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This summer, a colleague asked me if he should see San Andreas.
“It includes a scene of The Rock driving a speedboat over the top of a tsunami. Of course, you should see it,” I told him.
To say they don’t make movies like San Andreas—a CGI-heavy flick about an earthquake obliterating San Francisco and one Dwayne Johnson’s quest to rescue his family—anymore isn’t just a hoary turn of marketing phrase. San Andreas is in many ways a throwback to a bygone genre that, in our current geopolitically and ecologically fraught climate, is ripe for a renaissance—the old-fashioned, big budget disaster movie, a model of collective action in the face of life or death circumstances.
I’m drawing a distinction between disaster movies that are predicated on natural disasters and those that are based on a science fiction premise (Pacific Rim, World War Z), involve a highly specific, contained scenario (the spate of “White House in peril” films) or where the disastrous event is largely a backdrop for another story (sorry, Titanic fans). Unlike real-world natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina that disproportionately affect the poor and those who lack access to relief resources, the natural disaster movies I’m interested in are modeled on an artificially constructed sense of “we’re all in this together” egalitarianism in which Mother Nature doesn’t discriminate on the basis of class or race. If the plane crashes, sitting in business class instead of coach isn’t going to save you, the logic goes.
In a world where we’re trapped between the banality of overfilled inboxes and an interminable election cycle and the genuine terror of, well, terrorism, cinema is once again poised to be truly escapist and cathartic fare.
Although they’ve been around since the early 20th century—Clark Gable and Jeanette MacDonald faced down a trembling San Francisco in a 1936 feature of the same name, for example—and have never been entirely absent from the screen—2000’s The Perfect Storm and 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow come to mind—disaster movies arguably had their heyday in the ’70s. The boom started with 1970’s Academy Award-winning Airport, which stretches the foundational “man vs. nature” theme of the genre by pitting Burt Lancaster against bureaucratic red tape and the limits of mid 20th-century snow removal technology. Perhaps the high water marks for the genre were 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure and 1974’s The Towering Inferno. The former is about a luxury liner swamped by a wave and the efforts of a small group of passengers to evacuate the sinking vessel and the latter involves shoddy wiring in a luxury high-rise building causing a raging fire and the efforts of those trapped inside to escape. The year 1974 alone saw the release of box office titans Inferno, Earthquake, and the first of the airport sequels, Airport 1975. Such a pop cultural touchpoint was the Airport series that it eventually served as one of the inspirations for 1980’s parody hit, Airplane!
The conceit of these disaster movies is simple. Some aspect of the natural world, often a meteorological phenomenon or one of the elements run amok, unleashes hell on humanity, and an all-star ensemble cast must fight for survival in a series of intertwined stories. Against the backdrop of natural turmoil, human nature comes to the fore. Morality is unabashedly black and white. There is an obvious hero, an everyman of principle who is thrust into a leadership role and assumes responsibility for saving others (and played through the years by the likes of Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, and Charlton Heston). The hero’s nobility is contrasted in most films by a coward, who places his own welfare above that of others. He is Richard Chamberlain’s sniveling electrical engineer in Inferno, Ioan Gruffud’s rich executive who leaves The Rock’s daughter to die in San Andreas. The hero and the coward represent the duality of human response to stress, encouraging us through their actions to examine our conscience to determine which mode best embodies our own potential reaction to crisis.
While these archetypes are established early in the film, disaster movies typically also provide opportunities for supporting players to enact their micro-heroics. Think of Shelley Winters’ former swim champion sacrificing herself to save Gene Hackman’s headstrong man of God in The Poseidon Adventure or Inferno’s William Holden’s cavalier building owner having a change of heart and turning on his slimy son-in-law, Chamberlain, and declaring that the two of them will be the last to evacuate the flaming Golden Tower.
Disaster movies show us predicaments that call for a united, collective response delivered with a side of outstanding special effects and high camp performances. Those who act contrary to this spirit (placing their individual good above that of the group) are inevitably dealt their comeuppance, which the audience is meant to relish. Perhaps no movie in the disaster canon is as collaborative as Inferno, a joint production between Twentieth Century Fox and Warner Bros., with a script based on two novels and headlined by two of Hollywood’s leading men of the day, Newman and McQueen. Indeed, to keep things completely equal, their characters are given the same number of lines and the actors’ names are presented in the opening credits at the same time. Within the film, little drama is mined from rivalry between McQueen’s fire chief and Newman’s architect. When the two share the screen, it’s primarily to work in respectful concert to rescue innocent bystanders.
The psychology behind disaster movies is not particularly difficult to parse. Wheeler Winston Dixon, author of Disaster and Memory, sums it up nicely in a BBC.com piece: “People go to disaster movies to prove to themselves that they can go through the worst possible experience but somehow they’re immortal.” Dixon’s summation fits well with Salon film critic Andrew O’Hehir’s closing critique of San Andreas: “We know our country is doomed, and I mean we know it, on a bone level. But somehow or other we also think our kids will grow up and be cool and it’s all totally fine. The coming disaster is for other people.”
If we agree disaster movies are, at some level, a manifestation of our desire to exert control over the uncontrollable (nature) and a salve for a general feeling of powerlessness, it’s little wonder that the 1970s were a golden age for the genre (and little wonder we’d contemplate a return to it now). At the risk of reducing the era to a series of Billy Joelesque couplets, the first few years of the decade featured the aborted Apollo 13 mission, the invasion of Cambodia, the eventual limping end of the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon’s re-election and resignation with Watergate in between, the historic Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision, the 1973 oil crisis, and the recession of 1973–75, featuring a crippling combination of inflation and high unemployment. The early ’70s also marked the dawning of the modern environmental movement, with 1970 seeing both the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and the first worldwide Earth Day. Against a backdrop of political and social upheaval, there seemed no better time to work out our collective angst and no more popular big screen way to do it than to put the day’s finest leading men up against the most the uncaring foe of all: Mother Nature.
Yet, as the disaster genre was reaching its box office peak, the collectivism exemplified in its plots and in the late ’60s zeitgeist was already beginning to wane in American society. Disaster movies were on borrowed time. In a 1976 essay for New York, Tom Wolfe coined the term the “Me Decade” to describe what he felt was the self-absorption of the time, brought on in large part by the economic elevation of the working class, which provided them with more time for the relative luxury of contemplating the self.
“The old alchemical dream was changing base metals into gold,” Wolfe writes. “The new alchemical dream is: changing one’s personality—remaking, remodeling, elevating, and polishing one’s very self ... and observing, studying, and doting on it. (Me!).”
The idea of working in concert gave way to the all-consuming task of working on oneself.
“We know our country is doomed, and I mean we know it, on a bone level. But somehow or other we also think our kids will grow up and be cool and it’s all totally fine. The coming disaster is for other people.”
Wolfe wasn’t the only one to situate a dwindling sense of community in American life as an issue that took root in the ’70s. Harvard University’s Robert Putnam, author of 2000’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse And Revival of American Community, catalogs decades-long decline in measures of civic engagement, including voter turnout, attendance at religious services, labor union membership, and rates of volunteering. In a 1995 article for the Journal of Democracy that served as the basis for his book, Putnam notes that participation in the Boy Scouts dropped 26 percent between 1970 and 1995 and volunteering for the Red Cross plunged 61 percent over that same period. Regular volunteering in general, according to the Labor Department’s Current Population Surveys of 1974 and 1989, fell from 24 percent to 20 percent over the 15-year period between surveys, Putnam’s research notes.
The decline in civic engagement and interpersonal trust that Putnam traces helps to explain not only why the public appetite for old-fashioned disaster movies dropped off, but also hints at what came to replace them. Concurrent to our unmooring from community life came the increasing technologization (Microsoft was founded in 1975, Apple in 1976) of society. Our entertainment evolved to reflect our fears about the alienation this technology imposed on us—our fear of nature gave way to our fear of human nature. Our growing dependence on personal technology, its encroachment into all corners of our lives and our dawning awareness of the vulnerability this precipitated provided fertile fodder for the big screen. From Blade Runner to the Terminator and Hunger Games franchises, our apocalyptic imagination has, in recent decades, become largely preoccupied with the idea of (one) man against a man-made system and our cinematic heroes were no longer mostly unambiguous do-gooders, but more likely to be complex individuals shaded gray with faults.
These days, the primary cinematic collaboration we see in blockbuster movies comes from cadres of superheroes, so far removed from our quotidian experience is the idea of ordinary folks teaming up to triumph in extraordinary circumstances. We’ve replaced McQueen and Newman with The Avengers. If saving the day is left up to a mere mortal, it’s usually a group of one. It doesn’t take Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, George Kennedy, and several dozen air traffic controllers to rescue an imperiled plane. For that job, we have a singular Liam Neeson.
The tide, however, may be turning.
The geopolitical pendulum is swinging back toward more collaboration, if not driven by a strengthening of social bonds, then by necessity. Simply put, the great challenges of the day—climate change, mass shootings, the Syrian refugee crisis, ISIS, and the threat of global terrorism, all call for collective action, both at the level of individual citizens and nation-states. And we’re seeing tentative steps in that direction. The recent 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference saw the consensus adoption by 196 member states and the European Union of the Paris Agreement to reduce emissions. Newly minted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has garnered worldwide plaudits for his government’s plan to re-settle 50,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2016 and he has the photos of Canadians arriving at airports to greet Syrian families as they disembark to prove it.
In The Imagination of Disaster, Susan Sontag writes of the escapist nature of popular works of fantasy: “Ours is indeed an age of extremity. For we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies; unremitting banality and inconceivable terror. It is fantasy, served out in large rations by the popular arts, which allows most people to cope with these twin specters. For one job that fantasy can do is to lift us out of the unbearably humdrum and to distract us from terrors—real or anticipated—by an escape into exotic dangerous situations which have last-minute happy endings. But another of the things that fantasy can do is normalize what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it. In one case, fantasy beautifies the world. In the other, it neutralizes it.”
Although Sontag’s words were published in 1961, they could just as easily apply to the present day. In a world where we’re trapped between the banality of overfilled inboxes and an interminable election cycle and the genuine terror of, well, terrorism, cinema is once again poised to be truly escapist and cathartic fare. And what better way to work out both our fears of mortality and our necessary return to a collaborative form of social problem solving than through good old-fashioned disaster movies? Perhaps San Andreas was a blip on the pop cultural radar buoyed to a $470 million box office by the star power of The Rock, but maybe it was also the warning tremor that signals disaster movies are due for a return to public consciousness.
Lead Photo: The Rock in San Andreas. (Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures)