At the end of the month, San Andreas, a new disaster movie staring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, will rumble into theaters. The film depicts the catastrophic aftermath of a California earthquake caused by the (very real) fault line. Based on its trailers, San Andreas will hit all the standard disaster movie chords: a stoic hero, his separated family, crumbling buildings, walls of water towering over skylines. As we’ve written about before, fiction has a potent ability to affect real-world perceptions and behavior. But researchers have found that the momentous nature of disaster movies has a particular strong effect on viewers.
In author John Sander’s 2009 book, Studying Disaster Movies, he wrote that disaster movies tap “into fears beyond the audience’s control, yet is often rooted in real-life experience, making the genre a potent mixture of entertainment and a window onto actual events.” In the case of The Day After Tomorrow, a 2004 picture that depicts the fallout from a climate change-endued super storm, the film directly affected attitudes on viewers' understanding of global warming as a threat. A 2004 study by Yale’s Anthony Leiserowitz titled “Surveying the Impact of The Day After Tomorrow” revealed that survey respondents who had seen the movie were significantly more concerned about global warming than those who hadn’t, and were more inclined to think that scenarios depicted on screen will actually happen. Their concerns were so stark that respondents who had seen the film immediately ranked climate change as a more important political issue that those who hadn’t seen it (and this was a decade ago, keep in mind).
Disaster movies tap “into fears beyond the audience’s control, yet is often rooted in real-life experience, making the genre a potent mixture of entertainment and a window onto actual events.”
Leiserowitz summarized his findings, saying, "The Day After Tomorrow had a significant impact on the climate change risk perceptions, conceptual models, behavioral intentions, policy priorities, and even voting intentions of moviegoers."
It's worth noting that researchers have also explored disaster films' shortcomings, such as their tendency to depict women as helpless, or their complete disregard for the actual physics of fire. But when applying this research to San Andreas—which, of course, is not a film about the impacts of climate change, but instead about the slipping of one of the world’s major fault lines—we can infer that the precariously-placed cities of California just might get a much-needed reminder that earthquake precautions and response training are very real and important issues.