Our Disaster Movies Have Failed Us

January 20, 2010

Over in The New Yorker, David Denby suggests that “The Book of Eli” represents an emergent trend in cinema: the use of the disaster motif as means for a type of neo-primitivism. This neo-primitivism is purely aesthetic; comparing its monotonous color palette to the similarly dystopic “The Road,” Denby writes:

When people must scavenge just to survive, any kind of violence is justified…The lesson is: We’ve been bad, very bad, and we had it coming. And now we’re being punished by watching a brown-and-white movie. (Offline only)

It’s a fair point. “Eli” is stylistically similar to “The Road,” and both films vary significantly from their post-apocalyptic forerunner, “Mad Max,” which, if anything, is vibrant in its emptiness. No, these movies are as gray and uninviting as our glimpses of the future Earth in “Terminator 2” (I prefer to believe the last two installments never happened).

But underlying Denby’s point is something more sinister: the unreality of disaster. The disaster genre as we’ve devised it is focused on large, inconceivable (by anyone other than Hollywood screenwriters) apocalypses; events so spectacular that the world is instantaneously altered. We either see these events (“The Day After Tomorrow”, “Independence Day”) or we focus instead on the aftermath (“Book of Eli”, “I Am Legend”). Either way, the events are such that life as it has always existed is now impossible.

It’s the unreality of disaster that makes it palatable, entertainment. We can go see these movies because we don’t imagine that they could ever be a part of our minds. Our disaster movies don’t depict true horror. They don’t try to correspond to scientific models, they aren’t filming a world where gasoline is 8 dollars a gallon and cities have been overrun by coastal refugees because we failed to act on global warming. No, our cinematic depiction of climate change is either the ridiculous new ice age of “The Day After Tomorrow” or the food-centric meltdown of “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.” Of the two, I’ll take “Meatballs”; at least it states unequivocally that humans are capable of causing horrifying changes to our planet’s weather.

I don’t know what the audience would be for a “realistic” disaster movie, but it would probably be small. Rather than allowing us to escape our unpleasure, the movie would force us to confront our anxieties head-on. Even the very funny “Idiocracy” wasn’t commercially viable. Was its vision of the future too biting, or was it just the critique of  corporate enterprise?

But there comes a time to recognize that our current disaster movies are dangerous, that they comfort more than they terrify. We leave we the reassurance of having seen something that we’ll never see again, something we don’t have to question. We leave with spectacle, not oracle.

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One Response to “Our Disaster Movies Have Failed Us”

  1. Nathan Says:

    Or even better, and equally not commercially viable would be a war movie about logistics.


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