Saturday 3 December 2016

The disaster movies that had us on the edge of our seats

Paul Whitington

Published 31/05/2015 | 02:30

Groundbreaking: San Andreas features some impressive special effects
Groundbreaking: San Andreas features some impressive special effects

The rather bluntly titled new action movie San Andreas, which is currently making a lot of noise at your local multiplex, does exactly what it says on the tin. That, of course, is the name of the famous geological fault line that runs up the spine of California, and poor old Los Angeles is going about its daily business when an earthquake strikes.

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Ho hum, you might think, they have tremors there all the time, but this is the start of a massive event, an unprecedented shake that tears the whole State to shreds and leaves Dwayne Johnson's granite-jawed rescue helicopter pilot scrambling to save his ex-wife, and grown-up daughter.

The real joy in disaster movies is anticipating the chaos, and watching the smug and unworthy get their comeuppance. In San Andreas a group of tanned idiots sipping cocktails around a swimming pool at the top of a skyscraper are really asking for it, and throughout Brad Peyton's film, morally-dubious characters are singled out for particularly grizzly ends.

In the brave new world of Cgi, all sorts of disastrous set pieces are possible, and the panache with which the skylines of Los Angeles and San Francisco are skittled over is impressive. But San Andreas doesn't even bother avoiding the clichés that have become so endemic in this hackneyed genre, and Dwayne Johnson and his picture perfect but one-dimensional family are pretty hard to care about.

Over the years, however, a select few disaster movies have managed to get the delicate balance between special effects and believable characters right, and a genre that had its heyday in the 1970s and then drifted disastrously out of fashion has proved remarkably durable overall. And perhaps that's because moviegoers love nothing more than watching bad things happening to other people from the safety of an air-conditioned cinema.

It's interesting how the disasters of choice have changed over the years, but fire has always been a popular one, and may have inspired the first ever disaster movie. In 1901 the pioneering Scottish film-maker James Williamson put a match to a derelict house in Hove in order to create a five-minute drama about a family being rescued from the blaze. But it was the 1930s before the first fully-fledged disaster movies began to emerge.

You could argue about whether or not King Kong (1933) qualifies as a disaster movie, though it was certainly disastrous for poor old Kong. But there can be no such doubts about Felix E Feist's Deluge, which was released the same year and would set the template for many disaster movies to come.

In Feist's film, New York is hit by an earthquake and a tsunami, and Sidney Blackmer played a survivor who's torn between his wife and an Amazonian female he meets swimming through the wreckage. If the plot was silly, the special effects were not: the Deluge production team constructed a scale model of Manhattan that was so big it covered an entire sound stage; the tiny buildings had thin plaster shells that crumbled apart as the model was hit by a steep wall of water.

Looking at these early disaster films, it's the ingenuity of effects gurus like Ned Mann, Willis O'Brien and Harry Redmond that really impresses, and Redmond's recreation of a crumbling Roman city in The Last Days Of Pompeii (1935) was meticulous and memorable.

Those debauched Romans had it coming of course, and so did the hookers and gamblers of the notorious Barbary Coast quarter, which was the setting for MGM's big budget 1936 disaster film San Francisco. Clark Gable played a swaggering saloon-keeper, Spencer Tracy the priest who tries to save his soul, and the no doubt God-sent earthquake was enhanced by sets built on platforms that rocked and shook to simulate a great tremor.

Perhaps the most distinguished of the early disaster movies, however, was Carol Reed's 1939 film The Stars Look Down, a tense drama set in a grim northern English mining town that's devastated by an underground accident. Reed's special effects were modest but effective, and did not overwhelm the human tragedy the film's finely drawn characters endured.

In the 1930s, natural disasters dominated the genre, but in the 1950s it was aliens. In Robert Wise's 1951 classic The Day The Earth Stood Still, an alien spaceship arrived in Washington to warn us we were becoming an intergalactic embarrassment, and must change our ways or else. We didn't listen, and the Martian invaders in Byron Haskin's War Of The Worlds (1953) launched a surprise attack aimed at wiping us out and stealing the planet for themselves.

Of course aliens weren't the real thing people were worried about in the tense and uncertain postwar world, it was thermonuclear annihilation. And though that bleak subject was rarely addressed directly, nuclear anxiety did form the backdrop to disaster fantasies like Godzilla (1954), in which a nuclear test awakens and energises a prehistoric monster that takes it out on Tokyo.

When air travel became accessible to the masses in the late 1950s, makers of disaster movies duly took note. In the rather hilarious Zero Hour! (1957), Dana Andrews played a disgraced air force pilot who must land a passenger plane after the entire crew succumb to food poisoning - it was the fish, apparently. Mr Andrews was again at the control in The Crowded Sky, a 1960s caper in which two jets end up on a mid-air collision course, and it was the airplane theme that helped launch the golden age of disaster movies in the 1970s.

Based, like Zero Hour!, on an idea by novelist Arthur Hailey, Airport was the first of the sprawling, big budget 70s disaster epics, and was set in a storm-battered middle-American airport that's struggling to stay open when it receives a distress signal about a bomb on a jet-liner. Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Jean Seberg and Jacqueline Bisset were among the stellar cast left to deal with this mess, and Airport was a huge box office success for Universal, prompting a host of imitations.

The formula was simple: mount an effects-laden disaster and throw a bunch of stars at it. 'Hell Upside Down!' screamed the promotional posters for The Poseidon Adventure (1972), in which Gene Hackman and Ernest Borgnine played passengers on a luxury ocean liner that capsizes mid-voyage. Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner were among those fleeing the wreckage in Earthquake (1974), while Steve McQueen and Paul Newman argued over top billing while a skyscraper burned in the hugely successful 1974 epic Towering Inferno.

But by the late 1970s, the once-profitable genre had been pretty much flogged to death, and big budget disaster flicks like The Swarm and Meteor bombed at the box office. The death knell of the disaster movie was sounded with a raspberry by Airplane!, Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker's delightfully silly send-up of the genre, which was by now doing a pretty good job of sending up itself.

In the 1980s, studios steered clear of disaster films for fear of being laughed at. But if there's one thing cinema-goers love it's watching other people going through the wringer, and in the 1990s the genre made a comeback.

It started with Independence Day, Roland Emmerich's amiably dumb 1996 blockbuster that spectacularly rehashed the alien invasion trope and made hay at the box office. The same year, Sly Stallone coped with a flood in the Holland Tunnel in Daylight, and Jan de Bont drove his actors mad while obsessively recreating the nightmare of tornado strikes in Twister.

Molten lava chased the actors in Volcano and Dante's Peak, two 1997 disaster movies that were completely eclipsed by the arrival of James Cameron's behemoth Titanic (see panel), possibly the best and certainly the most successful disaster film of them all.

But since then, two new strains of disaster epic have emerged. The prevailing paranoia about global warming has been capitalised on by films like The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, while the equally pressing spectre of global pandemics has inspired such shockers as Contagion (2011) and World War Z (2013).

All of which is very worthy, but personally I like the cut of Sharknado's jib. This priceless silly 2013 film examined what might happen if a freak cyclone lifted hundreds of killer sharks out of the Pacific and dumped them in downtown Los Angeles. Now that's what I call a disaster.

Date with an iceberg

While it could be argued James Cameron's Titanic is not as good a film as the 1958 British account of the tragedy, A Night To Remember, there's no denying the spectacular impact of Cameron's movie.

He spent years preparing to shoot his epic on the sinking of the ill-fated liner, and splashed out a then unprecedented budget of $200 million on a film that pushed the boundaries in terms of special effects and was one of the biggest box office hits of all time.

Leonardo DiCaprio played an Irish rogue called Jack Dawson who's travelling in steerage but falls in love with a wealthy Philadelphia débutante (Kate Winslet).Their doomed affair plays out as the giant and meticulously recreated ship rushes towards its appointment with an iceberg. While a bit over the top, Cameron's Titanic was visually stunning. The scenes where DiCaprio and Winslet scramble below decks to escape the rising water are terrific, and the recreation of the Titanic's upending and sinking are extraordinary.

A massive model of the doomed ship was constructed, and a giant tank containing 19 million litres of water was used to film those terrifying interior shots of the sinking vessel. The results were truly unforgettable.

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