Irwin Allen and Roland Emmerich: Masters of Disaster
When it comes to disaster movies, two directors stand above all others: Irwin Allen and Roland Emmerich. The former, who passed away in 1991, had some interesting things to say about why audiences flock to cinemas to witness floods, earthquakes, infernos, and earth-killing asteroids:
“I think really we’re all Walter Mittys, we stand in front of the mirror in the morning and we conjure up some great experience we’re gonna have on that particular day, and we go out and face the world attempting to be heroes. Because, the truth is, we’d all like to be heroes. When you couple that with what I think is a basic problem with human nature, I think there’s something missing in our individual ids, and I think strangely enough, and unhappily, we all like to attend accidents. You’ve never seen an automobile crash that didn’t have 50-60 people around it, you never saw a fire engine racing through the streets that wasn’t followed by a crowd of kids, and some grown ups, and when they finally reach the fire, one of the greatest difficulties is to hold back the fire line. The combination of wanting to be the heroic Walter Mitty character and the fact that we enjoy accidents makes the present disaster movie the hits that they are.”
The flamboyant producer knew his stuff and the disaster movie has been around almost as long as people have been committing moving images to celluloid. Back at the turn of the 20th century came Fire! In less than five minutes, it followed a fire crew as they raced to the scene of a house blaze in their horse-drawn engine and rescued the occupants.
As cinema developed, more disasters followed; natural, man-made, biblical and fantastical. Filmmakers wasted no time getting on board with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Just a few months after the tragic event came In Nacht und Eis (In the Night and Ice), a dramatic retelling of the disaster. Prefiguring the monumental length of James Cameron’s later blockbuster, it was an epic in its own right; at 35 minutes, it ran roughly three times longer than the average film of the period.
Due to the visual nature of the genre, special effects were often necessary to provide the requisite spectacle. In 1933, the same year a giant gorilla scaled the Empire State Building in King Kong, the apocalyptic film Deluge gave audiences crumbling skyscrapers and a massive tidal wave hitting New York. A miniature model of the Statue of Liberty washed away by the waters would receive homage over 70 years later in Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow.
During the atom age, fondly remembered for its bug-eyed monsters and silvery rocket ships, disaster movies often took a more sci-fi approach. With World War II still fresh in everyone’s mind, fears of nuclear conflict manifested themselves in films like The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, where a huge prehistoric creature thawed out by atomic testing made its way to New York, resulting in some great city-stomping fun courtesy of stop-motion wizard Ray Harryhausen.
The film inspired the Japanese filmmaker Ishirō Honda, who created another mighty lizard named Godzilla, played by a guy in a monster suit. Coming from a country that had experienced the horrors of a nuclear attack first hand, he wanted his creature to represent the bomb:
“If Godzilla had been a dinosaur or some other animal, he would have been killed by just one cannonball. But if he were equal to an atomic bomb, we wouldn't know what to do. So, I took the characteristics of an atomic bomb and applied them to Godzilla.”
Back in the States, When Worlds Collide saw a few lucky survivors fleeing earth from a collision with a rogue star to settle on a new planet, while The War of the Worlds brought mankind to the brink of destruction by a fleet of snake-necked Martian killing machines. Luckily, our good old bacteria saved the day, bringing down the little green men with a deadly case of the sniffles.
There was also A Night to Remember, one of the best films about the Titanic, adapted from Walter Lord’s authoritative account of the disaster; and Zero Hour! which provided much of the storyline for Airplane! the delirious spoof that would put the final nail in the coffin of the ‘70s disaster craze.
Films of this era were often more concerned with the spectacle than the people in peril, who come across as rather wooden to a modern eye, often reduced to a few stereotypes: the square-jawed hero, the love interest, the comic relief, the bluff general, and the scientist figure. The special effect money shots were usually interspersed with stock footage of the army and air force combating the threat and extras running in the streets, with expressions ranging from abject terror to mild concern. My favourite is the guy in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, casually strolling away from the rampaging creature.
Arthur Hailey, the author who co-wrote Zero Hour! was at least partly responsible for kick starting the disaster movie’s heyday with his bestseller, Airport. The 1970 movie adaptation attracted an all-star cast including Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Jacqueline Bisset, George Kennedy, and Helen Hayes, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as an elderly stowaway. It was an exercise in high melodrama as the characters juggled love affairs with multiple crises when the titular transport hub is beset by a snowstorm, a jet blocking the runway, and a mad bomber intent on blowing up a plane. The film was a huge box office success and received 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, losing out on the main prize to Patton.
Then came the two big Irwin Allen productions that are perhaps most synonymous with the genre: The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno.
For the first, Allen wrangled the immense talent of Gene Hackman, fresh off the back of his Oscar win for The French Connection, who brought some of Popeye Doyle’s grim conviction as a preacher who leads a group of survivors through the bowels of an upturned passenger ship. It was the film where all those tropes and character beats we all know and love really clicked, from the reluctant hero who has lost faith and/or a shady past to the cantankerous blowhard battling him at every turn, the impossible situations and the heart-rending sacrifices.
Allen went even bigger for his next one, The Towering Inferno. Both Warner Bros and 20th Century Fox had bought novels involving out-of-control blazes in modern high rises. Allen realised that the projects risked cancelling each other out at the box office and persuaded the studios to join forces for a spectacular epic that ran almost three hours. It needed to be that long to fit the frankly ridiculous cast, topped by superstars Paul Newman and Steve McQueen.
McQueen famously demanded equal billing, pay, and the exact same number of lines as Newman to do the film. The animosity between the pair is palpable in their few awkward scenes together.
Beyond the headliners, the cast also included William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Richard Chamberlain, Jessica Jones, Fred Astaire, Robert Wagner, and O.J. Simpson… This was one disaster movie where the sheer star power almost rivalled the disaster itself.
The peak was short lived, with the films recycling the same corny side-stories, character beats, and the same stars. It rumbled on through Earthquake (Charlton Heston, George Kennedy, Ava Gardner), Airport 75 (Heston, Kennedy) before finally running its course with Allen’s final production, the appropriately named When Time Ran Out… It was just like a greatest hits compilation starring Paul Newman, Jacqueline Bisset, William Holden, Red Buttons, and Ernest Borgnine. George Kennedy must have been out of town for that one.
As successful as it was, the genre quickly became ripe for parody. The Big Bus got there first in 1976, about the traumatic maiden voyage of a nuclear powered bus, but it was Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker’s Airplane! that really nailed the tropes of the genre. After that, it was impossible to take disaster movies seriously any more…
Like a deadly volcano, the disaster movie lay mostly dormant for over a decade, until new-fangled technology led to a massive eruption of fresh calamities in the mid-nineties. There were still a few more old-school efforts along the way. Ron Howard’s Backdraft used some seriously impressive fire effects; Alive stranded Ethan Hawke and his mates in the Andes; and Outbreak gathered an all-star cast for a scary tale about a deadly pandemic.
1996 was the year the disaster movie made its major comeback, bolstered by CGI. We had tantalising glimpses of what the tech could do previously, most notably with the stained glass knight in Young Sherlock Holmes and the water tentacle in The Abyss. But now just about anything filmmakers could imagine was in reach, with an unprecedented level of realism.
Twister was first out of the gate. Jan De Bont, who had proved his action credentials with Speed, used CG to stage a series of hair-raising encounters with increasingly destructive tornadoes. Then came Independence Day, one of the biggest movies of the ‘90s. With a jaw-dropping promotional campaign that leaned heavily on the awesome sight of enormous flying saucers hovering over major cities, it was a movie just about everyone went to see at the cinema. That’s what it felt like, anyway.
Roland Emmerich, who had steadily built his reputation in Hollywood with Universal Soldier and Stargate, didn’t disappoint. It was a summer movie event to rival Jaws with incredible effects, terrifying city-wide devastation, and Will Smith completing his transition from Fresh Prince to major movie star.
The other big film that rounded out a disaster-filled year was Daylight, with Sylvester Stallone trying to rescue a bunch of survivors trapped inside a tunnel, harking back to The Poseidon Adventure-style format. All three films featured a classic ‘90s disaster trope - the plucky dog who just about makes it while many humans around them perish. The pooch in all three movies survived.
Disaster was big again and Hollywood doubled up wherever they could. We had two equally bad volcano movies, with Tommy Lee Jones heading off a very slow moving lava flow in Volcano, and Pierce Brosnan driving away from a pyroclastic flow in Dante’s Peak. Both movies featured a really dumb sacrificial death. In the first, John Carroll Lynch saves a subway driver by jumping into a pool of lava and hurling the guy to safety; in the second, granny saves the family by diving out of a boat into an acidic lake and dragging them to shore… even though they were only about five feet from safety anyway. The dog survives in both movies.
Then we had the planet-killing asteroids. Deep Impact tried a sombre approach, with tedious results, while Michael Bay went full gung-ho in Armageddon. Bruce Willis starred as the boss of a gang of redneck miners hired to blow up the offending lump of rock, and the film gave us the ubiquitous radio hit from Aerosmith with “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.”
Speaking of ubiquitous radio hits, who could forget Celine Dion with “My Heart Will Go On?” The song was one of eleven Oscar wins for James Cameron’s Titanic. The little project came about because the bombastic director fancied a trip to see the wreck and wondered if he could get Hollywood to pay for it. Of course, after the blockbuster successes of Terminator 2: Judgement Day and True Lies, the studio’s answer was basically, “How much do you need, Mr Cameron?”
No expense was spared on the film, down to hiring the same company that provided the crockery for the original ship to make replicas for the dining scenes. The enormous budget was a gamble that paid off; Titanic blew the lid off the box office, becoming the first film to hit a billion dollars worldwide and the highest grossing film of all time, before Cameron beat his own record with Avatar in 2010.
As a Titanic aficionado at the time, I was a bit snooty about the film at first. Now I see it as the masterpiece of action cinema it truly is. The fictional upstairs-downstairs romance that I objected to is actually a practical masterstroke, because following Jack and Rose around gives us a nice tour of the ship. That way, when the iceberg collision comes, we already know our way around when the action kicks in. It’s also so adorable to see Kate and Leo gamely wrestling with Cameron’s cheesy script and delivering two of the best performances of their careers.
Back in the ‘90s, blowing up skyscrapers was all just good popcorn fun, as we saw in movies like True Lies and Independence Day. After that fateful day in September 2001 such destruction came with a shiver of terrible recognition, and filmmakers still bringing down cities were routinely accused of evoking the horrors of 9/11.
That wasn’t to say directors didn’t still trash cities for the sake of spectacle. Emmerich took legitimate concerns about the climate crisis and cranked them up to maximum effect in The Day After Tomorrow, which combined a surprisingly satisfying human story with some apocalyptic scenes of devastation, most memorably showing New York inundated by a tsunami.
He couldn’t quite pull it off again with 2012, which threw just about every possible disaster at the screen to ridiculous effect, like a tidal wave engulfing the Himalayas. High on spectacle but low on heart or plausibility, it gave the unavoidable feeling that Emmerich had jumped the shark on this one.
Speaking of sharks, the disaster genre once again found itself open for parody. We had Syfy’s idiotic Sharknado, a cruddy attempt to create a cult so-bad-it’s-good movie. Some people love it. The series spawned five even worse sequels, and even inspired its own ripoffs. Airborne disaster stuck again with Snakes on a Plane, which only seemed to exist as a showreel of Samuel L. Jackson shouting “motherfucker”. According to the director, he uses the word over 40 times in the film.
Dwayne Johnson lent his muscle as a helicopter pilot in San Andreas, while a grimacing Gerard Butler faced armageddon twice, in Geostorm and the surprisingly effective Greenland. Naturally, there were remakes and sequels, such as Wolfgang Petersen’s mean-spirited remake Poseidon, and that second Independence Day movie that everyone has quietly pretended doesn’t exist.
Good ones have been few and far between since the turn of the century, but there is still some room for innovation. One of the best was Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, which combined an Oscar-worthy performance from Sandra Bullock with his trademark ultra-long tracking shots to incredible effect. It was a truly gripping and suspenseful film, and a rare example of 3D used as more than just a gimmick. It really immerses the viewer in the stranded astronaut’s deadly plight.
Now we have Roland Emmerich’s Moonfall, which treats us to the unlikely but incredible spectacle of our closest celestial body on collision course with Earth, and all the cataclysmic events that would entail. Make no mistake, the German director has truly established himself as the natural heir to Irwin Allen’s old title, the Master of Disaster.
So there you have it, a very brief potted history of the disaster movie. Which are your favourites? Let us know!