We're all doomed (to watch disaster movies)

Hollywood's latest blockbuster promises epic death and destruction. But reality is scary enough, says David Thomson, so why do we crave celluloid catastrophe?
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The Independent Culture

Just like happiness, cheese and pretty girls, "Disaster" comes in all shapes and flavours. Try this story as an illustration. In 1943, in the middle of the war, the German film industry made an epic entertainment film called Titanic, full of up-to-date special effects. As you might expect, the sinking of that great ship was blamed on the laxity and corruption of the British company that made the Titanic. It is said to be a spectacular and exciting movie - which never got a release outside Germany.

Just like happiness, cheese and pretty girls, "Disaster" comes in all shapes and flavours. Try this story as an illustration. In 1943, in the middle of the war, the German film industry made an epic entertainment film called Titanic, full of up-to-date special effects. As you might expect, the sinking of that great ship was blamed on the laxity and corruption of the British company that made the Titanic. It is said to be a spectacular and exciting movie - which never got a release outside Germany.

Here's the nasty kicker: late in the production, Titanic's esteemed director, Herbert Selpin, was heard to make derogatory remarks about the German army and its recent defeats in Russia. Selpin was relieved of his job, "interviewed" by Goebbels, and imprisoned. Two days later, he was found hanged in his cell - a "suicide".

And that's the difference between disastrous and ghastly, as well as a striking example of the principle that if it is men doing the damage to other men, the result is tragic; but if the damage comes from nature, bad luck, unruly weather or faulty mechanics, then it's a disaster movie. In which case, we are allowed to have a good time. Thus the gleeful fatalism of the trailer for the forthcoming The Day After Tomorrow (to be released on 28 May) - the best come-on I have seen in a cinema for months, and the most alluring calamity since James Cameron's Titanic.

I do not mean to be facetious about disasters, though irony or downright rudeness may be the best possible responses to real disaster. As our ingenuity at furnishing calamity increases (the worst are usually man-made), so we need to be more robust and disrespectful in getting on despite them. In which case, the movies (not for the first time) are an admirable lesson for life. Where else but in cinema's dark do we get such huge fun from "Disasters"?

There's something in cinema itself that lends itself to this amused but uneasy survey of tidal waves collapsing Manhattan - it's safe, until the torrent bursts through the screen - THIS IS FOR REAL, FOLKS!!!! I think it has to do with a kind of finger-crossing in which we all join when a movie begins. In any large but packed cinema, there is a whisper of claustrophobia or dread. Suppose we can't get out? Suppose, as in Luis Buñuel's sublimely matter-of-fact The Exterminating Angel (a perfect generic title for disaster movies), we cannot bring ourselves to quit the dark? Suppose the film breaks down so that just a lurid white light falls back from the screen on our mounting hysteria?

Of course, in the early days of the movies, when film was printed on a highly flammable nitrate-based stock, there was a legitimate fear of fire in theatres. There were real disasters, as well as the tradition of having a bolt on the outside of the projection booth (asbestos-lined) so that a fire might be kept to that small space, and the scrutiny of the projectionist. Yes, human beings perished in the cause of projecting film, and that wasn't funny for them. But early movies thrived on destruction, smash-up, accident - the ingredients of disaster. And, surely, one subconscious reason for that was that it released our crippling fear of a scratch on our car, a leak in our roof or a crack in our conscience. In the increasingly congested world we have to live in, we have become more and more neurotic about contact, damage and imperfection. Yet we hate ourselves in some way for that neurosis, and so we take liberating pleasure in such things as Laurel and Hardy destroying a piano in their effort to carry it up a flight of stairs; the delirious smash-up of cars in What's Up, Doc?, Kong's playing ping-pong with New York subway trains; or the grand dismantling of any great city in a climate that has lost control. Or "Lost Control!!!", as the posters will put it.

Yes, we fear all the great natural disasters: such as global warming raising the level of the seas; the ozone hole making a desert of the Home Counties; the woeful kind of accident (the Intelligence fuck-up) that could let off a nuclear holocaust. But, just like cocksure kid gangsters, we sneer at all those risks, too, and ask the film business to bring 'em on.

We don't really know yet what the use of slaughter as a regular part of "entertainment" is doing to us. We don't know whether we are smart or ironic enough to handle it. There is a case that being allowed to look at so many levels of cinematic torture or cruelty only builds indifference to such things. Maybe we are habituated to TV coverage of 40,000 earthquakes in the "other" part of the world, just as 800,000 dead in Rwanda 10 years ago was more tolerable, more understandable even, than 800,000 dead on the Isle of Wight. We live in scary times, when we have so much to see, and such power of choice. Indeed, there were those who saw the footage of 9/11 "live" and wondered why the early-morning news shows in America were showing clips from Die Hard films.

Don't forget the perilous balance in that ironic or entertaining point of view. And don't minimise the remarkable way in which the most recent advances in film technology - especially computer-generated imagery - have given expression to every archaic scientific prognostication. It is no longer "what if", but "look at this", and on the strength of the trailer, I'd say The Day After Tomorrow has visions of disaster (of unrestrained weather striking civilisation and causing a new ice age) that are as awesome as those films of wax models melting in the first atom-bomb blasts. This movie will show us something we've never seen before, in a way that is not just credible, but persuasive. What that will do for the larger debate over climate change in our time remains to be seen. But the warning of mayhem will be as potent as it is beautiful.

I know "beautiful" is a chilling or creepy word to use if we are asked to look at the subsiding of skyscrapers and the washing- away of streets. Yet I feel it is the right word. For there is a lyricism, a satisfaction, a voluptuousness in destruction on screen that is as great as any that may come from construction, development or erection. And I think it has to do with our most profound loathing or mistrust of order. Yes, most of us are urbanites now, struggling with city problems and enjoying the facilities, but inwardly resentful of so much steel and concrete, so much that is unnatural. Weather is the return of nature, and while heat and rain can be killing things, still a part of us feels cut off from nature, deprived of it, and even betrayers of its pure force. You don't have to see God in that nature, but you can still believe that nature deserves its revenge.

Just as there is enormous charm in those films that show the modern city emptied out - think of Vanilla Sky or 28 Days Later - so there is nothing less than beauty in the abandonment of order. Recently, in America, a large sports stadium in Philadelphia was blown up so that a new and bigger one could be built. The dynamite was placed around the arena like the line of a tune, and the film of its collapse was intoxicating. Television showed it over and over again, as if hypnotised by the sight. All that radiance or perverse miraculousness is at work in disaster films. You can feel it in things as diverse as the Alien's first appearance in that series, breaking out of Ian Holm's chest; or in the sinister gathering of birds in Alfred Hitchcock's film.

There has been a tendency in disaster films (or "sci-fi projections") for a rather trite moralising that says that we, WE, are to blame for the disaster. So, in a lot of films from the 1950s - such as Them! or Creature from the Black Lagoon - there is the thought that nuclear fallout has bred giant ants to threaten LA, or finned creatures who still gave Marilyn Monroe a thrill. I find that kind of "explanation" less interesting than the unrevealed "plan" in The Birds; the purpose behind The Exterminating Angel; or the pure destruction urging the Alien on. We're guilty enough, surely. To be alive at the turn of this millennium was to have to accept some responsibility for everything from Auschwitz to Rwanda. But just as there is something spectacular in destruction, I think we are more moved if the meaning is implacable but not underlined.

Since the late Nineties, we have seen a great surge of disaster movies (bigger even than the Seventies, when we had The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno and Jaws. We have earned such scolding by our conduct on the planet, just as much as we now have the technology to deliver the spectacle without any seams showing. And it may be that a fearsome competition develops between the disasters of fiction and the disasters coming our way on the broadcast news. This could be a gruesome climax to our whole civilisation, and one that plays to quiet contemplation rather than lamentation. For, after all, there are reasons enough to wonder whether our Earth has earned its place or its life. And reasons to wonder whether silence and stillness might not be the most merciful conclusions.

I recently rewatched Stanley Kramer's On the Beach (1959). It is as bad as it ever was, though, in its day, it was both a hit and important because of its grave view of a world terminated by nuclear disaster. For me, it has one touching moment. A submarine (skippered by Gregory Peck) surfaces in San Francisco Bay. Its periscope sees a pretty city skyline in the sun. But there is no movement, no life. Just the vanity of so much building beginning to decay.

That helpless eloquence abides in all disaster films, no matter the silly storylines that ride along on top of the chaos (will Charlton Heston lose Ava Gardner but save Genevieve Bujold in the 1974 Earthquake?). And it's a reminder of something very important about the US, and especially about the part of the country where movies took root. Southern California seemed like a promised land for the people who had escaped pogroms in Europe and found movies as a way to make their fortune. But the promised land was very vulnerable. The city was, and is still, surrounded by desert: it needs its water transported or stolen from somewhere else. And it has to gamble on when the San Andreas fault will go tense again. Los Angelenos and San Franciscans tell themselves - with exactly the defiance I mentioned earlier - that theirs is no place to build a city, let alone live. And if it isn't earthquake, then it's fire, flood or drought. Every natural mishap is available around Southern California - and so the area developed an art form, or entertainment, that has as one of its cutest tricks the suggestion, "What if the world ended...".

My guess is that The Day After Tomorrow will be a smash hit in which sheer wonder triumphs over hokey story elements, and we all move a little closer to the bleak (but blasé) realisation that we are here not so much as pilgrims or models in a parable, but as gamblers, sitting in the dark and hoping that the light is still on outside to guide us home.

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