massive revenue source it once was and home-streaming has to compete with television, which is going through a golden age thanks to picking up all the things the movies discarded like characterisation and plot. So, to get people into the cinemas they have to offer something the small screen can’t. And that’s pretty much limited to hugely expensive scenes of massive devastation.

Movies in the 21st century have largely been about finding new ways to deliver the kind of high-level destruction now required to create a global hit. The most recent Godzilla remake had giant monsters wrecking a city; the Transformers movies have giant robots wrecking a city; The Avengers and the last Superman movie have super-villains wrecking a city. In this light the extremely retro-seeming San Andreas is actually a step forward, a way for Hollywood to test the waters to see if audiences are once again ready to see a movie where an old-fashioned natural disaster and not some supernatural force levels a major city or two.

Image: Godzilla 2014 (still)
*Godzilla* (2014)

Hollywood is reliant on giving audiences exactly what they want, with just enough changes to make it feel like something new. Rather than tap into the zeitgeist, they just hand out a lot of options, ignore the ones that don’t work and double down on the ones that do. If superheroes go out of style, maybe giant monsters will work. When people get tired of giant monsters, maybe tidal waves or meteors can fill the gap.

Looked at that way, disaster movies are not much more than cynical commercial products, created by bean-counters. And they’re totally disconnected from the zeitgeist because they take years to film and for the computer effects to be completed. Their scenes of devastation are the result not of social fears, but marketing and ruthless economics. And if audiences keep on coming back again and again to see those same scenes of devastation because of some deeper social unease? That’s just good for business.

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, past and present.