Disaster movies and real life

In recent months I've been living in parallel worlds of desctruction and violence: one, the real world as portrayed by Sky News, BBC 24, CNN, etc... where natural disasters, warfare and the danger of nuclear catastrophe have been dominating screen time, and the second being a world of destruction of apocalyptic (or near apocalyptic) proportions, where corny dialogue, bad (or at best dubious) science, crimes against cinematic good taste, plot and character cliches, etc... reign supreme.

And I am beginning to wonder what it is doing to my soul.

I jest not.

I am referring to the fact that for the last few months I have been teaching about the Disaster Movie genre to my Yr. 11 students (15-16 year-olds) as a compulsory element of their GCSE Film Studies course.I would be lying if I said that the viewing or reviewing of such "classics" of the genre as "The Core", "Dante's Peak", "2012" and "Skyline" had not afforded me any guilty pleasures. The most enjoyment has come from the older films such as "The Towering Inferno" (actually a very good, solidly made, believable drama), "The Poseidon Adventure" (a bit over-rated really) and the timeless parody movie "Airplane!", as well as from much more recent alternative takes on the well-trodden formula, such as "Cloverfield" and "United 93" (one of the most powerful, moving and quietly devastating films I have ever seen).

But all this destruction (real or imagined) has lead me to wonder why we are so fascinated by seeing large scale devastation on screen, whether it be of the fictional kind or "live feed" filmed-on-the-fly footage of, say, the irresistible force that is a tsunami wave.

I mentioned to my students yesterday that watching the recent disaster movie "2012" the other day (for lesson preparation, I hasten to add!) was a strange experience for me. I thought it was well made, with a decent cast generally behaving... well, decently, was not as cliché-ridden as certain other films and made impressive, eye-popping use of CGI. But, I was troubled by the tongue-in-check tone of the some of the humour and dialogue (and not just from John Cusack) during the scenes of destruction. A particular sequence involved "hair-raising" escapes in a cars and planes that were genuinely spectacular, but which played out almost like a sequence from a video game, e.g. a massive earthquake hitting L.A., opening up the San Andreas fault and dragging most of L.A. down into it. And yet, despite the fact that the deaths of thousands, if not millions of people were either visible on screen (though not close-up) or alluded to visually, the whole spectacle left me cold emotionally. The whole sequence felt more like an Alton Towers ride than a death scene. This must presumably have been a conscious choice on the part of Roland Emmerich (Director) and his team. The escaping characters themselves seem at times more awe-struck than terrified by what they witness, the exceptions being the 2 (obligatory) children (boy + girl) who are clearly upset by what they see.

The aforementioned sequence from "2012".

Interestingly, I think this rather accurately reflects the modern-day general inability, and perhaps unwillingness, of our minds to grasp large-scale disaster. It's normally only when such events take on a small-scale human dimension (e.g. a boy's mother dies) that we really start to care (if at all). Hence, disaster movies playing on both the "macro" (large-scale catastrophe) and the "micro" (human relationships) levels. In "The Core", a French scientist, played by Tchéky Karyo, says at a key moment that he is not there to "save the world", but to save 3 people: his wife and 2 children, and that he hopes he will be strong enough and brave enough to do that. Obviously, in saving them, he is also saving the world, but the pressure of such a realisation would be too much for him, and probably for most people, so he blanks it out, or at least tries to.

This puts me in mind of a great line from "The Matrix" during a conversation between Cypher (the "Judas" character) and Neo (the One, the Saviour):

CYPHER: Can I ask you something? Did he tell you why he did it?

Neo looks up.

CYPHER: Why you're here?

NEO: ...yeah.

CYPHER: Gee-zus! What a mindjob. So you're here to save the world. You gotta be kidding me. What do you say to something like that?

Indeed, what can you say? (see the next 2 articles for further thoughts on this)

Ultimately, in our own lives we can do our bit to make the world a better place by helping those whom it is possible for us to help. In so doing, we can genuinely "change the world". Our actions have consequences, the ripples going out from them into the world.

Watching the suffering of others in the midst of disaster on television news can be very depressing and overwhelming. Obviously we can donate to charities involved in relief work. But how about allowing such news to inspire us to go and help those in our immediate vicinity? "If I can't help the old woman in Japan on the tv news who has lost all her family, I can certainly go and visit a lonely old relative in her nursing home and bring her the gift of my time and my love.

Am I strong enough and brave enough to do that?

Now there's something to aspire to for Lent (and beyond!).

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