Three Things All Successful Disaster Movies Must Have
We all have a movie that we’ll watch no matter what. Seen a million times but it’s on TV? You’re watching it. It becomes available on Netflix for the first time in years? You’re watching it.
However, I’ve found over the years that not only is there one movie I’ll watch over and over, there is a specific type of movie I’ll watch WHENEVER. Disaster movies. My heart sings for a good (or bad) disaster movie. I’ll watch “2012” even though I know there is absolutely no way John Cusack can drive from LA to Yellowstone for a weekend camping trip. I’ll absolutely sit through “The Day After Tomorrow” just for the scene where Jake Gyllenhaal defeats a pack of hungry wolves to get medicine to his hot lady interest and I’ve fallen asleep to Kevin Costner’s creepy web feet saving the world in “Waterworld” more times than I care to admit.
Something has emerged after watching these ridiculous disaster movies repeatedly; it’s a formula of sorts that I’ve realized must be in place for a successful film. And I’ve realized that despite loving these stupid, overblown budget, CGI-filled blockbusters, the tropes are equally as shitty as they are in any other movie genre. Now that I’ve figured it out, watching Dwayne Johnson scale an impossible wave doesn’t have the same calming effect as it used to.
And so here they are — the three things I’ve learned a hero must have to be successful in a disaster film.
1: Heroes must have children
The world is most likely ending, or at least radically changing in a disaster film, and despite the fact that THE WORLD IS ENDING, we’ve only got time for a singular story to hone in on. And we only care about children and the lengths a hero will go to save their own.
There are occasionally some “children are our future” good vibes thrown in for good measure, for example Clive Owen’s character Theo risks his life to save Clare-Hope Ashitey’s character Kee in “Children of Men” in the hopes of curing infertility.
Otherwise? Cusack’s Jackson Curtis needs to save his children (alongside his Russian boss, who is working to save his own children) in “2012;” Dennis Quaid’s Jack Hall risks his life (and a colleague dies in the process) to save his son in “The Day After Tomorrow” and Dwayne Johnson’s rippling muscles play the character Ray Gaines, driving, flying and boating his way into mayhem to save his daughter in “San Andreas.”
These movies have other characters that help show the bigger picture of course; scientists who have either predicted what is happening, presidents and other whiney government officials doing the expected hand wringing, relocating and occasionally dying, and a reporter or two thrown in for good measure. But they are never the heroes because of course if you are a scientist, a shitty government climate change denier or a reporter — you’re going to stick around and do your job. You have no family because your job is your family. Only the hero with children is allowed to disobey all orders, fuck any other responsibility and potentially put other people’s lives in danger to save their precious offspring.
2: To be a hero, you must have a supportive wife
Oh — and there are no same sex marriages in hero land, because it’s obvious that ALL HEROES ARE HETEROSEXUAL MALES. We already get that they aren’t saving the world — they’re actually just saving their children from the world — but they can’t do it alone. They need a wife, and dammit, she’s got her own job to do.
Which leads me to a sub point, really — and that’s not only is the hero’s wife (or ex-wife who he still has chemistry with, obvi) very concerned about the welfare of their child, she’s going to have some other inherently nurturing job because women were only put in a disaster movie to comfort someone, obviously. They are the ones who care about the rest of the world by being good, decent humans.
Sela Ward’s “The Day After Tomorrow” character Dr. Lucy Hall would never just save herself or her son. Nope, she’s going to be sitting in an empty hospital with a cancer kid reading books because that’s what hero’s wives do. Elizabeth Olson’s Elle Brody in “Godzilla” is a nurse, so you know when Godzilla starts tearing up shit in the City by the Bay, she’s going to be able to help strangers.
Liv Tyler’s character Grace Stamper in “Armageddon” doesn’t track completely, but because she’s pulling double duty as the daughter Bruce Willis is saving and caretaker/girlfriend for the man-child/hero Ben Affleck’s AJ Frost, but I’ll let it slide as she is still providing a modicum of comfort to all those NASA scientists. One might think Renee Russo’s character Robby Keough might be the hero of “Outbreak,” but once she calls in ex-husband-she-still-has-chemistry-with Dustin Hoffman (and gets infected), it’s clear that she’s relegated to caretaker/supporter of the true hero.
There are also a few instances of wife-along-for-the-ride, with Carla Gugino’s Emma Gaines in “San Andreas” and Amanda Peet’s Kate Curtis in “2012.” The former is passively along to support the hero (and actually has to be saved at least once) while the latter is billed as a medical student, but is really along to be a mom.
Will we ever see a female disaster movie hero? Probably not, which leads me to plot point need number three.
3. The hero has a specific set of skills that only works for this movie
None of these heroes are accountants or teachers or postmen or architects or fast food workers or lawyers. Hell, they’re hardly ever even doctors — take for example the “other” man in “2012,” the character named Gordon Silberman, played by Thomas McCarthy. He is the ex-wife’s new boyfriend and not only is he a doctor, he’s a pilot. Still — despite all his skills, he dies.
Nope, our hero must have some inherently GI Joe-esque, fully American, machismo job that ensures he is the only one who can save his own child.
Bruce Willis’s Stamper in “Armegeddon”? The only man on the planet who can drill into this asteroid and save Liv Tyler. Johnson’s Gaines in “San Andreas”? Not only is he a super hunk, he’s an LA fire department helicopter pilot. Ford Brody, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson in “Godzilla” is a Navy Lieutenant. Specialty? Explosive ordnance disposal technician. Quaid’s Jack Hall in “The Day After Tomorrow” is a paleoclimatologist who just so happens to be adept at trekking in arctic temperatures and drilling through ice.
The only everyman hero we’ve got is Cusack’s from “2012” and I think we’re supposed to believe he makes it on pluck and the desire to save his children. He’s the closest archetype we’ve got if we ever want a woman hero. Not only is he a struggling writer, but he’s a chauffeur with hardly any disaster-related skills, so basically, he’s the female character in a rom-com.
Is this the type of hero we should wish for though? Don’t we want a real female hero that isn’t a superhero?
Furthermore, is there a point to change the disaster movie into a more evolved version? Aren’t we all just in it for the popcorn anyway?
Will moviegoers turn out if instead of a close-up of Dwayne Johnson’s chiseled jaw as he expertly maneuvers a Huey we get Angelina Jolie or Charlize Theron or someone unexpected like Brie Larson?
Is the new Ghostbusters a taste of what disaster movies 3.0 could look like, where we pit smart women against an evil force (be it supernatural, environmental or otherwise) to save anything other than children?
As much as I love disaster movies and staring at that chiseled jaw, I sure hope so.