When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, my family’s New Year’s Eve tradition was to go to see a disaster movie at the theater. We would enter the theater in the old year, but we would exit in the new year. Our local ward usually hosted a party at the Church that started in the evening with music, tables set up for games, and lots of conversation, and ended with a breakfast for everyone in the early hours of the morning of the new year. With our tradition, we would just duck out for two and a half hours to see our movie, then return to the church building for breakfast.
It was a great era for disaster movies! We had The Poseiden Adventure, The Towering Inferno, Earthquake, The Swarm, and a series of Airport movies about airline disasters (that were later parodied so well in Airplane!). There were also some smaller scale disaster movies that I only saw on TV at other times of the year: Ssssss (about an imminent ice age that was coming, so a scientist was turning everyone into reptiles), and of course, everyone’s favorite, Soylent Green. Amityville Horror was another type of disaster movie (and the disaster was the Lutzes’ marriage! That priest could have also used some cardio.) After that time period, having a disaster movie during the final week of the year seemed to fade away. There have been more disaster movies since that time, but the formulaic small-scale disaster movie fell out of vogue, and of course, I grew up and left home, so that tradition didn’t continue.
You’re probably familiar with many of the more recent disaster movie titles. We’ve had Independence Day, Titanic, Dante’s Peak, San Andreas, Twister, Deepwater Horizon, Jurassic Park, The Perfect Storm, and a few others. In a way, Ghostbusters was a disaster movie, but with a comedic tone. When I first saw it, I didn’t expect the crisis at the end to be real. I kept thinking they were going to Scooby Doo it, and we’d find out that ghosts weren’t really real; it was just Mr. Jenkins and some tricky projectors (huh, that description is impacting my perspective on Spiderman: Far From Home that I thought was so inventive). Some of these movies were larger than the disaster genre, crossing into science fiction, some were just not very good, and in many cases, while the effects got better, the writing often got worse. The Reagan Era and beyond just didn’t have the same malaise I guess, the pervasive dread that made us obsess about the disasters that might curttail our lives or those of our loved ones, unless those threats were planet-killers. Maybe we were living in denial or materialistic comfort. Maybe disaster movies are popular in relation to gas prices. Maybe I was a less critical movie-goer at age 9 than at 49.
Psychologically, disaster movies are compelling because they give us closure. We become engrossed in a gripping tale that feels like it could happen, we imagine what we would do in the face of such danger, and then it is resolved, and we can feel good imagining that we would have helped and not hurt the effort against the threat. We would have seen it for what it was. We would have warned others and gotten people to safety. In addition to closure, disaster movies make the actual threats we face seem surmountable. After all, something even bigger gets resolved in around two hours.
There are some familiar tropes in most disaster movies, as detailed here:
- The noble scientist who was right all along, but nobody would listen!
- The stoic grande dame who faces her mortality with grace and poise while others lose their crap
- The idiot who dies an idiotic death (the lawyer who gets eaten by a T-Rex while he’s on the toilet!)
- The disgraced person who finds redemption
- The kid with moxie (and a doomed dog)
- The noble president (no matter what the threat, if the president is good, we will be alright)
This year, there were no disaster movies in theaters, but there was one on Netflix called Don’t Look Up! (SPOILER ALERT! STOP HERE IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN IT AND PLAN TO SEE IT).
While the tone of this movie felt distinctly contemporary and wholly different than, say, Towering Inferno, it still contained most of the tropes of a disaster movie, and there was definitely a planet-killing disaster hurtling toward us all in the form of an extinction-level comet impact. There were people in power who denied or were indifferent. There were people who scuttled plans to avert disaster. There were wide-eyed prophetic scientists warning others and being ignored. There were some who decided to spend their last moments enjoying their loved ones, like the old couple in Titanic, spooning each other as the water rises around the bed.
What felt different with this movie was that it was simultaneously an unsubtle look at the dangers of having narcissistic incompetent political leaders in charge when a real crisis hits. There was no square-jawed Bill Pullman, flying into the enemy spacecraft while speechifying about the human spirit. The problem with having incompetent leaders is that it’s not an escape from reality. That’s literally the world we live in. The crisis of a comet hitting the earth and killing all human life felt like just another Tuesday. (Also, they were going to put a bill forward to Congress to pass the plan to destroy the comet?? No, executive order that sucker!) The real threat was the lack of will and competence to avert the disaster; politicians at first were only willing to do anything when there was public outcry, but then changed their plans when a large donor wanted to profit from the crisis. In nearly all of the disaster movies that featured POTUS (and yes, it’s always the American President), the President sees the bigger picture and is a steadying influence, even if the threat is dire. The bigger the threat, the more gravitas and leadership shown. Not here.
There was also a plot problem at the end of the movie in that the elites were able to escape in a space ark that kept them in stasis for tens of thousands of years (another trope we’ve seen before), and yet, with this kind of secret technology, they couldn’t simply blow up a comet. The motive to save the planet was clear. Their bitcoin was destroyed along with the planet! Unlike the Ghostbusters ending, this ending really was just a joke, a poke at technocrats and autocrats, showing that whether their followers are duped by them or not, they are going to kill us all while saving themselves.
The title of the film is based on a mantra the Trumpy POTUS (played with gusto by Meryl Streep) leads her followers in chanting to get them to ignore the warnings: “Don’t Look Up!” She tells them that unnamed elites are laughing at them and trying to control them (They are! She’s one of them!). Eventually, when they do look up, the comet is already visible, and the destruction of the planet is imminent. One doomed redneck in a “Don’t Look Up!” baseball cap who finally sees the comet yells, “They lied to us!”
Whether intentional or not, this paralleled the story in the Old Testament (a prototype for a disaster movie?) in which the Israelites were bitten by venomous snakes. Moses mounted one of the stakes on a pole and told the doomed Israelites that if they looked at it, they would be healed (the origin for one of our contemporary medical symbols, as well as being a type of Christ). Some of them simply refused to look up and died instead, lacking the faith to do such a simple task. Others looked up and were healed. Unlike that story, in this one, everyone died whether they looked up or not. The comet was not elitist and didn’t care if people had faith.
If this was a deliberate religious subtext, it paints those who deny the reality of threats (Covid severity, anti-vaxers, climate) as not only an existential threat to the rest of us, but as faithless, anti-religious actors, an irony that is not lost on me as a viewer. Some religious folks like to paint those who ignore invisible, ideological threats (e.g. the fruits of sin, not following religious practices, religious freedom) as the ones creating an existential threat. While it’s unsurprising that Hollywood and conservative religious movements would be on opposite sides of this argument, it’s dismaying that we can’t get everyone on the same page when it comes to facing very real, non-political threats, like a pandemic that has killed almost a million people, or accepting the outcomes of democratic elections.
Perhaps this movie is saying that if deniers weren’t such a distraction, there would be enough will to do what needed to be done. Perhaps that’s been one of the main themes in disaster movies all along. Those trying to solve problems can’t evacuate the unwilling, and until they can convince those in charge that the crisis is a real threat, the threat can’t be addressed. But then the movie adds another layer with the influence of technocrat (and political contributor) billionaire Peter Isherwell. After POTUS has devised a plan with a high probability of success, this important donor comes in and influences huge changes to the plan that lead to its ineffectiveness, implying that even if we knew the right thing to do, we would be persuaded by capitalism not to do it. Capitalism run amok is perhaps the bigger existential threat.
The disaster movie genre feels particularly poignant at the beginning of a new year. It’s a time to reflect on the last year, what we did well, what we didn’t do well, how things have changed in a one year time period, what the future might hold. We set personal goals to improve ourselves and our lives. We face things we’ve been avoiding. We buy gym memberships. We have closure on the year that is now gone.
I recently posted about living in a world in which interpersonal threats in society are increasing, and Bishop Bill’s post on 2021 also describes threats of the church’s increasing irrelevance and ideological splits between members and leaders. Then Dave B. posted about the likelihood that 2022 is going to be a harder year for the Church to weather (although he predicts eventual success). When it comes to these threats, as in a disaster movie, we might be on the side of those ringing alarm bells, trying to get attention from those in power to address what we see as an imminent crisis, or we might be among those who disagree that it’s a crisis or who disagree what the crisis is, or who feel that nothing can be done to avert the crisis, so we might as well live well until the end. We might deny the crisis, instead focusing on doing what we’ve always done, refusing to look up, vilifying those who claim there is a danger. Only time will tell if the threats are real, and if our efforts to avert disaster are effective.
- What threats do you see the Church avoiding? Are they existential threats? What’s at stake?
- What threats is the Church focused on? Do you find these threats credible and important? Are the actions being taken effective?
- Are Church members avoiding threats? Are they the same or different than what the Church leaders see as threats?
- Is it possible to avert disaster when you are not in power? Or will you eventually get sidelined for disrupting the peace?
- Is the pull of power and profit always too compromising for those in power to assess threats with accuracy and take action accordingly?
- What are your favorite (and least favorite) disaster movies?