I love a good disaster, the more apocalyptic the better. So it should come as no surprise that I enjoy apocalyptic movies—even the ones on the SyFy Channel. Especially those. My love of such movies is life long, fostered by Hollywood’s fascination with making things burn, even in a ship flipped upside down and sinking to the bottom of the ocean. I could list my favourites, and The Poseidon Adventure would be near the top of the list. But the list would spill off the end of this page and onto the next one—and it is Independence Day. I’ve got a party to get to. So I’ll restrict my rambling to movies where the entire planet is under threat of destruction and the fate of the human race teeters on the knife edge of extinction. Movies like Independence Day.
Roland Emmerich is one of my favourite directors, and not only because he has destroyed the White House three times. More, it’s that he understands how to communicate the idea of an apocalypse. How it affects people on every level—individually and globally. Blowing up the White House is a pretty big statement. It’s the death of a very important facet of America, it’s also a symbolic move that every other country on Earth will understand. So it makes a great scene. But even though I’m all about the pyrotechnics, the scenes that really get me are the little ones. The small, apparently meaningless chats between a pair of secondary characters that illustrate the stories of the untold millions, all reacting in very different ways to impending doom.
Though I really like Independence Day, my favourite Emmerich movie is The Day After Tomorrow—because it’s an ecological disaster and those are not only timely, but based on a scary reality. Also, it has The Journey. The Journey is one of my favourite plot devices, from fiction to science fiction. Done well, it’s a compelling narrative and emotional thread. In The Day After Tomorrow, Jack Hall treks across America looking for his son. That his son, Sam, is played by Jake Gyllenhaal is only coincidentally related to my love for this film. Sorta. As the world freezes, his trek becomes more perilous and the stakes are raised. By the end of the movie, hope is as bleak as the landscape, despite all the warm, fuzzy moments between characters figuring out how to survive.
Why do we find apocalypses so appealing? The chance to watch large scale destruction is a definite draw. Movie makers and watchers alike love ‘splosions! I went to see San Andreas for exactly two reasons. One: Dwayne Johnson. Two: to watch a cruise ship ride a tidal wave over San Francisco. I don’t care if it’s plausible or possible, I just wanted to see it—and I did—and it was glorious!
There is more to disaster movies than toppling buildings, fiery tornadoes, and gaping holes in the fabric of reality, though. Disasters—apocalypses in particular—show the truth of humanity. Sometimes it’s ugly, but the reason these movies are so popular is because more often, it’s not. Inevitably, by the end of the movie, an unlikely hero has emerged. A stranger has made a sacrifice. People with differences have banded together to do something more important than bicker. Folks even find love. So, while everything’s going to hell in a handbasket, people are doing what people do best: they’re being human. And being human, to me, is being filled with hope. We have to be in order to get past that fundamental question of ‘Why am I here?’
So what makes a good disaster movie? There’s a definite formula. The first scene should involve a warning. The rumble of the Earth or an alien mothership hovering overhead. A wind that’s just a little bit too strong to be natural. A crack appearing in the sidewalk. Then we meet the mad scientist. This is the guy who has been prophesying ‘The End is Nigh’ for his/her entire career. They’ve written books and have a cult following. But no one takes them seriously until that crack in the sidewalk widens far enough to swallow a something or someone. Which brings me to the ritual sacrifice. The first to die. It’s a stupid and ignoble death and no one wants this part, but it’s essential. If people don’t die, no one will take the mad scientist seriously. And if the ritual sacrifice is related to someone important, it’s even better.
Next, we have the estranged couple—two people who are separated or divorced. They’re going to find their way back into one another’s arms by the end of the movie. It’s that whole working together to achieve a goal thing mixed in with holy-mother-of-God-we’re-all-going-to-die.
On to the kid with skillz. Doesn’t have to be a kid, but kids are cute and when they’re threatened with serious bodily harm, the audience naturally leans toward the front of their seats. Either way, someone needs to figure out how to defeat the aliens, close the wormhole, protect everyone from the triple-twister/falling building/big freeze/mutant alligator-turtle-orangutan.
This is where a lot of disaster movies fall under criticism. The solution. It’s either too easy, or utterly ridiculous. The aliens are afraid of water? We can take down the shielding of an advanced species’ aircraft by using a computer virus? Nuking the sun is basically just like hitting a light switch? Thing is—if it wasn’t doable, we’d all be dead, and that’s really not a fun movie. And it has to be doable by ordinary people. Yeah, often it’s the mad scientist who has the solution, or the heroic dude with all the muscles, or the intelligent woman thrown in for the sake of diversity. But for it to work, it has to be something the last man, woman or child on Earth can accomplish. I have to be able to do it. Therefore, it has to be simple.
Next up is the Hail Mary. The solution IS too simple, or the first, overly complicated version is broken. This is where you hold your breath. Someone usually dies at this point, and it’s not a ritual sacrifice. It’s a heartfelt one. The anti-hero is often thrown on the pyre here, and later, when everyone emerges from the rubble with artistic streaks of dirt across their faces, they’ll say good things about him or her. It’s usually a him.
Finally, the movie wraps with a hint of the next disaster. An eyelid opening, another crack in the sidewalk, a puff of smoke from the dead volcano. This is in case they want to make a sequel—but it shouldn’t detract from the point, which is that we survived, and that we all learned something along the way. Might just be to move away from major fault lines, but more usually it’s that feeling of hope. Human ingenuity and spirit triumphing against all odds. That, right there, is why we love disaster movies, and why Independence Day embodies the spirit of the genre. America has always been a fiercely independent nation, and you can believe that if aliens did blow up the White House on the most celebrated date on the calendar, they’re going to get mad enough to put their president in a fighter jet. Fighting tyranny takes more than a reckless spirit, however. It takes a nation as a whole. It takes people working together. It takes hope.
If aliens ever do land on Earth, Kelly will not be prepared, despite having read over a hundred stories of the apocalypse. Still, she will pack her precious books into a box and carry them with her as she strives to survive. It’s what bibliophiles do.
Kelly writes the CHAOS STATION series with her best friend and writing partner, Jenn Burke. The latest release in the series, LONELY SHORE, came out on May 25th. Visit the Chaos Station website at http://chaosstation.com to read an excerpt of both books. While you’re there, consider joining the mailing list for advance notice of upcoming releases, excerpts and short stories.
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