Fire, flood or ice, we love a disaster
John Hillcoat's The Road, which opened nationwide yesterday, is easily the most sophisticated disaster movie you'll ever see, and must go down as the Citizen Kane of an often ropey genre. This may be because the film ignores the disaster itself, and concentrates instead on the human consequences of a global cataclysm.
Based on Cormac McCarthy's acclaimed 2006 novel, the film stars Viggo Mortensen as a father who struggles to keep himself and his young son alive and sane after an unspecified disaster -- it could be nuclear, it might be environmental -- destroys the world's infrastructure and leads to a total social breakdown.
It's grim stuff, as they must avoid gangs of cannibals while they travel across a sunless, treeless landscape, and if ever anyone needed a wake-up call about the possible consequences of global warming, this will do nicely thank you very much. Though a cut above your normal disaster romp, it's only the latest in a series of films that have revived the much-maligned genre.
Late last year Roland Emmerich scored a big hit with 2012, a ridiculously overblown epic about an unfortunate alignment of planets that leads to a devastating global flood.
Despite its wavering quality, it performed very well across the globe, which goes to show that there is still an appetite for this type of end-of-the-world stuff. And in China, 2012 has proved the most successful movie ever. Only a certain number of foreign films a year are granted a cinema release in the People's Republic, but Emmerich's doomsday drama proved an instant hit when unleashed on the Chinese public in mid-November. And by the end of December it had earned a spectacular 460m yuan (around €65m), taking it past James Cameron's Titanic to become the biggest movie in Chinese history.
2012's success in China may not be entirely coincidental, as in the film it's the Chinese military who build a series of massive arks in a man-made cavern below the Himalayas that will save a select few from obliteration. But Emmerich's film is only the latest in a long and not very illustrious line of movies that have played on our deepest fears about our planet's uncertain future.
The ill-fated Titanic has inspired a number of disaster movies, including one of the very earliest, Night and Ice (1912), which was released only a year after the legendary liner fulfilled its fatal appointment with an icebreg. Thr bible was another great source of disaster plots, and one of the most accomplished doomsday films of the silent era was Michael Curtiz's Noah's Ark, which starred Myrna Loy and played fast and loose with the great flood as described in the good book.
A flood in the modern era provided the basis for a 1933 film that would prove seminal to the disaster genre. In Deluge, a series of earthquakes in California caused a massive tidal wave that swept east towards New York City. Deluge coined the classic disaster formula of ground-breaking effects and a hero who charges around rescuing desperate females, and Roland Emmerich would later base an entire sequence of his 2004 movie The Day After Tomorrow on the 1933 film.
A 50-foot ape subjected New York to a sustained attack in the 1933 blockbuster King Kong, though unfortunately it was poor Kong who came off worst. Dragged against his express wishes from his idyllic island home to the heart of Manhattan, the ape escaped from a freak show, climbed the Empire State building and began pegging masonry at the rubber-neckers below. RKO made a fortune on the film, which would be remade several times and established the idea of the monster with a heart of gold.
The actual disaster of the Second World War made fictional ones seem pretty silly, and the genre died a death until the 1950s. In that decade, invading aliens became a kind of metaphor for the grim reality of the Cold War, and in films like The War of the Worlds (1953), When Worlds Collide (also 1953) and Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956) unwordly creatures materialised from nowhere to wreak havoc against humanity.
Which was all very well, but the real heyday of the disaster movie was the 1970s, when big budget, all-star train wrecks became the order of the day.
This golden age kicked-off with Airport, the 1970 blockbuster based on a potboiler by Arthur Hailey. Made for the then exorbitant sum of $10m, Airport featured a glittering cast including Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Jean Seberg, and Jacqueline Bisset, and told the nerve-jangling story of an airport manager and a pilot who try to land a boobytrapped 747 in a snowstorm. It earned over $100m at the box office, and a host of imitations followed.
Among the most prominent of these were The Poseidon Adventure (1972), in which Gene Hackman, Shelley Winters and Ernest Borgnine realised to their horror that their luxury linter had sprung an unsightly leak; Earthquake, a 1974 film which starred Charlton Heston and whose title is pretty self-explanatory; and The Towering Inferno (1974), where Paul Newman and Steve McQueen battled for top billing as they fought to put out a very big fire in the world's tallest tower block.
That last film probably marked the high water mark of the disaster boom, and though many other doomsday films appeared through the '70s, including the likes of Flood! (1976) Avalanche (1978) and Meteor (1979), their quality tended to deteriorate as the decade wore to a close.
Disaster flicks disappeared more or less completely during the 1980s, but the genre staged an unlikely comeback in the 1990s, spearheaded by Roland Emmerich. The German director singlehandedly revived the big-budget doomsday picture with the 1996 sci-fi thriller Independence Day. His modest tale of a hostile alien invasion earned more than $800m worldwide, and since then Emmerich has remade Godzilla (1998), attacked the world with an ecological disaster in The Day After Tomorrow (2004), and trashed the planet mercilessly in 2012.
Elaborate CGI effects are a trademark of Emmerich's films, but this is not necessarily a good thing. Because for all its operatic destruction, 2012 was a lot less frightening than The Road, a film that features hardly an explosion, but chills the blood by demonstrating how fragile the veneer of human civilisation is.