But unlike apocalyptic films it will be death by a thousand cuts
by Anne Billson
Promotional poster for “The Poseidon Adventure”, 1972
You can’t say we weren’t warned. Our elected representatives might have been more aware of the speed at which a deadly virus can spread around the world if only they had paid more attention to films like Contagion, in which Gwyneth Paltrow shakes hands with a chef in Macau who has been cooking a pig infected by a bat disturbed by rainforest clearance. As I write this, the people of Texas are struggling in freezing temperatures for which their science-denying governors have dismally failed to prepare; perhaps they would have taken climate change more seriously if they’d seen The Day After Tomorrow, in which the northern hemisphere is gripped by a new Ice Age, forcing Americans to migrate south across the Rio Grande towards more clement weather.
There was a time, half a century ago, when the mayhem in disaster movies was localised – a blazing skyscraper in San Francisco (The Towering Inferno), an upside-down ocean liner (The Poseidon Adventure) or a state invaded by killer bees (The Swarm). The casts were peppered with survivors from Hollywood’s golden age, obliged to slum it in genre fare if they wanted to carry on working in 1970s Hollywood. Jennifer Jones, much to Fred Astaire’s sorrow, plunges to her death from a blazing skyscraper, while Olivia De Havilland and Fred MacMurray perish in a bee-related train wreck, and Ava Gardner is swept away by floodwaters in Earthquake. King of Disaster has to be Henry Fonda, facing amusement park bombings in Rollercoaster, testing bee venom in The Swarm, battling conflagration in City on Fire or, as POTUS, calming a panicking populace in Meteor. By the way, critics who complain that characters in disaster movies are one-dimensional miss the point: disaster movies require a body count, and if this were comprised of real people we truly cared about, watching them suffer and die would be intolerable. The deaths of cardboard stereotypes are a lot more fun.
But Ground Zero has expanded. Burning down a building or sinking a ship is no longer enough; nowadays it’s invariably the entire planet in jeopardy. Because disaster movies aren’t just entertainment, they’re also Public Service Announcements, mental rehearsals for the inevitable extinction event. And they’re not always as preposterous as they might appear. Older films like The Andromeda Strain (1969), in which scientists struggle to identify a deadly microbe, or No Blade of Grass (1970), in which a virus spreads west from Asia while the British Prime Minister dithers, now feel less like science fiction, more like documentaries avant le fait.
Whereas traditional disaster movies revel in whole civilisations erased in a single blow, real life disaster – like the one we’re living in now – is a more gradual slide into the abyss
End of the world scenarios have mutated through the years to reflect society’s shifting anxieties. Thermonuclear war used to be the most prevalent nightmare, but today’s concerns tilt more towards bad weather (Geostorm, Take Shelter) or diva-like behaviour from the sun, which is prone to sending out destructive flares (2012, Knowing), though filmmakers’ favourite Harbinger of Doom has always
been the comet, perhaps an atavistic echo of past centuries when they were viewed as evil portents or wrathful acts of God. From Day of the Triffids (meteor shower leaves everyone blind and vulnerable to carnivorous plants), Night of the Comet (comet turns everyone who sees it into red dust), Armageddon (asteroid the size of Texas), Deep Impact (comet plus tsunami) to last year’s Greenland (Earth pelted with great balls of fire, while Gerard Butler tries to get his family to a safe haven), comets and meteors are invariably bad news. Just ask the dinosaurs.
Disaster du jour, of course, is the pandemic. As we’re all too aware, this is less about running and screaming than about being cooped up indoors, which doesn’t naturally lend itself to the sort of spectacular visual effects one sees in disaster movies like 2012, which hits us with earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis and the entire west coast of the United States crumbling into the sea. Disaster movies embrace realism only when the budget is too low for anything else, obliging filmmakers to concentrate on human reactions and tedious quests for life’s basics. It’s an approach, born of necessity, that inadvertently touches on an inescapable truth about catastrophes – beyond the initial (and terrible) carnage, they’re really rather boring.
Low budget end of the world scenarios such as 10 Cloverfield Lane or 4:44 Last Day on Earth or These Final Hours are essentially about people in rooms not trusting each other, or a frantic last-minute search for love or drugs. As the relatively low budget Greenland makes clear, the Earth will not end with a sudden bang, but with the more workaday, yet nail-biting, routines of trying to find transport or contact missing family members or track down vital medication as cataclysm looms.
In short, whereas traditional disaster movies revel in explosions, cities swamped by tsunamis or whole civilisations erased in a single blow, real life disaster – like the one we’re living in now – is a more gradual slide into the abyss, as people become acclimatised to extreme weather, viruses, pollution, mass migration, or food shortages caused by war and climate change. Welcome to the end of the world: it’s what you might call an ongoing process.
Anne Billson is a film critic, novelist and photographer