Disaster movies + real life - pt. 2

The below extended passage from an article in The Independent newspaper back in 2004 by David Thomson contains some very interesting points that echo those from my own article. In a third article on this theme, I will look at the idea I referred to in "pt. 1" about the burden of responsibility to "save the world" borne by characters in disaster movies and relate it to the Easter story.

Click here for the full article from The Independent.

Yes, we fear all the great natural disasters: such as global warming raising the level of the seas; the ozone hole making a desert of the Home Counties; the woeful kind of accident (the Intelligence fuck-up) that could let off a nuclear holocaust. But, just like cocksure kid gangsters, we sneer at all those risks, too, and ask the film business to bring 'em on.

We don't really know yet what the use of slaughter as a regular part of "entertainment" is doing to us. We don't know whether we are smart or ironic enough to handle it. There is a case that being allowed to look at so many levels of cinematic torture or cruelty only builds indifference to such things. Maybe we are habituated to TV coverage of 40,000 earthquakes in the "other" part of the world, just as 800,000 dead in Rwanda 10 years ago was more tolerable, more understandable even, than 800,000 dead on the Isle of Wight. We live in scary times, when we have so much to see, and such power of choice. Indeed, there were those who saw the footage of 9/11 "live" and wondered why the early-morning news shows in America were showing clips from Die Hard films.

Don't forget the perilous balance in that ironic or entertaining point of view. And don't minimise the remarkable way in which the most recent advances in film technology - especially computer-generated imagery - have given expression to every archaic scientific prognostication. It is no longer "what if", but "look at this", and on the strength of the trailer, I'd say The Day After Tomorrow has visions of disaster (of unrestrained weather striking civilisation and causing a new ice age) that are as awesome as those films of wax models melting in the first atom-bomb blasts. This movie will show us something we've never seen before, in a way that is not just credible, but persuasive. What that will do for the larger debate over climate change in our time remains to be seen. But the warning of mayhem will be as potent as it is beautiful.

I know "beautiful" is a chilling or creepy word to use if we are asked to look at the subsiding of skyscrapers and the washing- away of streets. Yet I feel it is the right word. For there is a lyricism, a satisfaction, a voluptuousness in destruction on screen that is as great as any that may come from construction, development or erection. And I think it has to do with our most profound loathing or mistrust of order. Yes, most of us are urbanites now, struggling with city problems and enjoying the facilities, but inwardly resentful of so much steel and concrete, so much that is unnatural. Weather is the return of nature, and while heat and rain can be killing things, still a part of us feels cut off from nature, deprived of it, and even betrayers of its pure force. You don't have to see God in that nature, but you can still believe that nature deserves its revenge.

Just as there is enormous charm in those films that show the modern city emptied out - think of Vanilla Sky or 28 Days Later - so there is nothing less than beauty in the abandonment of order. Recently, in America, a large sports stadium in Philadelphia was blown up so that a new and bigger one could be built. The dynamite was placed around the arena like the line of a tune, and the film of its collapse was intoxicating. Television showed it over and over again, as if hypnotised by the sight. All that radiance or perverse miraculousness is at work in disaster films. You can feel it in things as diverse as the Alien's first appearance in that series, breaking out of Ian Holm's (err... that's John Hurt, actually says Bro. James!!) chest; or in the sinister gathering of birds in Alfred Hitchcock's film.

There has been a tendency in disaster films (or "sci-fi projections") for a rather trite moralising that says that we, WE, are to blame for the disaster. So, in a lot of films from the 1950s - such as Them! or Creature from the Black Lagoon - there is the thought that nuclear fallout has bred giant ants to threaten LA, or finned creatures who still gave Marilyn Monroe a thrill. I find that kind of "explanation" less interesting than the unrevealed "plan" in The Birds; the purpose behind The Exterminating Angel; or the pure destruction urging the Alien on. We're guilty enough, surely. To be alive at the turn of this millennium was to have to accept some responsibility for everything from Auschwitz to Rwanda. But just as there is something spectacular in destruction, I think we are more moved if the meaning is implacable but not underlined.

Since the late Nineties, we have seen a great surge of disaster movies bigger even than the Seventies, when we had The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno and Jaws. We have earned such scolding by our conduct on the planet, just as much as we now have the technology to deliver the spectacle without any seams showing. And it may be that a fearsome competition develops between the disasters of fiction and the disasters coming our way on the broadcast news. This could be a gruesome climax to our whole civilisation, and one that plays to quiet contemplation rather than lamentation. For, after all, there are reasons enough to wonder whether our Earth has earned its place or its life. And reasons to wonder whether silence and stillness might not be the most merciful conclusions.


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