Disaster Movie History
Disaster is a phenomenal genre with particular theme as a formula to make a big hit movie. Although big budget is a common necessity, producers never hesitate to produce this kind of movie. This genre achieved its glorious time in the 70s, 90s, and today.
The plot of disaster movie is always related with incidents or catastrophes threatening a lot of human’s life. The disaster itself is divided into two types, natural and artificial. Natural disaster is like tornado, volcano eruption, flood, earthquake, tsunami, meteor, global warming, and animal attack like bees, snakes, birds, bats, sharks, virus, and others. While the artificial is related with crime or human error such as terrorism, flight accidents, nuclear reactor leaks, fire, drowning ship, and so on. Generally, disaster movies tell stories about how humans race against time to save themselves from the disaster that’s predictably about to happen.
With large scale, sometimes multi-plot scheme is applied. The story is alternating or jumping from one narration on a character to another or an event to another. The main or supporting character is often a scientist expert in a particular field that also becomes the theme of the movie. This character usually becomes the link between the story and the audience with his clear scientific explanation. Sometimes, the main characters are the ones at first underestimated, involved in a situation, and later on become the heroes who have the solution for everything. Drama or romance often fills the story for stronger dramatic effect in the last minutes. Happy ending and conclusive epilogue also become definite choices for the sake of audience’s satisfaction.
Disaster movies cost a lot of budget for its large scale, artistic setting, and the intensive use of CGI. Extra expense is sometimes needed too for famous actors as the casts. As the important point, the setting is often made grand and gigantic, in multiple locations, and occupies familiar site, landmark, or monumental building. The glorious musical score also often supports its disastrous theme.
Disaster movies sometime carries science fiction, fantasy, and horror theme like the alien invasion in The War of the World and The Independence Day, giant monster in King Kong or Godzilla, as well as man-eater in Dawn of the Dead. However, they are normally not in disaster scope since disaster is caused by insensible or fictive cause. Action theme often fills disaster movies such as terrorism in Executive Decision and Die Hard and the sequels. Still they are more into action movies since the emphasis is on the action, not the disastrous events. Not only for the big expense, the exploitation of high-end digital imagery technology attracts Hollywood studios to create more of this kind of movie. Though action and visual effect dominate, this genre offers moral value too like courage, sacrifice, team work, love for others and environment, and never give up in any situation.
Pre 70’s era
Disaster movies have been there since the time of silent movies like Fire (1901), a short film with the story of firemen rescue in a flaming building. Other than that, we have The Last Day of Pompeii (1913) telling a tale of the greatest volcano eruption and its remake in 1935 as well as the famous Titanic in 1915. France also has wonderful disaster movie about comet hitting earth, La Fin Du Monde, in 1931. The other disaster movies made a hit with various catastrophe themes in this era such as San Fransisco (1936) with earthquake in San Fransisco, tropical hurricane in The Hurricane (1937), city fire in In Old Chicago (1938), and earthquake and bad flood in The Rains Came (1939).
50’s and 60’s were the time for science fiction genre with disaster feature in a large scale as alien invasions in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Alien from Mars (1953), Earth vs The Flying Saucers (1956) and radioactive monsters in Them! (1954) and The Deadly Mantis (1957). There were also some pure disaster movies like The High and The Mighty (1954) that was so influencing with a flying plane struggling with its broken engine in the middle of Pacific Ocean and the thrill from thousands of aggressive birds in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1961). Krakatoa’s remarkable eruption was also brought up into a disaster movie entitled Krakatoa (1969).
70’s The Golden Era
In this golden period, real tragedies and catastrophes turned into selling material to make movies and made significant progress for the development for this genre. Crisis of Watergate (1972-1974), accident involving two Boeing 747s in Cannary Island (1977), and the incident on nuclear reactor in Three Mile Island (1979) were some of them. Directors were not anymore hesitated to invest their big budget for disaster movies at this time. Special effects and impressive artistic setting also already filled these kinds of movies instead of actions, racing with time, and rescuing scenes by the famous movie stars. Those features often resulted in Oscar for the title but rarely for the acting.
Starting the decade, Airport (1970) was an influential movie for the genre adapted from Arthur Hailey’s novel directed by George Seaton. Suicide bomb as a threat for a plane in Midwestern Airport becomes the subject for the movie. The plot is complex and the cast list is long enough to make three movies. Mixed theme of thriller, romance, drama, and comedy makes Airport complete as well as some names like Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Jacqueline Bisset, Helen Hayes, Jean Seberg, and George Kennedy. It succeeded in drawing big attention of a lot of audience and six Oscar nominations went for it, one of them was for the best movie. Out of expectation, Helen Hayes even got one Oscar for the best supporting actress. Airport initiated a way for other disaster movies to come out.
There were up to three sequels of Airport made in the same decade and two of them were just as successful as the original, but all of them employed the same formula with plenty of stars and complex plot. Airport 1975 (1974) as the first sequel was about the cockpit of 747 being hit by a small plane. The plot was indeed weak, but still it took the heart of the Airport series lovers. Bermuda Triangle was a setting for Airport ’77 (1977) where the passengers were trapped inside the plane that fell off and drowned in the 50-foot depth water. Best sequel goes for this series for its script and acting. The last one, Airport ’79: Concorde (1979), brought the legendary Concorde flying for Moscow Olympics event where it had to be driven away to avoid missile attack. It was though admitted to be not as good as the previous ones. The Airport series inspired a comedy movie entitled Airplane! (1980).
Producer and director Irwin Allen was the most influential figure for disaster movies, making him to be known as ‘The Master of Disaster’. He started his career with The Poseidon Adventure (1972) where a ferocious wave turned a new year eve into a nightmare for a cruise ship, SS Poseidon. It hit and wrecked the ship, forcing some passengers to climb to the higher ground in the flipped ship. The upside-down setting was impressively designed in detail. Some popular names gave the contribution for this movie like Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, and Shelley Winters. US$ 93 million gross revenue put The Poseidon Adventure into a big hit. It was nominated for 8 Oscar awards but only one went through as the best theme song and received special award for the visual effect. Positive feedbacks encouraged Allen to make the sequel, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979), but like many others, the first is always the best.
Allen then continued with one of the most popular and spectacular disaster movie, The Towering Inferno (1974). Two big studios, Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox, collaborated to make this movie and US$ 14 million was spent for it. The Glass Tower, a 138-floor skyscraper, was on fire and the attempt to rescue the survivors trapped inside the building became the focus of the movie. A bunch of famous actor and actress put their roles for the movie like Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones, and the others. The Towering Inferno was the nominee for 8 Oscars and took 3 Oscars for its cinematography, editing, and music. Other must-see disaster masterpieces from Allen are The Swarm (1978) where millions deadly bees from South America run amok and When Time Run Out… (1980) with a story of volcano eruption.
Another popular movie with natural disaster theme in this era was Earthquake (1974) where a massive 9.9 Richter-scale earthquake hit Los Angeles. With Mark Robson as the director and produced by Universal Pictures, it came out with the more than US$ 80 million profit. The story emphasizes more on the post cataclysm time where the citizen must struggle for their own life. It won one Oscar for best sound by introducing the sound technology called Sensurround, a subwoofer system with low frequency vibration to produce the identical sound of real earthquake tremor. Los Angeles was portrayed just like a real demolished city. However, the plot was too weak from the dramatic or action point of view although famous movie stars were already assembled for the casts.
Meteor (1978) was a political movie in the cold war situation. The story told about an asteroid hitting the earth. Senior actors Sean Connery, Henry Fonda, and Martin Landau as well as actress Nathalie Wood played their roles perfectly, but it was the visual effect on the meteor that became the star of the movie. This movie spent US$ 18 million but unluckily was not too successful and failed to get the Oscar for the best sound nomination. Avalanche hit the theatre in the same year with the same genre, this time is about snow avalanche in a ski resort. Instead of natural disaster, we also had beast attack as in the forever hit Jaws (1975) that brought ferocious sharks in a resort island, also in its sequel Jaws 2 (1978) with similar performers too. Other movies with water creatures then put their trails after like The Jaws of the Dead (1976), Tintorera…Bloody Waters (1977), Orca (1977), Tentacles (1977), Piranha (1978), Killer Fish (1979), and Crocodile (1979).
Virus epidemic was a commodity for more disaster movies in this decade. In early 70s, there was Andromeda Strain (1971) from Michael Crichton’s science fiction novel where a group of researchers investigated a deadly virus from outer space. Directed by senior director Robert Wise, the plot was made in detail just like in the novel. The Crazies (1973) and The Plague (1978) then came after that. Learning from Airport, Cassandra Crossing (1977) occupied complex plot with mixture of thriller, action, and drama with a touch of terrorism theme, all carried out by well-known performers. It was about two thieves who were accidentally infected with a deadly virus when they were stealing in a laboratory and later on escaped with a departing train.
Movies with theme on terrorism, bomb threats, sabotages, and their kinds were made in various styles. For instance, there was Juggernaut (1974) produced by England. This movie has a story about a man called Juggernaut who set bombs inside drums on a cruise ship. There was also Hindenberg (1975), telling a sabotage on one of German’s Zeppelin aircraft that was inspired by a true story in 1937. While Black Sunday (1977), a brutal disaster movie by John Frankenheimer, was about a group of terrorist who intended to shot thousands of poisonous arrows from a zeppelin to Orange Bowl sport stadium full of spectators. In 1977, we have a terrorist who wanted to explode rollercoasters in several amusement parks in Rollercoaster.
Cold war inspired the moviemakers to make movie with the theme on nuclear war and its effect. There were some of them like Gray Lady Down (1977) where a nuclear submarine sank. The China Syndrome followed two years after with an accident that could initiate nuclear reactor leak. The director James Bridges brought Jack lemmon, jane Fonda, and Michael Douglas for the stars of the movie. The premiere was so awkward yet freaky because an accident also occurred in a nuclear reactor in Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, 11 days after. In the end of the decade as well there was Chain Reaction (1980) with the same theme on nuclear disaster. City on Fire (1977) completed the decade with its leak and explosion of oil mill that put the entire city on flame.
90’s to present
80’s was not the time for disaster movies since there were not many of them, probably caused by the boredom issue. In the early 90s, this theme was even not even a favorite for movie makers. However, there were some popular titles encompassing this theme in this era like Arachnophobia (1990) with the story of deadly spiders attack in a small city. Apollo 13 (1995), starred by Tom Hanks, also made a hit with the true story on the accident of spaceship Apollo 13 in its journey to the moon and there was a deadly virus spreading in a city in Outbreak (1995).
A new momentum of disaster movie began with Twister in 1996 by Jan de Bont where a group of scientists chased tornadoes for research. This movie got more than US$ 500 million profit all over the world and positive appraisal with its realistic tornado, resulting one Oscar for best visual effect. Later, disaster movies with high cost for the CGI became trend even until today.
Plenty of disaster movies then followed after that like Daylight (1996), starring the famous action actor, Silvester Stallone, bringing a calamity in an underground tunnel. One year after, Dante’s Peak showed up for the disaster movie lover with a great volcano eruption and realistically scientific portrayal. In the same year, Volcano came with similar theme on a volcano eruption in Los Angeles. For the best, Titanic closed the year as the most popular disaster movie of all time. Not only doing well commercially, this James Cameron’s masterpiece got Oscar for the best movie. Deep Impact and Armageddon became favorites a year later with the story of meteor hitting earth. Closing the millennium, beast attacks were back in Lake Placid (1999) and Deep Blue Sea (1999). Some science fiction movies with disaster theme were present in the decade like Independence Day (1996), Mars Attack (1996), and Godzilla (1998).
The Perfect Storm (2000) successfully started the new millennium with a true story of a fisher ship trapped in a wild storm. In 2002, 28 Days Later brought the entire London that was infected by deadly virus, turning people into zombies. The Core (2003) put an issue of nature mutation caused by fractured earth core. With its distinctive theme, this film failed possibly because of its unrealistic story.
Rolland Emmerich occupied global warming as a subject for his movie, The Day After Tomorrow (2004). This movie successfully and impressively visualized the catastrophe in many places on earth. Not only in acting and visual effect, the dramatic part was also strongly driven. 5 years later, Emmerich was back with more spectacular disaster movie, 2012 (2009), where its international release became the significance for its success. Inspired by Mayan prophecy, many critics said that the dramatic aspect of this movie was weak. However, multiple disastrous events were realistically portrayed like earthquake, volcano eruption, and tsunami.
Pure disaster was delivered in Poseidon (2006) as the remake of Poseidon Adventure. Even with more advanced visual effect, it could not compare the original one. Japan also followed Hollywood in disaster movie with a remake film, Japan Sinks (2006), exposing Japan drowning in water. 28 Weeks Later (2007) continued the previous movie, 28 Days Later, with the same theme and setting but this time engaged more action scenes. Zombies appeared too in I Am Legend (2007), showing the uninhabited New York. There was also a bizarre environmental disaster by M. Night Syamalan, The Happening (2008). Terrorism movies are always interesting moreover if based on true story like World Trade Center (2006) and United ’93 (2006). Some disaster science fiction movies set their milestone in this decade like War of the Worlds (2006), Sunshine (2007), Cloverfield (2008), and Knowing (2009).
Predicting the trend for the future, disaster is a reliable genre for big studios to make fortune. Hollywood still dominates the titles for this category, though other countries like Japan and England have tried to join the market. With many variations on disaster movies, one big question then comes up: what kind of theme will appear for the upcoming disaster movies? Let’s wait and see.