Mother Nature Strikes Back! Hollywood disaster films!

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A few weeks ago the United States braced itself for Hurricane Irene. Fearful it would cause the death and destruction seen by such notable storms as Andrew and Katrina, homes were evacuated and the 24 hour news shows talked about little else. Fortunately it was no where near as catastrophic as the aforementioned “monsters” but, every once in awhile, Mother Nature does let us know who’s boss. Despite man’s ability to fly into space, conquer disease, and his numerous other innovations, when push comes to shove we are still no match for our own planet.

I live in the Midwest and every Spring we are inundated with numerous tornado sirens and TV weather alerts. The fact that my town hasn’t been hit with a tornado in over 30 years is inconsequential. They are an ominous reminder that, in the span of mere seconds, our entire lives can be turned upside down. Hollywood has taken note and responded by serving up just about every gruesome scenario our planet has to offer. Its a time-honored tradition that seems to have its own “seasons” as well with the genre falling in and out of favor.

The 1970’s are considered the “Golden Age” of disaster films and featured quite a few from THE TOWERING INFERNO to AIRPORT. Many of these films featured a star-studded cast, were shown on both the large and small screens, and perhaps played on our nation’s insecurities during a rough economic period when bad times made us feel helpless. Regardless of the sociological reasons, disaster films would reign supreme until 1980 when a certain comedy called AIRPLANE! would turn them into an overnight joke. They would lose favor for over a decade before being awakened like a dormant volcano in the mid 90’s for another popular run. Here are a few examples of the genre – many considered “disasters” in and of themselves….

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AVALANCHE (1978) – Rock Hudson and Mia Farrow head a cast of unlucky vacationers who pick the absolute WORST place to go skiing. The first portion of the movie is almost like an episode of “Love Boat” with recognizable cast members arriving at the resort and hilariously representing every stereotype imaginable. Unfortunately the film is all (pardon the pun) downhill from there. Like most movies in the disaster genre, you need to fill-up a lot of air time for those mere seconds of turmoil. Hudson is the self-absorbed resort owner, trying to win back Farrow’s love while dodging warnings about impending disaster. The plot is a forgettable soap opera and the event itself a stock-footage extravaganza. This is one avalanche where you find yourself sympathizing with the mountain!

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EARTHQUAKE (1974) – One of the scariest natural disasters of all is the earthquake. This is due to its suddenness as well as the very idea of the ground beneath us becoming unstable. Its become even more frightening within the last decade as its deadly off-shoots, tsunamis, have now become a household word. Geologists have long predicted the “Big One” that will cause a portion of southern California to sink into the Pacific. In truth it won’t really sink as much as “break off” and move away from the mainland. Plate tectonics is a characteristic of a “living” planet but that’s little consolation to us humans and our hubris – building homes and skyscrapers regardless of them standing in the middle of a fault line. EARTHQUAKE featured Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner and was a box office winner. Like AVALANCHE its a bunch of big names playing shallow characters but I found it a bit more tolerable. The familiar LA background is a better venue than the claustrophobic ski resort and, if you start to get bored (which believe me you will), some occasional tremors will remind you that the good stuff is coming.

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TWISTER (1996) – If AIRPLANE! caused the disaster film to fall into a coma, TWISTER may very well be credited with its revival. Three years after the groundbreaking JURASSIC PARK (whose creators also worked on this one), Hollywood no longer needed to rely on stock footage to show what the earth is capable of. With the advent of digital technology, it was time to take on one of the most terrifying expressions of nature – the tornado! As I mentioned before, I am from the Midwest and it is a very real issue that has me a ball of nerves whenever the season arrives (though they are not necessarily relegated to those months). “Big Love’s” Bill Paxton joins Helen Hunt on the ultimate storm-chasing expedition. Actually, its a storm chaser’s dream-come-true and the film not only features numerous twisters, but virtually every type from multiple-vortex to the dreaded F-5. Plot wise, the movie is about as realistic as the last good film featuring a tornado THE WIZARD OF OZ but its still loads of fun and highly entertaining from beginning to end! I’ve watched it many times and it’s a household favorite. It was a big hit at the box office too and would spawn numerous made-for-cable tornado films, give renewed vigor for disaster films in general (VOLCANO, DANTE’S PEAK, TITANIC), as well as a multitude of great documentaries featuring real-life storm chasers that are still popular today.
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THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW (2004) – If there is any film-maker that knows how to create a big screen disaster (in every sense of the word) its Roland Emerich (e.g. GODZILLA -1998 & INDEPENDENCE DAY). In 2004, Emerich decided to really drive the whole “Global Warning” issue home, so he created THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW. This movie wasn’t just Global Warming, it was Global Warming on CRACK! Not only does man speed-up the world’s climate issues, he manages to create an overnight Ice Age! Emerich’s films often feature grandiose Special FX along with ridiculous characters to match the plots. He also has a habit of taking real-life people he doesn’t care for and parodying them in his movies (like film critics Siskel and Ebert who got mocked in GODZILLA for daring to give INDEPENDENCE DAY two thumbs down). In other words, if his next film features a villainous, overweight fanboy wearing a Brookfield Zoo baseball cap, its a good bet he read this post. THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW is no exception with a “Dick Cheney” Vice President unwilling to admit climate change is an issue until New York becomes a veritable glacier. The movie was popular but silly and even Al Gore would find it alarming. For those who thought this film was over the top, however, it would be nothing compared to his next feature….

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2012 (2009) – Forget the Prince song, according to the Mayans, 1999 ain’t got nothin’ on 2012! According to their ancient prophecies, this will be the year the world as we know it comes to an end (thus, the ultimate natural disaster)! The theory is that the sun’s increasing solar flares will act as a “microwave” causing the Earth’s core to heat up. This, as one can imagine, will cause inactive volcanoes to come to life along with the continents literally melting away. Of course the government has long been aware of this situation and, during the time they’ve been covering up 9-11 and hiding UFO’s, managed to create a new-age “Noah’s Ark” designed not for animals so much as elite humans. Emerich goes ALL OUT with the effects in this one, so much so that it had me laughing out loud and wondering where he can possibly go from here. There are some folks who believe this prophecy is true though, based on this film, I’m not one of them. The good news is, if I’m wrong, nobody will be around next year to tell me so.

There are still plenty more disaster films in the Hollywood library and perhaps I’ll cover them at a later date. For now, I hope this gives you an idea of which films you should, or should NOT, bother watching. Take it from the Mayans, life’s too darn short!

Dave Fuentes~

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