The latest wave of climate-related catastrophes pounding the world has intensified, with reports of devastating floods, shattering earthquakes, hurricanes, and tropical storms. Since the silent era, studios have jumped to Hollywood-ize extreme weather for their disaster films. Spectacular scenes of destruction provide big entertainment value, but the best disaster movies also comment upon the negative effects of advancing technology, demonstrate the hubris of scientists, deliver uplifting moral lessons of sacrifice, and provide a how-to in survival skills. A short survey of how natural disasters were portrayed in earlier films illustrates just how much this particular subgenre of film has captured our cinematic fascination.
The 1906 San Francisco earthquake was the concluding cornerstone of Best Picture-nominated San Francisco (1936), a big moneymaker for MGM. The special effects in the scenes of the Earth splitting apart and a subsequent devastating fire were stunningly realistic. In Earthquake (1974), suspenseful scenes of the crumbling destruction of Los Angeles by a powerful 9.9-level earthquake were accompanied by impressive special effects and the first use of bass-rumbling Sensurround (“You’ll feel it, as well as see it!”), resulting in the film’s only Oscar win, for Best Sound. The film also used model skyscrapers that collapsed, Styrofoam concrete, and a miniature to depict the crumbling Hollywood Reservoir.
Warner Brothers’ Noah’s Ark (1928) told about the biblical story of the great flood, ending with a flood sequence that mixed miniatures, double exposures, and the full-scale destruction of actual sets. When tanks of water were released upon hundreds of unsuspecting extras, three of them reportedly drowned, and many others were severely injured. RKO’s Deluge (1933), about tidal waves that destroyed various California coastal cities as well as New York City, was the first big-budget talkie disaster film with impressive visual effects. Darryl F. Zanuck and 20th Century Fox’s production of The Rains Came (1939) was the biggest disaster epic of the decade. It featured a spectacularly staged major earthquake and an epic flood sequence in the Indian city of Ranchipur, depicting a dam burst with a combination of miniatures and live-action footage. This film won the first-ever Best Special Effects Oscar, beating Gone With the Wind (1939) and five other films. It was later remade as The Rains of Ranchipur (1955), starring Richard Burton and Lana Turner. The doomed, submerged world of Kevin Costner’s Waterworld (1995) was credited to melting ice caps that caused severe global flooding — and the film’s production in Hawaii was severely hampered by a hurricane. Torrential rains and flooding inundated an Indiana town in the heist thriller Hard Rain (1998).
Hurricanes, Tornados, and Storms
The final sequence in Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) involved a terrifically destructive tornado-cyclone — and one of the most suicidal and terrifying stunt scenes in movie history, as the dazed title character stood up in front of a house that was about to be ripped apart from the forceful winds and the entire two-ton facade crashed down on top of him. (All that saved him was a small window opening in the upper story, through which his body passed.) In that same year’s Wind, a relentless desert-prairie sandstorm (with sand projected by multiple airplane propellers) ultimately caused mass hysteria. John Ford’s Hurricane (1937) is still considered the classic movie spectacle — with a monstrous South Pacific tropical storm, massive tidal waves, and battering gale-force winds. Typhoon (1940) was Paramount’s response to The Hurricane, starring a sarong-wearing Dorothy Lamour as its leading lady. The film was set on an island near Netherlands New Guinea and featured a climactic typhoon in its final scenes.
Nature’s wrath was later unleashed with the Jan de Bont film Twister (1996), in which tornado-chasing, thrill-seeking meteorologists (Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt) went after killer funnel clouds. State-of-the-art digital special effects and computer graphics included cows flying through the air. The Perfect Storm (2000) was a downbeat, nihilistic true story about the Andrea Gail, a fishing boat that was caught, in the fall of 1991 in a violent storm with 50-foot sea swells. The worldwide ecological disaster film The Core (2003) portrayed a scenario in which the Earth’s molten core stopped spinning, unleashing harmful microwaves that caused earthquakes, bridge collapses, and lightning storms all over the world. A similar film, The Day After Tomorrow (2004), chronicled the instantaneous aftereffects of global warming (the greenhouse effect) with super-hurricanes, killer tornadoes, tidal waves, floods, and a new ice age. The movie 2012 (2009) was end-of-days expert Roland Emmerich’s latest disaster epic, based upon the Mayan calendar’s apocalyptic predictions for the year 2012. It portrayed a global cataclysm with monstrous earthquakes, threatening molten lava, and tsunamis.
And in 2006, with Al Gore’s surprise-hit global-warming documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, it seemed all the apocalyptic visions were finally coming true.