God Save The Screen

By Ash Wakeman

May 26, 2004

At work mostly. Might pop down the pub afterwards. How about you?

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As a huge fan of disaster movies, I am really looking forward to The Day After Tomorrow. I may have already mentioned this once or twice. It is, of course, the trailer that has won me over. It's not just the quality of the special effects, but the scope of it all. It is, as David’s blog suggests, a trailer comprised almost entirely of money-shots.

Am I expecting it to be a good film? To be honest, not really. I’m expecting to enjoy it, but the term “good” really does not go hand-in-hand with disaster films. It’s not really expected of them. Disaster films are a strange beast in this respect; they fall under some kind of broad “guilty pleasure” label and for many classifying them as such is enough to make them immune to the level of scrutiny that other films might warrant. Or, you could say they are "a chink in everyone's critical armor," as I saw one reviewer describe them recently.

As anyone who visits the site on a regular basis is probably aware, the staff here at BOP is a particularly list-happy bunch, an obsession of Hornbyesque proportions. I am no exception. If I were to list my five favorite disaster films, there are probably only two of the five that I would classify as good films in their own right. But you are reading the words of a man who, of his own free will, has chosen to watch Daylight three times. As such, it should be obvious that quality is absolutely not an issue.

If I were to make such a list I’d also need to consider how I would define a disaster movie. Outside of what is traditionally thought of as a disaster film, there are movies such as Jaws (or if you prefer, Piranha), almost a genre in their own right, but one that a lot of people would place under the umbrella of “disaster”. Also under that bulging umbrella of impending doom are the “technology runs amok” films such as Westworld and Jurassic Park. Perhaps instead, the yardstick of whether or not it can truly be called a disaster film should be based on the presence of George Kennedy, a man who stands astride the genre like a portly Colossus. Or perhaps I’ll just go with my gut instinct.

Like the death of the arrogant, annoying guy who disagrees with the star as to the best course of action, the appearance of the list itself is inevitable. Here are my five favorite disaster movies. The list is in chronological order.

The Flight of the Phoenix: After their plane crashes in the desert a band of bickering misfits (an all-star cast of course) attempt to find a way out of their predicament. As water, food and hope dwindle, tempers slowly become more frayed and conflict increases as desperation creeps in.

Whether or not this is strictly a disaster film is debatable. However, it is part of an important group of films that predate the flashier, effects-laden '70s films that fully defined the genre. I see The Flight of the Phoenix as the missing link between tense survival epics like Ice Cold in Alex and the Wages of Fear and the more traditional '70s disaster film.

It is, however, one of my favorite films of all time. And if there were ever any doubt of if it should qualify for the list or not, this doubt was soundly quashed when I remembered it even featured George Kennedy amongst its impressive ensemble cast.

The Poseidon Adventure: The Poseidon adventure is one of the most memorable disaster films of the '70s. It wasn’t the first, but the huge box office success of the Poseidon Adventure really got the ball rolling in a decade where disaster films were big money. It also helped propel its producer Irwin Allen on his way to becoming the king of the genre.

While it was all on a larger scale, it’s easy to see the thematic continuance of earlier films such as Flight of the Phoenix. A disaster, a group of squabbling survivors, an ordeal, rising tension, only some survive. It was a scenario to be repeated again and again through the '70s and beyond.

It’s easy to write the Poseidon Adventure off as some kind of nostalgic kitsch, but it was a very successful film in its day. The tidal wave sequence, especially the internal shots, were pretty impressive, and several of the set pieces managed a good level of tension and peril. However, it’s held back by some rather terrible acting from guilty parties too numerous to name. Despite these flaws, it remains a fun film, and very much a classic of the genre.

The Towering Inferno: Irwin Allen’s follow up to the massive success of the Poseidon Adventure was an even more ambitious project. Big money was thrown around with this one, not least of all on the two stars: Steve McQueen and Paul Newman. Receiving equal billing (and demanding equal lines and screen time) these two headed a cast, which at the time, defined “all-star”.

It was a slight change of tack from the likes of the Poseidon Adventure, ramping the action and toning down the melodramatic tension (although it still has its fair share of the latter). It was an approach that worked, and like the Poseidon Adventure it went on to become one of the most commercially successful films of the '70s.

Jurassic Park: The popularity of the disaster film withered and waned throughout the '80s. I suspect the spiralling costs of special effects and salaries of A-list actors may have played a part. These two were key factors in their success and rise during the '70s. However, advances in special effects in the early '90s created a situation where the action could take center stage and the pedigree of the cast became largely irrelevant.

You no longer needed McQueen and Newman as your leading men. When you had special effects this jaw-dropping, Sam Neill and Jeff Goldblum would do just fine. And jaw-dropping they were. For me, Jurassic Park was, and still is, a high watermark for motion picture special effects. I had hoped that it would set the standard for what was to come, but to be honest I have yet to see anything else that combines traditional and computer-based effects so flawlessly.

The plot is typical “technology gone amok” fare, as the movie basically a retelling of Crichton’s earlier Westworld, with more dinosaurs and fewer bald cowboys. With characterization and dialogue that are sketchy at best, Goldblum’s mathematician was the only vaguely memorable role (although I do have a soft spot for the sadly departed Bob Peck’s big game hunter). But these are irrelevant because it is the Dinosaurs that rule this picture.

Deep Impact: Probably not the most popular choice, but I think this is the best representative of the CGI effects driven disaster movies that have proliferated over recent years. There are a few corny subplots that could have done with being jettisoned. First and foremost, there are the space-bound sequences that pale in comparison to Armageddon’s hyperactive pyrotechnics and add little to the plot. It could probably have survived with one less star gazing hobbit and girlfriend as well.

However, the main plot surrounding an investigative journalist’s probe into a president’s affair only to discover a gigantic cover-up and the way the government handles the impending disaster has a great nostalgic and paranoid '70s feel to it. And the payoff is worth it, with the disaster itself being of sufficient magnitude and causing enough droppage of jaw to rank it higher than its contemporaries as far as this disaster film fan is concerned.

It’s not looking good for Deep Impact, though. If the trailers are anything to go by, it will soon be replaced on this list by The Day After Tomorrow. Unlike the others that made my top five, it doesn’t really have the sort of classic status that affords it any kind of staying power. It’s just here until something better comes along. Scratch that, it’s not about quality; let’s just say it’s here until something bigger comes along.

Weekend Wrap-up

This would have been a much better column if Troy had tanked. Then I could have started with "and speaking of disasters," but as expected, Troy topped the box office at the UK this weekend with a take, including previews, of just over £6 million. It performed slightly better in the UK than the US (17.8c against 15.2c), which was expected. With no Shrek 2 here for another month or two, the question becomes whether or not The Day After Tomorrow can top this next weekend and become the May champion. Of course the week after that film opens, Harry Potter 2 sweeps onto the scene like an enormous tidal wave and will comfortably wipe out both these openings.

Other than Troy, you know it’s a slow week when a Pedro Almodovar film opens at number five, which is an impressive performance for Bad Education (La Mala Educacion). Other top five holdovers Van Helsing, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Kill Bill Vol. 2 performed quite well with low drop-offs all around. I’m especially impressed by Eternal Sunshine’s performance to date; it will be interesting to see if it’s remembered come awards season.



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