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Why I like disaster films

Above is a teaser-trailer for the upcoming 2012, the latest disaster film by Roland Emmerich (Day After Tomorrow) with a release date recently pushed back to this fall (hat tip Peter Chattaway). The film stars the likes of John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Woody Harrelson, Oliver Platt, and Danny Glover and centers on the playing out of the ancient Aztec prophecy of impending doom for the planet in 2012. If you want to know more, check out Latino Review’s very spoilerish details.

Now, I’m a sucker for disaster flicks. In my youth, I was glued to the Towering Inferno, Earthquake and even the Sean Connery/Natalie Wood Meteor. Jaws is one of my favorite films of all time. I was in the theater for Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and Armageddon and watched Deep Impact as soon as it came out on DVD. I’ve seen lots of others on the lists, like Titanic, Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, War of the Worlds (both the original and remake), Dante’s Peak, Volcano, Sunshine, The Day After (required viewing in college), Twister, The Birds, and Outbreak.

So, why am I—like millions of others out there—drawn towards these kinds of films? There are those that think it’s rooted in our dissatisfaction with the artificial nature of our lives and our longing for utopia. Others think it has something to do with our contemplation of questions like whether or not we have earned our place or life. Some explain them away as “pornography for our masochistic subconscious.” And there are those who say these films are our attempts to deal with current crises in metaphorical form. And still others suggest they speak for the angst of their time while others dismiss them as simply escapist entertainment.

As for me (as I’ve briefly mentioned before), I latch onto the theme of the ordinary person becoming extraordinary in a story that explores (among other things) how we react when we are reminded how little control we actually have over our own lives, the lives of those we love and the world around us. Which is probably why I resonate a lot with this article by Alby James, who looks at the elements of the disaster film in terms of story. Normally, he says, these films are stories of relentless jeopardy that requires average folks to find it within themselves to “triumph over great adversity.” These characters are on the verge of being messianic in nature, James points out:

. . . [T]heir desire to save others is what seems to propel them through all situations. This drive may even cause them to sacrifice themselves at the climax so that the others may survive, as Gene Hackman’s vicar character does in The Poseidon Adventure. They are the kind of characters who make us feel good about mankind and reassure us that despite all the difficulties that we may have to face in the world today, we shall always overcome. Independence Day and Armageddon take this to the limit.

And, says James, these films also make us think about things that matter:

These are films that remind us of the meaning of life, the people we most care about and who makes us really happy. When you stare death in the face like this, you know who really matters to you and what you must do. The best of these films do all this.

And these are all themes and elements which, when done well, provide opportunities to bring God-talk into open spaces.