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The end is near! Why disaster movies make sense (and dollars) in the '90s.

An embarrassing confession: I remember The Poseidon Adventure as one of the most exciting movies of my childhood. Star Wars-level exciting. The gripping story of a capsized cruise ship on New Year's Eve, it follows a handful of survivors' struggle to escape before the boat goes under. I was too young to catch this disaster classic's first run in a movie theater, but as a seven-year-old I saw its network TV premiere, and it left me on the edge of my seat--wondering who'd survive and who'd perish (people in disaster movies always "perished"); marveling at the upside-down sets and all-star cast (Ernest Borgnine! Roddy McDowall! Red Buttons!); terrified by the crash of the enormous tidal wave; and moved to tears by the enormous Shelley Winters, portraying a self-sacrificing Brooklyn Jew.

Of course, today The Poseidon Adventure plays like pure camp. Like the best and worst of the '70s disaster movies, it is junky film making, with soggy dialogue and over-the-top performances. But it does the job--it entertains you for more than two hours. The script manages to turn up the tension every 15 minutes or so as the ship sinks ever deeper and new calamities threaten the survivors. It's an enjoyable bad movie, but not a so-bad-it's-good one; it is fun and forgettable in the way that only certain expensive Hollywood trash can be.

In 1997, for better or worse, major Hollywood studios have returned full force to recycling that particular brand of trash. This summer we'll find out how far we've come from The Poseidon Adventure when James Cameron's $180-million Titanic hits the screen. And Titanic is just the tip of the iceberg. Moviegoers can choose between two films about exploding volcanoes, Dante's Peak and Volcano; major summer releases include Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park sequel, The Lost World, and the waterlogged adventure flick The Flood; and next fall brings us Firestorm. Network television has even offered up the mini-series Asteroid and Volcano: Fire on the Mountain. Hollywood hasn't unleashed such a massive dose of catastrophe on the viewing public since, well--Showgirls.

So to what can we credit the return of the disaster movie? Studio execs' subtle sense that people are anxious about the impending collapse of the natural world? Hollywood's proximity to the mud slides, earthquakes, firestorms, and race riots that have made L.A. the disaster capital of the world? Perhaps a John Travolta-inspired nostalgia for the Me Decade? Actually, the answer is simpler: Hollywood's bottom line is money, and none of these projects would have been bankrolled if not for the phenomenal success of three movies--Jurassic Park, Independence Day, and Twister--each of which carried a strong whiff of the '70s disaster-movie formula.

Like their '70s predecessors, all three films rely on cutting-edge special effects to portray havoc (natural, man-made, and alien) loosed on humankind--and the heart-stopping rescue sequences that must logically follow. Twister shows Mother Nature hitting the spin cycle, air-lifting a cow and devastating countless farms, a drive-in movie theater, a fuel tanker, and the house of the heroine's aunt. Of course, the film's heroes manage to free Aunt Meg and her dog just before the structure caves in. At the heart of Jurassic Park, with its undeniably impressive digitized prehistoric supporting cast, is an extended child-rescue sequence (a disaster-movie staple), as Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) uses his dinosaur savvy to ferry two terrified kids to safety. The sci-fi, pop-art cartoon Independence Day, which cheerfully envisions the destruction of

three-quarters of the earth's population, also has its share of implausible rescues amid the carnage. Saved from the aliens' death ray is yet another family dog. (Lesson 1: It's good to be a dog in a disaster movie.)

You could argue that eye-popping visuals are the raison d'etre of the genre. (When George Lucas and Steven Spielberg lured Hollywood's special-effects wizards into outer space in the late '70s, it dealt a death blow to the disaster flick.) A Twister or Jurassic Park is designed like a virtual roller-coaster ride--which is exactly what the audience wants. It's dazzling displays of destruction that draw the crowds--the bigger and bolder, the better--and a skimpy story and bad dialogue can be incidental if the effects are good enough. (On a recent trip to Mexico, I happened to catch a version of Twister dubbed into Spanish, a language I don't speak. Surprisingly, I enjoyed the movie much better when I couldn't understand what anyone was saying.)

But special effects are only part of the story. The disaster movie's appeal also lies in its application of a reassuring moral logic to human survival, the suggestion that if we are virtuous, we'll probably survive. (An exception is the Noble Sacrifice of a Featured Supporting Character--which is equally worthwhile in the disaster-movie ethos.) The audience doesn't merely imagine disaster, we imagine how we'd behave in the situation. Would we panic or stay calm? Save ourselves or our loved ones? Have the wisdom to see the tell-tale signs and the agility to react in time? A disaster movie is filled with moral shorthand. In Independence Day, we can tell if a character is going to live or die based on whether or not he recycles an aluminum can. In Jurassic Park, when a character is introduced as a lawyer, the audience knows he's going to be lunch meat for T-Rex.

Comparing the disaster flicks of the 1970s and the 1990s, it's remarkable to see how little the moral equations have changed over time. In both, Nature isn't the ultimate villain; it's corporate greed that worsens the catastrophe. (Hollywood has always loved to point a finger at money-hungry businessmen, while using the other hand to stuff ridiculous sums of cash into its pockets.) In '70s disaster movies, cost-cutting measures undermine public safety; cheap wiring leads to the barbecued high-rise in The Towering Inferno and shoddy architecture ensures that the massive trembler in Earthquake will cause scores of deaths. In Twister, the one bonafide villain, played by Cary Elwes, is a rival scientist who steals the hero's research and, even worse, has corporate backing for his project. Hovering in the background of Dante's Peak is a developer with a scheme to invest millions of dollars in the idyllic little town. Simply considering the plan is enough to doom the city council members.

One nouveau disaster movie that doesn't directly villify corporate greed is Independence Day. Its bad guys are unmistakable: extraterrestrials. (With a not-so-subtle streak of xenophobia, the movie suggests that over-trusting folks who welcome the aliens with open arms deserve to get fried.) The departure isn't surprising, given that with ID4's disaster-movie structure is a pastiche of a dozen classic science-fiction and action movies: Star Wars meets Close Encounters of the Third Kind meets Top Gun meets Alien. Still, the aliens' take-no-prisoners strategy to conquer Earth isn't unlike that of the major movie studios' marketing of summer blockbusters: "Open big, strike everywhere, and make sure you get everybody."

The job of a decent disaster movie isn't simply to give us villains, of course. We need heroes, too, and Independence Day, of all the recent disaster movies, seems truest in form to what we remember of its '70s predecessors. While watching Independence Day, I recalled the plot of movies like The Poseidon adventure and The Towering Inferno as a story of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances working together for their mutual survival. In memory, the movie's catastrophe brought together its characters across racial and gender lines--men and women, black and white, young and old--to build camaraderie and courage.

But like the S.S. Poseidon, memory is a fragile vessel. I was wrong about the feminist and multicultural slant. On second viewing, I found that Poseidon features no black actors or actresses. Aside from the nobly sacrificed Shelley Winters, the women are shrill or hysterical and utterly dependent on the men, without whom they wouldn't be able to find their way out of a paper bag, let alone a sinking luxury liner. In The Towering Inferno, Faye Dunaway (who only a few years earlier lit up the screen as the sexy, tough-talking outlaw Bonnie Parker in Bonnie and Clyde) is rendered practically mute, gazing devotedly at Paul Newman. Inferno's one black actor is none other than O.J. Simpson, and he has little more than a cameo. His greatest heroic act is to rescue a cat from a burning bedroom before disappearing from the movie altogether after his 15 minutes of flame.

No, the classic '70s disaster movie isn't a Man-vs.-Nature team-building exercise, but a chance for one (or, in The Towering Inferno's case, two) beleaguered but super-competent Heroic White Guy to flex his muscles and use his wits. His professional expertise (architect, engineer, fireman) is window dressing on the fact that he's "got what it takes" in the hero department. Think of Charlton Heston in Earthquake rescuing Genevieve Bujold from a makeshift medical center just before it's washed away by a flood; George Kennedy in airport clearing an obstructed runway so a jet can land safely; Gene Hackman's straight-shooting, self-righteous priest bullying the Poseidon's survivors to the ship's hull. If catastrophe is a test of character, then only an anointed Everyman like Paul Newman or Chuck Heston has a No.2 pencil.

In a way, it makes perfect sense that in the 1970s the standard-issue, status-quo-upholding Heroic White Guy would find his proving ground in the disaster genre--he found practically no other genre where he could stand tall. Watergate left authority figures open to scrutiny and suspicion. Vietnam brought the war-movie machismo of the John Waynestyle swagger into ill repute. With sensitive, introspective method actors like Al Pacino and counterculture rebels like Jack Nicholson on the rise, disaster movies provided an ideal forum for old-fashioned movie-star heroics that guarded home and hearth in a world turned upside down. When jets are falling out of the skies and the ground is giving way beneath you, these movies seemed to be saying, thankfully Father still knows best.

After two decades of genre revisionism--after La Femme Nikita, Thelma and Louise, and Sigourney Weaver in alien and Aliens--you'd think studio honchos might get the idea of tossing a Heroic White Gal (or, more daringly, Heroic Black Gal) into the disaster mix. If the latest wave of nouveau disaster movies is any indication, however, it's still a man's world when calamity strikes.

For the first three-quarters of Twister, Helen Hunt is a strong, independent woman, and an equal in the storm-chasing department to Bill Paxton, but it's still up to Paxton to save her life at the end with the plan to strap themselves to a metal pipe. (Good thinking, Bill!) In Dante's Peak, Linda Hamilton, who portrayed a fierce, gun-toting action babe in James Cameron's Terminator movies, frets over her kids while Pierce Brosnan extricates them from their volcanic jam. In Jurassic Park, Laura Dern's near-deadly encounter with a velociraptor plays like a narrow escape from a slasher in a horror flick, while Sam Neill's match-up with Tyrannosaurus Rex is a more of a battle of wits. Even in Independence Day, which offers a multi-ethnic trio of heroes (white president, black fighter pilot, Jewish computer whiz), it's up to the men to save the world.

It's impossible to imagine the nouveau disaster movie without its strong but feminine women, however. The fantasy played out in these movies is not simply that our Heroic White Guy will survive the ordeal, but that the catastrophe will heal his frayed or broken family. As the helicopter whisks the survivors away at the end of Jurassic Park, Laura Dern looks lovingly on as the kids fall asleep against Sam Neill, their once reluctant surrogate father. Separated or divorced couples in Outbreak and Twister have reaffirmed their love by the time the credits roll. At the end of Dante's Peak, the dashing and single Pierce Brosnan has filled in the missing-father slot in single-mother Linda Hamilton's family. Before the climactic battle in Independence Day, Will Smith marries stripper and single-mother Vivica Fox, and environmentalist good guy Jeff Goldblum reunites with Margaret Colin, his ex-wife.

Hidden within the family-values gloss of the nouveau disaster movie is a reproach, however. Implicit in the moral equation of who-lives-and-who-dies is a stern warning that the paterfamilias must be respected--or else. In Independence Day, the president's wife (Mary McDonnell) fails to obey her husband's request that she return home after the aliens have landed. She disregards his order and pays with her life. (But not before realizing her grave error; with practically her last breath, she apologizes to her husband for failing to do as he asked.) In Dante's Peak, Linda Hamilton's stubborn mother-in-law ignores Pierce Brosnan's exhortation to flee her volcano-side cottage. Guess who's not going to make it to the final reel?

The question remains: Why now? Why has the Heroic White Guy reemerged in the 1990s to protect us in a confused and perilous world? Because the new model of the disaster movie has changed so little from the '70s version, we can speculate that the perceived threats are similar, too. In the 1970s, the Heroic White Guy represented a conservative streak in an America where his voice was often drowned out by a chorus of disparate voices: anti-war protesters, Black Power militants, feminist revisionists, and more. Through his heroism, the White Guy asserted his place in the world and his moral right to occupy it.

The subtle conservative message of disaster movies in the '90s is that all is not right in the world and now more than ever we need a Heroic White Guy who can get us out of a fix. The hero for the '90s isn't a comic book fantasy, a Rambo or Terminator, whose sheer brawn and massive fire power can dispense with the bad guys, but an educated, resourceful middle manager with just enough wits and stamina to survive. In a global economy, with a shrinking professional job market, you might find the Heroic White Guy checking the Help Wanted ads these days--and not finding many opportunities. In '90s disaster movies, catastrophe seems to be lending a hand. It's Nature's way of ensuring that the Heroic White Guy doesn't get permanently downsized.
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Author:Rabinowitz, Howard
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Apr 1, 1997
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