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Why does the disaster-movie genre keep averting a terrible fate?

March 14, 2011 |  7:00 am


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


Battle: Los Angeles is weekend box-office winner

Movie Review: Battle: Los Angeles

Critical Mass: Battle: Los Angeles

Photo: A scene from "Battle: Los Angeles." Credit: Sony Pictures

Comments () | Archives (10)

The comments to this entry are closed.

I like the last note here, about how we should look at what succeeds at the box office when we complain about schlock. I've always wondered how you can argue that these kinds of movies are foisted on people, since they do so well (most of the time -- Keanu Reeves excepted).

The disaster film was it's peak in the 1970s with the Irwin Allen classics, 'The Poseidon Adventure' and 'The Towering Inferno' -- I think their contained settings worked better than the current trend of depicting global disasters. In the contained disaster films, the audience can feel a sense of relief when they see the characters being able to get out of the deadly situations on screen. The worldwide calamities never really have that sense of the disaster being over. They also gave a better attempt at character development by having less people to follow...although good character development was never a true hallmark of a disaster film.

I think the mistake in the point of view of this article is that it conflates a 'really bad movie' with the idea of the death of a genre. This genre never dies because the thing that makes an audience want to watch will never die (being a fascination with mortality and 'everything going wrong').

Oh, I'm so sorry LA Times -with a story titled like this one, I guess we're not living up to your "standards". Maybe, just maybe, we like the movie and that genre of movies, no matter what liberal critics and the "Academy" say are the movies we should watch? You couldn't choke me to death on "The King's Speech" without a helluva fight. So very sorry we don't live up to your standards.

Movie reviewers that crush these movies are usually middle-aged men that compare the films to the Godfather or Gone with the Wind. Disaster movies are marketed to people that want to take 2 hours off of reality to watch some crazy plot and insane special effects (2012, Independence Day, Deep Impact).

Most movie reviewers are useless because they are paid to write, so their view is slanted one way or the other. The truth comes from User Reviews. People that shelled out 10 bucks will tell you the truth about a film. If you want to know if a movie is worth 10 bucks or not, go to rottentomatoes.com, find the movie, and check the community reviews (user reviews). Read 10-20 of them and you should have your answer.

This type of thinking drives me crazy, thinking that a movie succeeds or fails based on a one phrase genre categorization. As if people decide based on that. Also, I know the movie marketing people might be guilty of this because that is their job but why do the journalists do it too?
Aside from first weekend grosses that mainly reflect advertising, movies succeed or fail mainly because of their quality, good or bad. Battle: LA will fizzle out because it is not that good, not because the genre is alive or dead.
And what about the genre? It is NOT a disaster movie. It is an alien invasion movie. It is an amalgam of Independence Day, Sector Nine and the jittery-handheld Iraq war movie exemplified by Hurt Locker or Green Zone.
This article was so far off the mark in so many ways.

I think the mystery is why do bad films succeed?
A lot of these movies are stupid but the concept is interesting so you are curious about going. For younger viewers that weren't around or watching non-disney films 15 years ago don't have experience with this crap and are ready to go see them from the commercials and appealing story.
Those over 25 have been burned enough to say - that's probably a dumb ass movie and don't go...
Myself - I think the idea of Aliens battling for Los Angeles sounds cool but after watching enough of those ridiculous movies - I would bet first part is ok and then it devolves into complete absurdity with humans defeating Alien technology through some sort of ridiculous weakness.
No if I was 15 I wouldn't have the wisdom of past movie going misadventures and would probably fork over $10 for this and that is probably the main reason Hollywood and marketers love this demographic.

I don't think the Los Angeles Times is somehow lofty or elitist
in wondering at the success or popularity of this genre.
The reality is that these filmas are not thoughtful pieces or themes
and one does know a culture or people by their art and drama.
People are what they watch and patronise. Rise in wars abroad and the attitudes that inspire them seem to run along with these films.

Believing that somehow most people should
like violence and vulgarity honestly gives populism a bad name. You don't have to live highly to appreciate a good film.
No question as well that people would be better off going to the library

@spin - I agree with your comments. The reviews were mostly bad for Battle Los Angeles, but then, they were written by people who are not fans of the genre. Actually, having seen the film, it's one of the better disaster films I've seen in several years. The dialogue is trite in many spots, but for those of us who enjoy these films, we're looking for average folks placed in extraordinary situations and responding as we might. Not every film has to have great depth or great wit to suceed.

Yeah it's time to get some reeeeeeal movies going. I just read this one today about list of movie ideas based on office supplies -- http://www.theoutsidejoke.com/2011/03/5-movie-ideas-based-on-office-supplies


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