One of the great joys of being a filmmaker, especially a filmmaker fortunate enough to play around with a big budget production, is to create an elaborate movie world and then tear it to the ground in spectacularly destructive fashion. Making a disaster movie essentially gives a director the opportunity to return to his childhood playroom, where he can stack his building blocks as high as possible and then delight in glee as he makes those towers crumble. This week, unapologetic hack Paul W.S. Anderson recreates the historical tragedy of the destruction of Pompeii in glitzy and gaudy digital 3D. For today’s Roundtable, we look back at some other best and worst examples of the disaster genre.
Best: ‘Dante’s Peak‘ nails two important disaster movie elements right off the bat: a believable premise and effective casting. Pirece Brosnan prophesies an impending disaster, and Linda Hamilton acts as the center of a family that the audience can care about. The peaceful mountain community is established and then destroyed in multiple horrific but believable ways. I’ve always thought that the movie carried some subliminal truck advertising, as Brosnan seems able to face off with lava, acid and gravity with no more than a pick-up or Suburban.
Worst: While there are probably worse disaster movies, ‘The Day After Tomorrow‘ is a soggy mess. By the time Dennis Quaid walks to New York to rescue his book-burning son, it’s hard not to personally dislike Roland Emmerich.
Worst: Many of the disaster movies that I grew up with seemed so amazing at the time, but when watched as an adult look pretty cheesy. Case in point: ‘Twister‘. I re-watched on cable not long ago and couldn’t believe it was the same movie I obsessed over as a young teenager.
Best: However, I watched and unapologetically enjoyed ‘2012‘ as an adult, and it’s been just as absurdly fun with repeat viewings. I love how over the top the movie is: outrunning volcanoes in RVs and earthquakes in limousines; driving a limo through a collapsing skyscraper; taxiing an airplane down a crumbling runway and lifting off just before the world dissolves; and who can forget the revelation of the “arks.” What we thought would be spaceships were really giant barges! And thank heaven for John Cusack starring in it. I die laughing every time I hear him yell “Get in the fucking car!” to a pair of kids. Hilarious!
Best: Both the acting and the production values may appear cheesy by today’s standards (although this movie did win two Oscars, one for visual effects), but I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for ‘Earthquake‘, the 1974 disaster film about the “big one” hitting Los Angeles. Like many big budget movies of its day, this one had a cast of thousands (or at least dozens), including Moses himself, Charlton Heston. This is one of my earliest movie memories (I must have seen this November 1974 flick pretty late in its run or during a re-release, since I’m pretty sure my first movie was 1975’s ‘Race with the Devil’), and I recall a big fuss being made over the sound in the theater. ‘Earthquake’ featured Universal’s “Sensurround,” which was just a fancy name for bass that was pumped up so loud it peeled the paint off the theater walls and left your ears ringing for days.
Worst: Director Roland Emmerich has become the modern-day king of disaster flicks, and none are more over-the-top or as ridiculously silly as ‘2012‘. I don’t even necessarily have a problem with the hammy acting in this movie (it hasn’t prevented me from still enjoying ‘Earthquake’); it’s the lack of believability of some of the visual effects sequences. For example, look at the scene early in the movie where the character played by John Cusack escapes Los Angeles in his limo. Yes, the visuals are fun, but the realism is laughably bad. It would be more believable if he just drove through a volcanic eruption or a nuclear explosion. The movie is filled with such sequences, and after sitting through two or three of them, you start rooting for the disaster and against the characters.
Worst: The worst disaster movie I can think of is ‘Volcano‘. I don’t think there’s really even much of a typical volcano in ‘Volcano’. It’s more of an oozing lump. I haven’t seen the whole mess since it was in the theater, so I can only imagine that moments like Tommy Lee Jones dangling over a cheap volcano-on-highway effect have only gotten lamer in the past 17 years. Ho-oooooly cow! How can it be that long already?
Best: As much as you can fault its shallow script, superficial characters and the hackneyed love story that drives its plot, ‘Titanic‘ is nevertheless a very smart movie. James Cameron was savvy enough to fuse the emotional appeal of a weepy romance with plenty of hardcore destruction spectacle to attract both male and female audiences in droves. It’s no accident that this held the record as the highest-grossing movie of all time for a dozen years (until Cameron topped himself with ‘Avatar’). When the production went over budget and behind schedule, industry naysayers scoffed that the film was as doomed as its subject matter, but James Cameron knew exactly what he was doing. While I have issues with many aspects of it and certainly never felt that it was the best film of 1997, I can’t deny that ‘Titanic’ is populist entertainment of the highest order. Unlike its historical counterpart, this ship stays afloat.
Worst: Since the heyday of Irwin Allen, Hollywood has taken it for granted that audiences expect and want disaster movies to be dumb. Really dumb. I’ve never understood the correlation, but it’s undeniably tied to the genre. Movies that are knowingly dumb, such as Allen’s or Roland Emmerich’s, are obnoxious enough, but movies that think they’re smarter than they actually are make me want to gouge my eyes out. As far as that goes, ‘Twister‘ is one of the dumbest fucking movies I’ve ever seen in my life and really made me question my will to live in a world that would produce such garbage, and in which audiences would enthusiastically make a blockbuster out of it. For fuck’s sake, our heroes survive the strongest tornado in recorded history by lashing a belt to a broken piece of rusty pipe sticking out of the ground. Even as the wind tears houses and buildings to pieces around them, they’re perfectly fine riding it out, never in any danger of being hit by debris. Don’t even get me started on how the “good” storm chasers drive the white trucks and the “bad” storm chasers drive the black trucks. Why are there good and bad storm chasers at all? They’re all idiots! This movie has two future Oscar winners in the cast and a screenplay credited to Michael Crichton. There’s no excuse for it to be this awful.
What are some of your favorite (or least favorite) disaster movies? Tell us in the Comments.