A scene from the 2017 film Geostorm: many societies have historically attempted to deal with collective trauma by replaying and restaging it in art. Warner Bros., Electric Entertainment, Rat Pac-Dune Entertainment

Friday essay: eco-disaster films in the 21st century - helpful or harmful?

It seems like every time we switch on the idiot box we are confronted with news footage of another disaster. Bushfires in Australia. A hurricane in North America. A tsunami in Indonesia.

Part of this, of course, is merely a reflection of the sensationalist rationale of commercial news in the first place – in order to sell advertising space, this news needs to be sufficiently engaging to keep people from switching the channel.

But the unfortunate reality of global warming means that natural disasters are becoming more frequent and more severe. And Hollywood cinema has kept pace, offering some recent spectacular depictions of natural disaster in the context of global warming.

Climate change is central to the narrative of the 2004 film The Day After Tomorrow directed by Roland Emmerich. In it, a changing climate leads to a series of extreme storms in a precursor to a cataclysmic shift into a new Ice Age.

The 2015 film San Andreas, meanwhile, looks at the effects of a massive earthquake throughout California.

Geostorm (2017) posits a scientific response to global warming - through the international development of a planetary network of satellites that can control the weather - and what happens when it becomes weaponised.

The latest in this genre of big budget, Hollywood eco-disaster movies is Moonfall slated to begin production in 2020. Emmerich will be directing the $150 million project, which follows a team attempting to stop the moon from colliding with earth after it has been struck by an asteroid.

The script has been co-written by Emmerich and his regular collaborator Harald Kloser - with whom Emmerich wrote the disaster epic 2012, a 2009 film about the race to save the planet as the earth’s core heats up.

Emmerich has described Moonfall as a cross between 2012 and Independence Day (minus the extra-terrestrial element). It’s unclear whether global warming will feature directly in its plot, but given Emmerich’s record of making ecologically aware films, it seems likely.

How, then, do such films help and/or hinder us in managing our anxieties regarding the progressive deterioration of the planet? As natural disasters become more commonplace, is there a point at which we will become too distressed by the real to reproduce it as entertaining spectacle?

A woman wears a mask to protect herself from bushfire-related smoke haze in Sydney this month. Paul Braven/AAP

‘Bad stars’

The term disaster, with its etymology from ancient Greek for “bad star,” has always elicited cosmic allusions. Disaster suggests that the universe is awry; the planets are out of alignment, bad stars are causing chaos and disorder.

The secularisation of disaster in the modern era, through the notion of risk and insurance, attempts to sever this connection to the word’s planetary origins, envisioning it on the scale of the manageable “accident”, which can be insured against.

Yet, in the context of global warming, and following the large-scale atrocities of the 20th century such as the two world wars, the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Holocaust, it’s clear that disasters are far from manageable. One of the ways we have sought to manage our anxieties about disaster is through popular film.

A photo made available by the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum shows a view of the mushroom cloud photographed from the ground during the bombing of Nagasaki, Japan in 1945. Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum handout/EPA

The Hollywood disaster film genre has undergone, roughly, two major cycles. The first was in the 1970s. It included blockbuster melodramas like The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, and the Airport films (so brilliantly parodied in Flying High).

These cinematic disasters were often instigated by some kind of natural element – an earthquake, or a tidal wave. But they were also often structured around the malfunctioning of technologies in human-built environments (The China Syndrome being a prime example).

The heroes in these films were usually strong, hard-boiled men. Gene Hackman in The Poseidon Adventure, for example, leads, as though by sheer willpower alone, a group to safety following the capsizing of the eponymous ship. As viewers, we are awed by his grim determination in overcoming adversity amid often stark images of people dying.

The second cinematic cycle begins in the 1990s with ecologically sensitive films like Twister, which follows a group of meteorologists as they chase violent tornadoes across Oklahoma, and Dante’s Peak, about the disastrous effects of the eruption of a volcano on a small Washington town. Such films prefigure later, more explicit global warming eco-disaster films, like Emmerich’s masterful The Day After Tomorrow.

While the earlier disaster films were characterised by their ensemble casts and soap-opera like structures, these newer ones dedicate more energy towards showing the disasters (using elaborate CGI and high definition), and imagining social and governmental responses to them.

Affectively, they depend upon the pathos of groups working together to overcome adversity. As in a Christian vigil, the viewer of these films takes solace from participating in this community of suffering.

The Vigil, 1884. Oil on canvas, by John Pettie. Wikimedia Commons

The pleasure of disaster on film

On one level, popular film as “entertainment” offers us reprieve from the petty banalities, inconsistencies and disappointments of everyday life, by giving us a vision of a world ordered into timely narrative. Events are tied together in a fundamentally meaningful fashion.

We are able to defer the concerns of the ordinary for a couple of hours, and participate in a viscerally stimulating and pathos-laden experience. The unwieldy disasters we see in the real world are thereby represented in a contained fashion, allowing us the illusion of conceptual and emotional mastery. But at the same time, this process pacifies us, numbing us to, and distracting us from, reality.

Similarly, our response to disaster films is ambivalent. On one hand, we enjoy watching the ultimately effective responses of the state to the disaster. In The Day After Tomorrow, for example, following some initial bumbling, the US government saves millions of Americans by organising a deal for US migration to Mexico(!)

On the other hand, epic images of full-scale disaster are the visual and visceral centrepieces of these films, and awe and terrify us. Indeed, our most intense pleasure in these films emerges from their sublime images of destruction.


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Watching San Francisco fall to pieces in San Andreas is awe inspiring. In The Day After Tomorrow, one of the most sublime sequences involves the ocean swelling and rolling through Manhattan, gathering people and vehicles in its stead after crashing into the Statue of Liberty.

Watching San Francisco fall to pieces in San Andreas is awe-inspiring. New Line Cinema, Village Roadshow Pictures, RatPac-Dune Entertainment

These pleasures in destruction and restoration occur within the context of a more saccharine kind of empathy we feel with the masses of faceless victims. By the films’ endings, we can take solace in the images and acts of community building and collective overcoming. Along with the victims, we mourn worlds destroyed, and are hopeful about worlds beginning to be rebuilt.

The economics of disaster

Hollywood disaster films often feature antagonists who are stubborn bureaucrats and greedy capitalists, but also US presidents who are calm, compassionate and measured, taking an appropriate amount of time to decide how to act and then acting decisively.

In The Day After Tomorrow, this is firstly President Blake (Perry King), who makes cool-headed decisions about the future of America and dies when his motorcade is caught in a storm and destroyed. Later, President Becker (Kenneth Welsh) is magically transformed from a pig-headed obstructionist after he assumes the presidency.

Perry King in The Day After Tomorrow (2004). Twentieth Century Fox, Centropolis Entertainment, Lions Gate Films

This, of course, contrasts with real-life presidential responses to disaster. In 2017, following Hurricane Maria’s devastating effects on Puerto Rico, Donald Trump criticised Puerto Ricans for the economic burden Maria gifted the US government, while simultaneously implying the event wasn’t very bad – not a “real catastrophe” compared to Katrina. This was all while delivering his emergency address on Puerto Rican soil!

At a time in which solidarity and compassion were expected, Trump was criticised by many for making the issue about the US’s economic burden; and yet, like many things Trump does, this inadvertently raised some critical issues surrounding the economics of disaster in the modern era.

US President Donald Trump speaks next to Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rossello and US First Lady Melania Trump at the Luis Muniz aerial base in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in October 2017. Thais Llorca / POOL/EPA

The imagination of disaster – its preempting, in a sense, its prediction – offers insurers (and the reinsurers who back them), following rapidly updated actuarial tables, a unique opportunity to capitalise on risk.

At the same time, disasters are a boon to some capitalist investors, who are able to buy into the development of new infrastructure for a profit.

Disaster in this way is a chief “innovator”, sucking up surplus capital, offering the most literal realisation of what conservative economist Joseph Schumpeter celebrated as one of the virtues of capitalism – its capacity for “creative destruction”.

Technology and disaster

French philosopher Paul Virilio has argued that the invention of every technology is simultaneously the invention of its accident. The invention of the car, for instance, invents the car crash. While the disaster film is acutely aware of these failures built into every technology, the genre’s relationship towards technology is more complex than outright critique.

Perhaps the most striking ambivalence of disaster films concerns the role – and virtues – of technology in facilitating and overcoming disaster. This is explicitly worked through in “man-made” disaster films like The China Syndrome, The Towering Inferno, and, more recently, Deepwater Horizon.


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Natural disaster films like The Day After Tomorrow and Geostorm envision global warming as the product of devastating technological practices, and offer technological solutions to this. In Geostorm, the network of satellites that control the weather malfunction, and rapidly become the cause of even greater disaster as the film progresses.

Geostorm (2017) envisions global warming as the product of devastating technological practices, and offers technological solutions to this. Warner Bros., Electric Entertainment, RatPac-Dune Entertainment

And yet, at a higher level, these films are entirely dependent on cutting edge visual and aural technologies to stage the awe inspiring disasters in the first place. They also require a great deal of investment - of capital, and human labour - and, therefore, create a great deal of waste.

Disaster cinema, in unconsciously teasing out the relationship between technophilia and technophobia, forces us to confront one of most pressing dilemmas of the age of the Anthropocene: should we reflect on and think through the causes of disaster, or use technology to act in the hope of preventing future disasters?

A discourse of technological “solutions” to climate change fits squarely into the logic critiqued by philosopher Timothy Morton in his book Dark Ecology.

Technology, in the first place, depends on the extraction of power from nature, and the conversion of the natural into waste-creating power. Suggesting that something can cohere with a technological “problem: solution” framework is thus perhaps part of the problem itself.

Indeed, the myth that there can be a “growth”-oriented solution to global warming is convincingly undone in one of the key academic works on global warming discourse, Anneleen Kevis and Matthias Lievens’ The Limits of the Green Economy.

By studying Hollywood’s mediations of disaster – its attempts at containment and emotional management – we can perhaps begin to learn something about the ongoing tensions and contradictions that define ecological existence in modernity.

The future of disaster

The sheer frequency of contemporary natural disasters raises the question - is there a point at which we will lose our appetite for watching them staged on film?

I suspect the answer is a resounding “no.” Following September 11, it was commonplace to hear people say the footage of the planes crashing into the World Trade Centre looked like it was from a movie. But what movie? The documentary photo-realism of the footage barely resembled Hollywood’s slick action and disaster spectacles.

More notably, Hollywood films began to adopt the September 11 style after the event itself, with the hand-held, found-footage style realism of films like Cloverfield becoming a cliche by the end of the first decade of the 21st century.

This, once again, exemplifies the comforting finitude popular film narratives offer viewers. The more frequent disasters become, the greater will be the need for emotional management by the corporations that produce popular news and entertainment.

The more desperate people become about global warming - and the emergence of grassroots activist groups like Extinction Rebellion suggests people are becoming increasingly desperate - the more popular media corporations will assuage our anxieties with carefully ordered, pacifying spectacles.

For the last week or so, people have been walking around Sydney with their heads down, eyes red from the smoke, wearing masks to filter the air.

Pedestrians are seen wearing masks as smoke haze from bushfires in New South Wales blankets the CBD in Sydney this week. Steven Saphore)/AAP

This is like something from a disaster film - and similar scenes of the effects and aftermath of catastrophe are continuing to appear around the globe.

Yet, there is no evidence this will curb Hollywood’s appetite for disaster. In fact, cultures and societies - like individuals - have historically attempted to deal with collective trauma by replaying and restaging it in art, from the Chauvet cave paintings to The Longest Day. This may make people feel both better and more helpless at the same time.

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