The cinemas of disaster

Curator, film programmer and writer Danni Zuvela reviews the genre of disaster films since 1903 and finds that the most recent example 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' expresses a spirit of resilience that is both wild and magical.

These are interesting times for the disaster film. As audiences, we have long flocked to vicariously experience the life-endangering high drama of natural or manmade catastrophes, starting with films about great fires (James Williamson's Fire! and Edwin S. Porter’s Life of a Fireman, both 1903), and a certain unsinkable cruise liner (Night and Ice (1912) and Atlantis (1913). Thunderous tidal waves, mid-air hurricanes and earthquakes have been a cinematic staple since the coming of sound, perhaps peaking in the 1970s with the emergence of Sensurround, a technology that literally shook the audience in their seats in the experience of films such as Earthquake (1974). For these 1970s cinemagoers, the 'subwoofer revolution’ complemented the visual vocabulary of disaster with sound that was now felt, as well as heard. The 1970s disaster movie craze saw big-budget classics (Poseidon Adventure, Towering Inferno, Airport) thoroughly encode the cinematic grammar of the disaster genre - basically, attractive ensemble casts working multiple storylines about triumph over adversity amidst widespread chaos – before the genre seemed to exhaust itself. As tends to happen, what was once the cinematic flavour of the month became passé, and the disaster genre was lampooned in spoofs such as Airplane! (1980).

The genre was effectively dormant, bar a few key exceptions, for the 1980s and 1990s (the unintentionally hilarious ‘Left Behind’ series of apocalypto-evangelical films after God plucks his chosen ones from the earth are an interesting example). Then, concomitant with the development of computer-generated imaging techniques, the last two decades have seen a resurgence of films about disasters (The Perfect Storm, Armageddon, Deep Impact, Twister). CGI-enabled scenes of mass destruction and global decimation became the norm. But then, in 2004, something else happened. As awareness of global warming became common knowledge, Roland Emmerich – director of Independence Day, no less – came out with The Day After Tomorrow. Ostensibly an action movie starring Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal, the film depicted a nightmare scenario whereby climate change suddenly accelerates into the global catastrophe of a new ice age, and so audiences were treated to scenes of wild blizzards suffocating the world’s great cities.

Dubbed "a popcorn movie with a conscience", The Day After Tomorrow bent CGI to a specific kind of catastrophic imagery – what we might call ‘eco-armageddonism’. Along with the wry scenes of the American populace fleeing en masse across the Rio Grande into Mexico, one of that film’s starkest images is of a snap-frozen New York City, identifiable only by the Statue of Liberty’s frosty torch protruding from a deep CGI snowdrift. Lady Liberty, we can see, operates as a handy cipher for filmmakers wanting a visual shorthand for the collapse of civilisation – think of the shock discovery made by Taylor (Charlton Heston) at the conclusion of The Planet of the Apes, or the amphibious foray of AI’s trio of Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), robot David (Haley Joel Osment) and Teddy Bear into submerged Manhattan, whose underwater topography they navigate by the still-recognisable thrust of the Lady’s torch.

Along with continuing the tradition of referencing New York as a symbol of post-humanity, The Day After Tomorrow signalled a key shift in the disaster genre: human tampering as the key causal agent. Of course it wasn’t the first film to do this – one brilliant precursor was the rarely-seen 1984 New Zealand film A Quiet Earth, about a scientist who wakes up to discover ‘the Effect’ has occurred and he appears to be the last man alive on earth. (A Quiet Earth is of course a continuation of the recognised sub-genre of the disaster film, including The Last Man on Earth, Omega Man and I Am Legend, which reverses the ensemble cast formula).

A recent spate of productions has further taken up the philosophical and eschatological dimensions of cataclysm, pointing the finger more or less directly at humankind. The rash of zombie films and most recently, TV programs (AMC’s The Walking Dead) are another variant on the humanity/calamity theme. Looking past the latex atrophy and moaning undead ‘walkers’, the zombie genre’s key contribution to the visual language of cinema has arguably been the iconography of post-consumerism: looted supermarkets, desolate malls, deserted parking lots and useless, abandoned cars. 2009’s The Road, directed by Australian John Hillcoat adapting Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, quotes from this vocabulary with the metonyms of overturned supermarket trolleys and roads choked with junked cars, which ‘the man and ‘the boy’ scour for provisions and, most importantly, fuel. (Post-petrol survival is, of course, at the heart of that classic Australian post-apocalyptic series Mad Max, whose fourth instalment is now in post-production). The undead in The Road aren’t zombies but survivors, though the line is perilously blurry – the scariest scene in both book and film has to be when father and son stumble upon an underground bunker being used as a kind of live human meatlocker. The effaced humanity of the human ‘livestock’ captives, and the monstrosity of their flesh-eating captors, provide devastatingly plausible imagery of what it might be like after the world is ruined.

A different tack is taken in the 2012 Sundance darling, Beasts of the Southern Wild. Though it also presents a harrowing post-disaster world, where The Road is a lamentation for lost humanity, Beasts of the Southern Wild is an ode to ingenuity and community. Survivors of a series of devastating storms live “beyond the levees”, in “the Bathtub”, a swampy shanty-town floating on the flooded bayous of Louisiana; but rather than cowed and cringing, they are proudly resistant, resourceful, jubilant – and even a little magical. The almost-otherworldly image of the lead character, the incredible 5-year-old child Hushpuppy, belting through the swamp at night with a spitting firecracker in each hand, is hard to forget. In the creation of new worlds post-disaster, the film recalls the brilliant David ‘The Wire’ Simon series Treme, which weaves together the stories of various survivors of Hurricane Katrina in a dispossessed working-class neighbourhood of New Orleans. The difference is that in Treme, the post-cataclysmic horrors – a faltering criminal justice system, bureaucratic hand-sitting, official corruption and public housing crisis – are real. Though its characters also include non-actors and the Mississippi delta itself, Beasts of the Southern Wild plots an alternative course. Critics have noted that it portrays ecological disaster through the eyes of the next generation to inherit it, and so represents a new iteration and refinement of the disaster genre for today. The device of the child coming of age in disastrous circumstances allows for the weaving of imaginative and surreal elements into the film, such as the thundering aurochs (enormous Paleolithic boar-like wildebeest) who punctuate the film until the climactic scene where Hushpuppy stares them down. Followed by the triumphant march of the rag-tag band of survivors at the film’s conclusion, these images embody a new twist in an old form; suggesting that when humanity faces calamity, something wild and magical comes out.

Dr. Danni Zuvela is a programmer, curator and writer as well as a founding partner of OtherFilm, an artists' collective dedicated to exploring experimental film, video, sound and performance. Their work is seen in major art institutions around the world.