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Post Sandy Thoughts: Seven Disaster Films Done Right

Post Sandy Thoughts: Seven Disaster Films Done Right

The gray rolling seas thundered through the forest of pilings under the piers, sometimes cresting enough to send a geyser of wind-whipped froth up onto the decking. Other places, it poured through the gaps the wind and tide had eaten through the dunes and poured into the beach town streets. It pulled boats large and small from their moorings in the lagoon marinas and piled them like a child’s toys up on the land. Some in apartment buildings would tell of the cars in the ground level garage floating against each other bathtub playthings. But there was nothing childlike in the way it took entire houses, made seaside villages look like an extension of the ocean and not the land.

For the day and a half I watched Hurricane Sandy pound my home state of New Jersey – which was all the time I had before I lost my cable service – the pictures that most tugged at me were what the 90 mph winds and the unstoppable tide did to the boardwalk cities. For any Jersey kid, The Shore was part of growing up; it was part of being a Jersey kid. When I saw helicopter shots from Seaside Heights, saw the end of one of its amusement piers ripped away and its roller coaster half-submerged in the surf, I was watching that part of me die. I could feel my eyes grow wet.

Even with all the talk about Jersey resiliency, about coming back, about rebuilding it bigger and better, even if it turns out to be true – and for the sake of the state, I hope it does – it will never be the same. That will be someone else’s Jersey Shore. Mine will be gone forever.

That’s the thing most disaster movies miss; that human element. The pain of loss; loss of life, loss of things that have a meaning to the heart, to the memory.

One of the gifts movies give us is the ability to experience vicariously what we would never want to experience personally: war, crime, battling demons from the underworld. Disaster movies have generally been just another kind of safe thrill, with the best performance in them often that of the special effects crew.

Most – or at least the ones I tend to think of when I think of disaster movies – are all about spectacle…only about spectacle. Part of that is by design. If you really felt the emotional impact of the wholesale destruction of a city – or, in some cases, an entire world – well, that’s nobody’s fun way to spend an evening. Other times it’s because, to be blunt, that other than the impressive effects work, most disaster movies are just so damned bad, with tidal waves and high rise infernos and flying disaster serving as a backdrop for the soapiest, most overwrought melodrama populated with one by-the-numbers cliché character after another. Not exactly a recipe for moving drama.

And you can find it as far back as The Hurricane (1937) and San Francisco (1936) in the 1930s, The High and the Mighty (1954) in the 1950s, and then that tidal wave of disaster pix kicked off by Airport (1970) which included Airport’s three sequels, Earthquake (1974), Avalanche (1978), and a veritable parade of destruction from Irwin Allen including The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974), Flood! (1976), Fire! (1977), The Swarm (1978), Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979), When Time Ran Out… (1980), The Night the Bridge Fell Down (1983), and Cave In! (1983).

You could flip between any three of them on your cable box and they’d all be so similar you’d never be lost. There’ll be some square-jawed hero type saying something about how some building/plane/bridge/resort/whatever is unsafe, gotta get the people out, yadda yadda yadda, and then there’s another guy – a short-sighted greedy little prick – who says something about not starting a panic and ruining the tourist season/financial disaster/similar kind of crap. There’ll be a couple of headliners to get the contemporary audience in, some kids for the kids and to give the hero something to save, and a couple of oldsters about 40 years past their career peak to get the older crowd in.

When you actually go through something akin to a movie-type disaster, it makes you a little mad. I don’t begrudge anyone the fun of watching cities crumble or disappear in a volcanic explosion. Even after Sandy, I still see the appeal. But the dramatic emptiness… That always bothered me, and now it bothers me a bit more.

But there are those filmmakers and screenwriters who have seen, in the disaster movie, an opportunity not just to thrill people, but to move them at the same time, to touch them, to awe them, to make them feel something more than, “Wow, that’s cool!”

1: A Night to Remember (1958). Directed by Roy Ward Baker. Written by Eric Ambler. Adapted from the book by Walter Lord.

James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) might have had better special effects (change that; it had incredible effects), but its gooey teen romance front story pales next to this painstakingly exact adaptation of Walter Lord’s classic account of the tragic 1912 sinking of the opulent ocean liner on her maiden voyage. It’s a stirring and ultimately moving account of grace under pressure, of human hubris and waste, of heroism and infuriating indifference. Cameron caught some of it, but Night is wholly dedicated to it and still stands as a textbook example of how to do it right.

2: United 93 (2006). Written and directed by Paul Greenglass.

True stories always have the advantage of being true. If a coward shirks, when a hero stands up, when a life is wasted, the idea of this is how it happened gives a weight fiction rarely attains. So it is with A Night to Remember, and so it is, again, with Greenglass’ tribute to the passengers on United 93 who rebelled against their hijackers on 9/11 and were killed when their airliner crashed into a Pennsylvania field. True, no one knows exactly what transpired on United 93, but Greenglass depiction of life-sized heroes fits with what was known of the passengers, and he blends it with gripping recreations (using some of the real participants) of what went on that dark day at military and civilian air traffic control centers. Knowing how the story ends gives United 93 an inevitably that works on you long before it’s heartbreaking finale.

3: Fearless (1993). Directed by Peter Weir. Adapted by Rafael Yglesias from his novel.

Jeff Bridges plays the survivor of an air crash heralded as a hero for leading a number of other survivors out of the wreckage to safety. Suffering from a form of PTSD, Bridges neither rejoices in his survival, nor broods over his friend and partner lost in the crash. He seems, rather, strangely disconnected from his loved ones (wife Isabella Rossellini and son Spencer Vrooman). Instead, his strongest connection is to another survivor, Rosie Perez, whose young son died in the crash. It takes another near-death experience to bring the catharsis that finally brings the inner man back to life.

It’s a psychologically intriguing, emotionally moving movie that grapples with that moment of one’s death – the clear recognition that these minutes are your last — which ascends to the poetic when Bridges, slipping toward death in an allergic reaction, relives the crash (one of the most horrifying renderings of an air crash you’ll ever see on film) and then begins to “move toward the light.” A hard, often tearful, ultimately rejoicing watch.

4: Fate Is the Hunter (1964). Directed by Ralph Nelson. Written by Harold Medford. Adapted from the book by Ernest K. Gann.

Medford’s script retains only Gann’s title and the idea which Gann – who’d been a pilot during the early days of commercial air travel – weaved throughout his memoir; that you can do everything right in the cockpit, and still not make it home.

Rod Taylor is a pilot taking out a routine flight from Los Angeles. Minutes from the airport, his ship develops mechanical problems. Taylor is forced to attempt a belly landing on a nearby beach which goes tragically wrong and all aboard are killed. Old friend and boss Glenn Ford is tasked with investigating the crash and finds himself and defending a man with a reputation for hard-living and capriciousness, but who he comes to find out was a deeply compassionate and generous human being…just in ways not obvious to those who live by first glances.

Ford carries with him a genuine sense of loss and that gives Fate its flavor and heft, and he’s backed by fine performances from Taylor, Suzanne Pleshette, Wally Cox, Mark Stevens and others. A good, solid, often affecting drama.

5: The Last Voyage (1960). Written and directed by Andrew L. Stone.

In the days before CGI, you had two ways to create an on-screen disaster: fake it with special effects…or do it. Life-sized. For real…or as close to it as you could safely come. Stone used the deactivated ocean liner Ile de France as the “star” of this film about an aging ocean liner holed by a boiler explosion on her last transoceanic trip. Stone actually partially sunk this ship and shot much of the action – including flooding compartments and explosions – on the actual liner.

The story is simple. Robert Stack’s wife (Dorothy Mallone) is trapped in wreckage from the explosion, and spends much of the movie trying to free her as the ship sinks further and further into the water. Stack and Mallone lend some heart to the suspense elements in those moments when she tries to get him to leave her and look after their daughter, but the real-life setting gives it all a this-is-what-it’s-like feel that even Cameron’s majestic ship-sinking couldn’t quite capture.

6: The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961). Directed by Val Guest. Written and directed by Guest and Wolf Mankowitz.

The late 1950s and 1960s saw any number of apocalyptic scenarios bred by the real-world fears of Cold War nuclear arms escalation. But Day took a slightly different tack; there’s no atomic war, accidental or otherwise, here. Rather, an accident – but one brought out of the same east/west postwar tensions – does the dirty deed. Two atomic tests set off inadvertently (one by the US, the other by the Soviets) shift the Earth’s orbit just enough to push it closer to the sun and the possible extinction of the human race.

No special effects, hysterics, no marauding bands of Mad Max-type apocalyptic road warriors. Day is a drama-driven, thoughtful treatment well played by Edward Judd, Janet Munro, and the great Leo McKern. It’s ambiguous ending is as haunting as any spectacular fireball. Michael bay and the Armageddon (1998) gang, take a cue.

7: Airplane! (1980). Written and directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker. Uncredited adaptation of the 1956 Candian teleplay Flight into Danger by Arthur Hailey, and its 1957 feature film adaptation Zero Hour by Hailey, Hall Bartlett, and John C. Champion.

I had to end on a high note (for my sake as well as yours), and thank God for Abrahams and the Zuckers for providing it. Think of every possible disaster movie cliché you can, and guaranteed you’ll find it affectionately lampooned in this joke-a-minute laugh-fest.

The question for today’s audiences is, how many will get the jokes? The writer/directing trio grounded their movie solidly in decades of disaster movie tropes cycled and recycled endlessly on TV. Even some of the casting – Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, Leslie Nielsen – is something of a wink-wink joke to the knowing, each of them parodying the kind of stalwart parts which comprised much of their respective careers.

But even with that caveat, well, here’s a sample of some of the dialogue:

“Can you fly this plane and land it?”

“Surely you can’t be serious.”

“I am serious…and don’t call me Shirley.”

That’s gotta be funny for anybody.

– Bill Mesce