For a while, the disaster flick surfed a tidal wave of success, offering up a heady mix of special effects and sadistic voyeurism that invited audiences to decide which of the sad saps on screen would survive. They dealt in a kind of personality Darwinism, whereby the prideful or bad- tempered were always the first to get it. Cheap thrills were the order of the day. Middle-aged men with strong leadership qualities got to lead and women in shoulder pads got to follow. One of the disaster pic's endearingly clumsy attempts at exploitation was the inevitable scene where a good- looking woman would be forced to remove her clothes to get through a very narrow passage or improvise a rope ladder. (If she was older, she'd just be shouted at for trying to keep her high heels on).
Then, around the time of Airplane '80, disaster struck. With a neat sense of chronological obsolescence, the genre went into a tailspin from which it never recovered. Until now.
Maybe it's just the fashion cycles of film or millennial angst, but, after the slow-burn success of Backdraft, the vacuous box-office juggernaut that was Speed and this year's Twister, everybody is suddenly jumping back on the bad-news bandwagon. The soon to be released Daylight has Sylvester Stallone leading a group of motorists to safety after they become trapped in a tunnel beneath the Hudson River. Directed by Rob Cohen, its prescient plot antici- pated a scenario not a million miles away from the Channel Tunnel fire.
And there's a log jam of catastrophes in the works. Bodyguard director, Mick Jackson, is presently rushing to wrap Volcano, before rival lava epic, Dante's Peak, erupts. Then there's Firestorm, which boasts a group of escaped convicts being smoked-out by a forest fire. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. James Cameron's Titanic is set to weigh anchor, while the rights to Philip Kerr's novel Gridiron (about a "smart" building that turns nasty) were snapped up early last year. Indeed, so hungry is Hollywood for disaster that when seven people died on Everest in May this year, survivors were met on their way down by studios competing for their contracts. Let's just hope that when that earthquake finally hits LA and "Quake" goes into production, they remember to cast a venal, cigar-smoking studio head coming to a sticky end in the first few seconds of screen time.