There was a day when disaster movies were some of my favorite. Armageddon. Deep Impact. The Day After Tomorrow. I loved all of them.
Part of the reason was because of the tremendous special effects in the movies. I’ve always loved effects, and these movies all made great use of them.
There was another reason I loved them, too. Ultimately, most disaster movies are about the best parts of humanity. Sacrifice, courage, and wisdom when we are really pushed to the edge. Spoiler alert here, but when Bruce Willis sacrifices himself at the end of Armageddon, I still cry every time. The sacrifice of the one to save many will always resonate with me.
I think the fist time something really changed for me was when I watched 2012. When the disasters began, for the very first time, I just sat there thinking about how I was watching, for enjoyment, thousands upon thousands of people dying. I had never had that thought before, and it really sat with me.
Since that time we’ve seen the rise of the superhero movie, which in a sense, is always a disaster movie. The Avengers destroy several cities in their movies, and there was no end to the controversy of Man of Steel, where Metropolis got the living daylights beat out of it in the final slugfest.
I still have a soft spot in my heart for disaster movies, but I think I’ve identified a consistent problem in them from a storyteller’s perspective. The problem is one of stakes.
Everybody knows that for a good story, there need to be stakes. For the protagonist, these stakes need to be high. The higher they are, the more drama and emotion supposedly follows.
I’d argue that “end of the world” scenarios aren’t high stakes. Stakes come through emotional investment, and when we watch thousands of computer-generated individuals perish in an earthquake, we struggle to connect, leading to the sense of horror I felt watching 2012.
Filmmakers know this, too. It’s why in a superhero movie Superman will always have to rescue Lois Lane, and why family always plays such an important role in disaster movies. As humans, we’re hardwired to care for individuals, and the plight of one main character is far more meaningful than the plight of thousands of extras, CGI or real.
I don’t necessarily have great answers to the challenge. It would be difficult to pitch a Marvel movie where the fate of the entire universe isn’t at stake. But I’d be very intrigued to see the results. What would a disaster movie look like if it kept a razor-sharp focus on a handful of people?
I’ll end by returning to this thought. One of my favorite movies this year has been Arrival. On the surface, it has all the hallmarks of a disaster movie. Aliens, potentially threatening the entire planet? Talk of an alien weapon? Political and military tension? It’s all there, but at the heart of the story, all of that is just background for the development of one character, and that made for a beautiful movie.