In the spring of 1998, some who followed the movie industry believed that the epic-disaster film was about to meet its untimely end.
Just a couple of years before, a pair of hits had seemed to exhaust any interest we might have had in watching humanity fall prey to jaw-dropping destruction. "Twister" and "Independence Day" had finished one-two at the year-end box office, combining for a then-remarkable half-billion dollars in U.S. receipts. If we harbored a desire to watch spectacular doom, those movies would seem to have satisfied it, and then some.
But within the space of just two months in the spring and summer of 1998, we were graced with not one but two global-disaster movies. They both proved surprisingly popular. The comet-hurtling-toward-Earth spin on the genre, "Deep Impact," became a hit in May, taking in $350 million around the world. That should have meant we had little enthusiasm left for the asteroid-hurtling-toward-Earth entrant "Armageddon" when it came out just two months later. And yet the Michael Bay movie did even better, tallying $550 million worldwide and becoming the second-highest-grossing release in the U.S. that year.
The just-when-you-thought-it-was-over resurgence happened again recently. In 2006 Wolfgang Petersen's "Poseidon" fizzled, and then in 2008, Keanu Reeves' remake of "The Day the Earth Stood Still" -- a different twist on the theme but with the same the-world-will-end overtones -- flamed out. It looked likely to stop in its tracks anything else remotely resembling a disaster movie. And yet less than a year later, disaster-movie specialist Roland Emmerich came out with "2012," which went on to become one of the highest-grossing non-sequels of that year. (It also tallied nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars around the world.) Catastrophe cinema was again alive and well.
When it comes to the disaster-movie genre, the comeback, it seems, is almost as much of a given as the troubled family man who must save the world to save himself. No matter how many times humanity is rescued from an asteroid, comet, tornado or alien spacecraft, there's always one more threat coming up right behind it. And there are millions of us who will pay good money to see it happen.
The pattern was in evidence again this weekend when Jonathan Liebesman's alien-siege film, "Battle: Los Angeles" rolled out across the country. Hollywood's most recent disaster spectacle, "Skyline," was an unmitigated flop this fall, auguring, it seemed, a fallow period for the genre. And the reviews for "Battle" were almost uniformly negative. Yet the film opened to $36 million. It was the top live-action opening so far in 2011 and a categorical triumph over the weekend's two other wide releases, which offered far less durable trends in 3-D ("Mars Needs Moms") and werewolves "(Red Riding Hood").
Cunningly cut trailers and a cast made up of a diverse group of minority actors might have played a role in the success of "Battle: Los Angeles." So might have the popularity of war-scenario video games and the film's bedrock patriotism. And cultural theorists will point to the sublimated fears about a planet in peril to explain why we find these types of movies endlessly attractive.
Of course, though that last factor explains the success of "The Day After Tomorrow" in 2004, or "War of the Worlds" -- which Steven Spielberg and others viewed as a 9/11 movie -- in 2005, it hardly explains the flourishing of global-disaster movies in the 1990s, when much of the West lived prosperously and peacefully.
The best explanation, instead, may be the simple one: No matter where we are culturally, there's a part of us that likes watching most of the world blow up (and having a white knight rescue us before it blows up entirely). There's always room for a global-disaster movie. It's the dessert of cinema.
Many of us blame Hollywood for giving us the tried-and-true as often as it does. But after seeing how resilient some of these movies are at the box office, it may make sense to look not to distant planets but to our own appetites for the reason that giant asteroid reliably heads toward our movie theaters every few years.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: A scene from "Battle: Los Angeles." Credit: Sony Pictures