The Paradox of Disaster Movies

I’ve seen The Day After Tomorrow more times than I’d like to admit. At least four separate occasions, possibly five. After the third viewing, it sort of blends together into blurry mess, and my impressions of the movie become far less potent with each subsequent screening.

I can understand when someone repeatedly re-watches their favorite movie. Some are just so packed with fine details that it feels like a new experience each time. Unfortunately, The Day After Tomorrow is not my favorite movie. I wouldn’t even consider it a good movie, and my opinion of it has become even less flattering over time. So, why, exactlyhas this movie been repeatedly drilled into my brain?

The answer lies within its nature. The Day After Tomorrow is categorized, quite neatly, as a disaster movie. It fits right in with the likes of Deep Impact, Twister, 2012, and Dante’s Peak, and even alongside some of the sillier films in the genre, such as The Core and Armageddon. Most of these movies, to some degree, follow a pretty standard format: A researcher in a niche field of natural sciences gives an ominous warning of the dangers that he discovers from his research. His warnings are quickly cast aside by rivals, deniers, or greedy politicians. Suddenly, a disastrous situations erupts that is conveniently relevant to the researcher’s area of expertise. Now the viewers must hold on to their seats as our hero traverses the volatile results of this disaster to either “solve” the problem or save as many people as he can. Throw in some child bystanders and a montage of cities being consumed by rampant special effects and you’ve got yourself a movie!

The “nature” of these movies lies within their appeal. Yes, some viewers might enjoy the suspenseful or interpersonal struggles of the protagonist in the midst of his predicament. Yes, many are suckers for the “destruction porn” provided by the blob of special effects crashing into an urban environment. Sometimes these movies have comedic or romantic elements that can keep people entertained. However, the thing that keeps people coming back has a lot more in common with that of horror flicks: Audiences crave the adrenaline from fear. They’re addicted to projecting themselves into terrible situations that would stimulate their primal urges for danger and excitement.

The requirement for these movies to achieve this exact thrill is that they must be remotely grounded in reality; if they break the viewer’s suspension of disbelief, then the thrill, and subsequently the appeal, dissipates. Because of this, most disaster movies have concepts (usually loosely) based in science, bringing forth and exaggerating familiar concepts such as storms, earthquakes, and meteors. The success of these movies hinge on people’s natural fears of these phenomena. In order to ramp up the excitement even further, many disaster movies brand their plots as “warnings” in attempts to convince their audiences that these events are realand it could happen to you! 

The reason I’ve seen The Day After Tomorrow so many times is because the “warning” it gives has been relevant to a number of courses I’ve taken throughout high school and college. In eighth grade I took a low-stress extracurricular class on alternative energies, and the teacher showed The Day After Tomorrow to demonstrate their necessities. In ninth grade I took earth science, and as a treat after a test the teacher decided to show a movie. That movie? The Day After Tomorrow. In twelfth grade I took an environmental studies class. Needless to say, we watched The Day After Tomorrow. Now, deep into my college career, I’ve found myself watching The Day After Tomorrow once again.

Some may say that the popularity of these movies are a good thing. It would be logical to assume that people who are more aware of the consequences of global warming from this movie would be more conscious of their carbon footprint. Or that those that watch Twister would know how to protect themselves and their families from tornadoes. Or even that the viewers of Deep Impact would advocate for better preparation in the case of a major asteroid collision. However, these movies are more likely to cause more problems than good.

The problem with disaster movies is that, while they present the audience with extreme examples of theoretical disasters, they undermine the actual consequences of natural disasters that happen every year. A disaster movie isn’t going to show a family hopelessly watch the California wildfires slowly approach their home, or an elderly couple being stranded on their roof for three days after the flooding of Hurricane Katrina, or a Kenyan village gradually starving because the annual average temperature rising six degrees Celsius killed their crops. While tragic, real-life disasters would be considered “boring” to the typical disaster movie audience. People familiar with disaster movies are less likely to care about the victims of a real disaster because it wasn’t as “flashy” as what they see in the movies, like how a suburb being flooded by five feet of water isn’t as emotionally impactful as the entirety of New York City getting leveled by a giant tidal wave.

Disaster movies set up an impossible expectation for disasters to be large, sudden, and exciting. People often don’t realize that they simply aren’t so extreme. Many actual disasters are small (relative to what’s seen in the movies) with the real dangers being the long battle of endurance rather than flying debris or giant fireballs instantly killing people. When someone tunes in to the fallout of a natural disaster but is “disappointed” by the severity, how would that affect their sympathy towards the victims, or their willingness to help? While disaster movies certainly give the impressions of being omens of the future to come or inspirations for the resilience of the human spirit (also usually tugging at the watcher’s emotions by destroying beloved national landmarks), the over-the-top display of natural forces delusions people to what it means for others to experience danger and tragedy.

It should remembered that movies, despite how realistic they claim to be, should never be taken seriously. The film industry is, after all, a for-profit industry, and is more than willing to stretch the truth to increase drama or justify having crazier special effects. It may be difficult for common audiences to disassociate disaster movies with actual disasters, but if that is ever achieved we would certainly end up with a more socially and environmentally aware society.

(As a side note, it should be pointed out how problematic the ending of The Day After Tomorrow is for people who might take it seriously. The movie doesn’t do anything to offer a solution for people to pursue, then goes on to depict the storm dissipating on its own, as if to say “Even if this did happen, don’t worry! The problem will fix itself soon enough.” What a great lesson to teach your children.)

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