Every year since the dawn of the motion picture industry, the American movie audience flocks to see films built around disaster and destruction. Tornadoes tear across the high plains. A volcano blows an entire mountain range to smithereens. Hurricanes erase cities. Rivers flood. Avalanches rush. Earthquakes lay waste. Fires consume.
When Mother Nature rests, we search for man-made devastation. We watch buildings set aflame. We sit on the edge of our seats as the luxury cruise ship sinks. If the tragedy hits a little too close to home, we take refuge from supernatural events or alien attacks.
As we all face daily struggles with finances, employment, and family conflicts, why in the world would we want to pay to see actors face disaster? Why do we feel better when we see Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt stare into the eye of a Twister with two-fisted defiance?
When the 2012 world is coming to an end, we can trust John Cusack to lead us to safety. Pierce Brosnan can carry us off of the side of Dante’s Peak before the whole thing blows. Steve McQueen can get us out of the Towering Inferno.
Why are we okay with this? How can they possibly face the storm and survive? Sometimes they don’t—and even then we still want to see. Is this morbid curiosity? Is this our way to feel better by comparison? Maybe, but I think it’s probably something more.
I believe we gravitate to these films because of the stories they tell—stories of strength of the human spirit. The leads in these movies are often the ordinary man or woman. They might be a firefighter or a meteorologist.
A fisherman fights The Perfect Storm. A farmer fights The River. We see them grow from an average citizen doing average things, into a hero extraordinaire. Our heroes face danger with enough fear to touch our hearts, and a measure of resiliency to inspire us. They sacrifice themselves for their children. They fight until they have nothing left to give.
Sure, sometimes the special effects in disaster flicks are cheesy. Sometimes the volcanologist can drive his SUV over the lava to outrun the primary blast. Sometimes we have to stretch our imagination to enjoy the whole story.
Are we watching the movie to see Los Angeles utterly destroyed, or are we watching to see the story of a preschool teacher who saves her students’ lives using only yarn, elbow macaroni and Elmer’s Glue from her classroom? I think we all know the answer.
The truth is, when we flock to a disaster film, we search our own souls. We ask: what would we do in this situation? We want to think we could rise to the challenge like our hero. We rally to our champions. We pray that we possess the same strength.
Heroes are all around us. They are the firefighters and the police force in our towns. They are the servicemen in our military. They are teachers and ministers and neighbors.
Disaster movies see this fact and they feature it. They spotlight the truth that we all know. Heroes don’t really wear spandex. They wear aprons and air tanks. They wear blue uniforms and camouflage. They live next door.
These films show us that heroes live inside us all. In tough times, we need more heroes. We need more us. That’s what disaster movies deliver.
That’s a wrap for this Toast to Cinema! Thanks for reading!