What Happened to Disaster Movies? Oh, We're Living in One

Disaster movies used to be common, from Gwyneth Paltrow dying horrifically from an epidemic virus to Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson witnessing the fall of Los Angeles. But the appeal of the disaster movie is dead now that we're living in a dystopian reality.

Remember when we found natural disasters entertaining?

Movies about devastating earthquakes, endemic viruses, and mega-storms used to be thrilling in their hypothetical danger. And I don't mean zombie apocalypses or villainous aliens in superhero franchises; I mean good old '90s films about global blackouts, earthquakes, and twisters; 2015's San Andreas and The Wave; and even 2009's laughably bad 2012, in which global catastrophes spell the end of mankind. But around 2017, everyday reality began resembling the dystopian crises that had been so often fictionalized, and disaster movies fell out of fashion since, in effect, we're living in one. Looking back at disaster movies of the last decade, more than a few have come true, effectively killing the appeal of the genre.

The Wave - Official Trailer

In 2017, The Guardian noted how "in our troubled world, disaster movies are becoming obsolete." Film critic Ryan Gilbey cites modern catastrophes that overlapped with (if not surpassed) movies' dire visions of the world: "Robots taking over, social media algorithms adversely shaping the political landscape, giant mega-hurricanes piled one on top of another, bees dying out, global pandemics looming in the face of enfeebled antibiotics," he writes. "When life isn't imitating art, it's imitating bad B-movies."

Indeed, in 2015, a deadly 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal, weeks before the release of San Andreas, a film mostly featuring Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson in a helicopter above Los Angeles, watching the Hollywood sign crumble with the saddest eyebrows in movie history. In response, the film's global marketing campaign was altered because it too closely resembled the real-world devastation.

San Andreas Official Trailer #1 (2015) - Dwayne Johnson Movie HD

In the past, disaster movies were always a cinema staple. Vulture's Bilge Ebiri reflects, "The disaster movie is one of cinema's oldest genres: There were films about Pompeii and burning buildings in the very early days of movies. (One of the very first narrative short films was Edwin Porter's Life of an American Fireman, from 1903)." He adds, "Maybe that's because film is the one art form that can do proper justice to this sort of spectacle: You can't re-create it onstage, and who wants to read about a disaster when they can see it?"

However, the swift advancement of technology and the dire crisis of climate change have made fiction's nightmarish perils seem all the more feasible. For instance, Netflix's sci-fi anthology Black Mirror began dramatizing our fears of technology in 2011, but over the course of just four seasons it's depicted eerily accurate scenarios that have played out in real life.

Likewise, 2011's star-studded film Contagion depicts a global outbreak of a deadly virus that kills Gwyneth Paltrow within the film's first act and clearly boggles Matt Damon's mind. But the Center for Disease Control published a short report about the film's accuracy, according to its Epidemic Intelligence Service. The film echoes the MRSA and bird flu scares of the early 2000s, and, more pointedly, predated the peak of "superbug" concerns from overuse of antibiotics.

Contagion (2011) Official Exclusive 1080p HD Trailer

In his Vulture article Gilbey wrote, "Perhaps it's time for disaster film-makers to address why our world is so messed up, rather than imagining how much worse it could be." Unfortunately, among spates of superhero movies, reboots, and dramatic period films "based on a true story," we're not showing much interest in deconstructing the world's foibles—we've just lost interest in dramatizing them. From natural disasters to totalitarian governments, reality is a better disaster movie than we could imagine.

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