Disaster film  

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"in the science fiction films, lurk the deepest anxieties about contemporary existence. I don't mean only the very real trauma of the Bomb."--"The Imagination of Disaster" (1965) by Susan Sontag

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

A disaster film is a film that has an impending or ongoing disaster (e.g. a major fire, earthquake, shipwreck, or an asteroid collision with Earth) as its subject. They typically feature large casts and multiple plotlines, and focus on the characters' attempts to avert, escape, or cope with the aftermath of the disaster. One major character, several minor characters, and scores of extras typically die before the story is resolved.

Disaster themes are nearly as old as film itself. One of the earliest was Fire! (1901) made by James Williamson of Brighton, England. D. W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916) has disaster elements, as do 1930s dramas such as San Francisco (earthquake) and In Old Chicago (fire). Science fiction films such as When Worlds Collide routinely used disasters as plot elements in the 1950s and early 1960s. The heyday of disaster films began in 1970, however, when the success of Airport generated a flood of "all-star-cast-in-peril" stories.

Airport itself qualifies as a disaster film only in retrospect. It is closer in tone and construction to a suspense film such as The High and the Mighty or Zero Hour! (which was also written by Arthur Hailey, the author of the book that the movie Airport is based upon) than to the full-blown disaster films that came after it. The disaster-film cycle of the 1970s, really began with The Poseidon Adventure (ocean liner capsized by a rogue wave) in 1972, and continued in 1974 with similar films such as The Towering Inferno (world's tallest building catches fire) and Earthquake (catastrophic earthquake strikes Los Angeles). The genre was beginning to burn out by the late-1970s, when films like The Swarm (killer bees invade Texas), Meteor (asteroid strikes Earth) and When Time Ran Out... (volcano and tsunami) were being produced more and more quickly, with weaker disasters (killer bees in The Swarm, etc.), less production effort (Meteor, which utilized stock footage) and less impressive casts.

The disaster film genre revived, briefly, in the mid-1990s—perhaps because new special effects techniques made more spectacular disasters possible. The first film in this new trend was the 1996 Michael Crichton-penned film Twister, followed in the same year by Independence Day merged a science fiction alien invasion plot from the 1950s with disaster film conventions (most notably, from Earthquake). Daylight, a film about a collapse of the Holland Tunnel followed, and in 1997 two films about volcanic eruptions debuted, Volcano and Dante's Peak. Also in 1997 the epic James Cameron film Titanic was released, which combined the disaster genre in the sinking of the ship and the romance genre with the relationship between the main characters. Later, spectacular products of this revival were a pair of extraterrestrial object impact films Deep Impact and Armageddon, both released in the summer of 1998.

Disaster films have reappeared periodically in the 21st century. In 2003, The Core featured a disaster resulting from the "stalling" of Earth's core, while in 2004, The Day After Tomorrow built upon fear of global warming and climate change with an unlikely (and exciting) assortment of disasters, perhaps setting a record for the most disasters in a single film. The disasters included ranged from tornadoes in Los Angeles and hailstorms in Tokyo to blizzards in New Delhi, storm surges in New York City, and immense polar cyclones that covered the Earth, and required an assortment of sophisticated computer effects. In 2006, the genre went back to the well with Poseidon, a remake of 1972s The Poseidon Adventure, which proved to be a failure with audiences.

Literary sources

Movies from the disaster film genre are often based on novels. In many cases, the novels were bestsellers or critically acclaimed works. Three of the genre-defining disaster films of the 1970s were based on best-selling novels: Airport (based on the novel by Arthur Hailey), The Poseidon Adventure (based on the novel by Paul Gallico), and The Towering Inferno (from the novels The Tower by Richard Martin Stern and The Glass Inferno by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson). Some critically acclaimed novels that were turned into disaster films include On the Beach (by Nevil Shute), The War of the Worlds (by H. G. Wells), Fail-Safe (by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler) and A Night to Remember (non-fiction by Walter Lord).

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Disaster film" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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