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Natural disasters in cinema

Silke Wünsch cmk
November 14, 2017

Diplomats and environmentalists are fighting to save the world at climate talks in Bonn, but cinema has already had a head start. In the movie world, mankind has long been fighting for survival in a destroyed world.

"The Day After Tomorrow" shows the Statue of Liberty swamped by a wave
Image: Imago/Unimedia Images

The world has seen a series of catastrophic natural disasters in recent years: tsunamis in the Indian Ocean and off the coast of Japan, hurricanes and storm surges in the US, severe drought in Africa and tornadoes and torrential rains in Central Europe, to name just a few.

Added to that list are the slower moving, yet equally threatening menaces like melting polar ice caps, a degraded ozone layer, rising sea levels and growing deserts.

These scenarios and their ghastly consequences have also been a regular feature on movie screens, with viewers awestruck in the face of destruction and apocalypse — safe in their seats.

Disaster films have exerted a fascination for audiences since the early days of film, reflecting the anxieties of the age. Their message is simple: Anything can happen. But not here, and not now.

Read more: Hollywood to the rescue: Can pop culture fight climate change?

King Kong faced off against Godzilla in 1962
King Kong faced off against Godzilla in 1962Image: picture alliance/dpa/Everett Collection

Monsters and the atomic threat

In the early days, cinemagoers trembled as the earth shook in 1936 disaster flick "San Francisco." In the 1950s, huge monsters, flying saucers and extraterrestrials swarmed the silver screen, as the films of director Jack Arnold spread fear and terror.

Of course, it was all science fiction. But during the height of the Cold War, as the world's nuclear powers fought for supremacy, humanity was made aware of the concrete threat. The danger of nuclear catastrophe was dramatized for the first time in Stanley Kramer's 1959 film "On the Beach," starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire as survivors of a global nuclear war.

Read more: Al Gore: We're working around Donald Trump on climate change

Disasters, both technical and natural

Filmstill - Airport!
The 'Airport' disaster series began in 1970 with Dean Martin (center) and Jacqueline BissetImage: picture alliance / United Archives/IFTN

The 1970s was THE decade of disaster movies. Man-made disasters were everywhere: a soaring skyscraper burned in "The Towering Inferno" (1974), airplanes collided in "Airport 1975" (1974) and luxury ocean liners capsized in "The Poseidon Adventure" (1972) or were threatened by bombs in "Juggernaut" (1974).

Mother Nature was just as relentless, resulting in several entertaining catastrophic flicks. Dams broke ("Flood!" 1976), the earth shook over and over and the animal kingdom retaliated for environmental pollution: In "Frogs" (1972), killer amphibians, alligators, tarantulas and other animals attacked partiers on an island estate. Other films featured killer whales, giant squid and great white sharks ("Jaws" still terrifies to this day), and swarms of killer bees spreading death and destruction.

Filmstill - Frogs - Killer Aus Dem Sumpf
A victim in 'Frogs,' driven into the swamp by raging animalsImage: picture-alliance/United Archives/IFTN

Nature takes revenge

Some of the film catastrophes came crashing down from outer space — "Deep Impact" and "Armageddon," to name a pair from 1998 — but more often than not, they were the result of man's insensitivity toward nature, which included mutations caused by chemical experiments or atomic radiation.

Other disasters seemingly emerged out of nowhere, with no regard for the climate deadlines set by scientists. The Earth's axis suddenly shifts, the polar ice caps melt overnight, volcanoes burst from the ground, seemingly from nowhere: Things happen much faster on the silver screen.

Read more: Packing a visual punch for the environment

Plot? What plot?

These films appeal to our desire for sensationalism, a universal attraction. But without a story, even the most violent explosion or most terrifying creature would become boring after five minutes.

Filmstill - Armageddon - Das Juengste Gericht
Bruce Willis (second from left) and his team on the way to rescue the world in 'Armageddon'Image: picture-alliance/United Archives/IFTN

A film needs a plot — though in the case of disaster movies, it's often the same unimaginative storyline. Usually, it's the lone hero who finds it within himself to save a small group of people, or even the entire world, with or without the help of a few buddies who tag along for the ride.

And let's not forget the stereotypes: the worried scientist, believed by no one until it's too late; the self-righteous politician — usually, the US president; the unscrupulous businessman who wants to profit from the disaster; the rough-and-ready ex-soldier who becomes a hero; and a handful of brave women and children.

The one thing that nearly all disaster films have in common: the small group of survivors that make it to the end of the film and live to make a fresh start, leaving the ending open.