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Screening Room: Disaster!

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Mark Kermode | 13:43 UK time, Thursday, 12 November 2009

On the screening room this week Simon Mayo and I wondered why apocalyse movies are always apocalyptically bad. Your comments please...

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  • Comment number 1.

    The apocalypse would have to be a cataclysmic change, both in terms of external events and the characters' view on their lives and their likely future.
    Hollywood films, on the other hand, have to be inherently "safe" and therefore do not tend to allow thought processes of this nature, neither implied nor in the actual narrative. So ultimately "apocalypse" can only be a different order of magnitude when it comes to things exploding and breaking, occasionally with an added pack of wolves, but never anything that goes beyond certain pre-established, safe boundaries. This goes doubly for the works of Mr. Emmerich.

  • Comment number 2.

    you have to divide distaster movies though

    natural disaster: a long often tedious build up to what is in effect something that lasts about half a minute, the epitomy of which is earthquake or the geographically inaccurate krakatoa east of java. also as a geologist they are full of "that would never happen" moments for me (stand that close to lava and youd end up looking like a lump of charcoal or that jeep would never out run a volcanic eruption).

    man made disasters: my particular favourite towering inferno the star studded film about a building on fire. The hero who says "i told you so" throughout is particulary commonplace in this genre

    Alien invasion/monsters: just because it only happens to one person dosent mean its not a disaster movie so Alien must be in this catagory (lets be fair its pretty disasterous for riply). The haunt of the modern blockbuster, independence day, war of the worlds ect.

    having said this i cant really think of a disaster movie that dosent have , i hesitate to say happy ending, a sense that it'll be all right in the endness to it. Anyone think of a truly, no hope at all for anyone disaster film?

  • Comment number 3.

    The problem is simple so far as I can see:

    Disaster movies play on the West's fascination with the destruction of their economically developed utopia. Images of key landmarks being destroyed by an awesome power greater than humans seems to be a repeating theme in Hollywood.

    Yet the filmmakers never take this further and explore the ideas behind this fascination. They simply show civilization being threatened and then spend the rest of the movie's duration trying to figure out a "new way" for the human spirit to triumph over this power.

    There is film to be made that will explore why we fantasize about our world being destroyed but sadly nobody has effectively threaded this discussion underneath one of these high priced pornographic movies.

    Actually Fincher did touch on it at the end of Fight Club with the symphonic falling high rise buildings - we'll see...

  • Comment number 4.

    John Carpenter's The Thing and The Prince of Darkness are both part of his "Apocolypse Trilogy" (just gloss over the terrible Into the Mouth of Madness), and they both end with the suggestion that all is not going to be well for humankind. As well as that, they're both excellent films. So come now, not all apocolypse movies are awful. But then it does depend on how you define the genre. My philosophy lecturer always told us - "Define your terms!" So, Dr Kermode, define away, then we can have a proper debate. Hurumph.

  • Comment number 5.

    I think we now have to separate "apocalypse" as a sub-genre of the disaster movie. The original disaster movie formula was more or less a slasher/murder movie with whichever titular disaster picking off characters one by one. In the latest slew of apocalypse movies, we are given fewer characters to care about, and we get to see cities/famous landmarks get picked off one at a time(strange how selective natural phenomenon are), while most of the protagonists survive usually through a theme park ride style series of near misses.

    The problem we will continue to find with apocalypse movies is that they will defeat the purpose of their own spectacle of ultimate destruction by saving the stars two dimensional characters for a happy ending. Despite the unevenness of "Knowing" from earlier this year, it did it least take its premise fully to its (il)logical conclusion, which may make it fairly unique. Fortunately for us, there are only so many ways to blow up the world, so this subgenre should be reductive. Anyway, even if someone should buck the trend and make an excellent apocalypse movie, there's little hope of a sequel (that should worry those accountants who do the green lighting....)

  • Comment number 6.

    My Favourite apocalypse film of all time is "Threads" (1984), a harrowing look at the consequences of nuclear war in England. Karen Meagher is excellent, and Reece Dinsdale is the reason I tune into Coronation Street now and again. I wasn't around when the film was made, and only saw it three years ago, but it blew me away. It has aged very well indeed, I envy those who saw it when it first aired.

    There are a number of reasons it impressed me so much. The primary focus is on everyday, unremarkable people, from an unglamourous, underfilmed industrial city. The plot begins just before the disaster and encompasses seventeen years after, ending on a "blue" note (this truly is a "no hope at all for anyone disaster film"). The documentary style (narration and text screens) and the fact that there is no soundtrack (apart from 'Johnny be Good' occasionally playing in the background), makes for a gritty yet realistic atmosphere.

    That's an awful lot more than you can say for your average disaster film.

    Looseslacksmcguire, Dublin

  • Comment number 7.

    THE ROAD has had really positive previews, wasn't one of those by Dr. K at London's British Film Festival?
    MAD MAX 2 / THE ROAD WARRIOR was a brilliant film!
    I'm sure when I was young I saw a New Zealand film, where a guy wakes up and everybody in the world has vanished, can't remember the title but I remember it being really good.

    There has to be plenty more examples.

  • Comment number 8.

    Dr K, are we talking big budget disaster movies here or full-on ‘religious prophecy and the end-of-the-world’ movies?

    If the latter then all the religious and mystical mumbo-jumbo references usually has me heading for the exit; as with 2012 using various new-age conspiracy theories about the Mayan calendar.

    I guess the other factor is the special effects never convince, like the huge tidal wave that Elija Wood managed to outrun at the end of Deep Impact.

    Armadillosli: Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Carpenter’s The Thing didn’t have happy endings. They were about pretty disastrous events, even if usually considered part of the horror genre.

    I also seem to remember that Chuck Heston died at the end of Earthquake, though more minor characters survived.

    Post-apocalypse movies tend to be much more fun. Mad Max, road warrior, 12 Monkeys, Omega Man, Escape from New York and the like.

  • Comment number 9.

    If you count zombie apocalypse then I would say George Romero's Dawn of the Dead is one of the greats. His other movies are great as well in my opinion but Night is more a pre-apocalypse movie and Day is more of a post-apocalypse movie.

  • Comment number 10.

    Brian Aldiss referred to the literary version of this phenomenon as the 'Cosy Catastrophes'. Wherein, a middle-class man (typically British) with personal struggles survives an apocalyptic event and is able to use the megadeath to sort his life out, win the girl and rebuild a corner of the green and pleasant land. It works as a story once but there is no room for variation beyond the source of the apocalypse.

    A previous comment highlighted the fact that Threads unsually breaks this mould by drawing events out to a dystopian conclusion. I would also add that a previous British post-nuclear war movie, the War Game (directed by Peter Watkins) caused such alarm within the BBC (which commissioned the film) and the Home Office over its bleak narrative that the Corporation did not broadcast it for more than 20 years.

    It is interesting that the handful of Armageddon movies to come from Britain (War Game, Threads, When the Wind Blows) are much more dystopian than the bigger, noisier American films of similar subject.

  • Comment number 11.

    Dear Dr K,

    I would say there is a major problem with asking why all apocalypse movies are bad. Quite simply because they aren't. All DISASTER movies are bad. This is because they focus entirely on huge spectacle but aren't interested in characters or plot development at all, which is the problem with films like "The Day After Tomorrow" or "Knowing".

    But not all apocalypse films take this bombastic approach, and there are many good, character based, apocalypse films out there if you define the subgenre loosely.

    Obviously there's the zombie apocalypse sub genre with populated with great movies such as those by Romero, "Shaun of the Dead", "28 Days Later" etc.

    There are the more action thriller orientated dystopian classics like "Escape From New York", "The Omega Man" and "The Road Warrior", which are flawed but never boring. The "Terminator" films especially do this very well.

    And what about horror movie slants on the end of the world like "The Thing", "The Mist" or the many "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" adaptations?, all of which are nail bitingly tense and deeply pessimistic, and as much "Lord of the Flies" esque films about human nature as they are the end of the world.

    Then there's always "Dr Strangelove", an apocalypse movie that is both hilarious and terrifying depending upon how you look at it.

    I would also list "Twelve Monkeys", "Donnie Darko", "Dogma", "Sunshine", "WALL-E", and of course "Silent Running", as films which touch upon apocalyptic themes in very interesting ways.

  • Comment number 12.

    Actually, "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" works perfectly well as a disaster movie. Better then most of them, anyway...

  • Comment number 13.

    EFF, you're right about Cloudy. It even makes a gag about the first wave of the food storm oddly targetting global landmarks.

  • Comment number 14.

    Well done to looseslacksmcguire for beating me to the punch in mentioning "Threads". I watched this as a fourteen year old and I have been having reoccurring nightmares ever since! Two scenes stuck in my head: the middle-aged woman involuntarily urinating at the sight of the mushroom cloud over Sheffield town-centre and the milk-bottles melting on someone's doorstep. There was a US TV film called "The Day After" that covered similar ground i.e. nuclear destruction and the end of life as we know it that was shown around the same time.
    Thanks to these films, classroom discussions about The Arms Race and songs like Two Tribes and The Eighth Day, I was convinced that The End Was Nigh. The only thing that helped me sleep at night was my schizo teenage self's preoccupations with more action-orientated post-apocalypse scenarios: Terminator, Mad Max and Judge Dredd.

  • Comment number 15.


    I'm surprised you didn't mention Mr Hillcoat's newun, The Road. I loved McCarthy's novel, so much in fact I couldn't put it down and rinsed it in a day or two. I very much hope the film is, by cinematic standards, as good as it can be (the Coen's did as well as they could with No Country, I feel).

    Also, I'm not sure what Mark's verdict of this film was, but Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men truly was a good piece of film-making, despite its breezy/slightly unnecessary inclusion of Julianne Moore (who I only think was good in The Big Lebowski, as was Jeff Bridges which I will stand by too, Marky). That was also quite apocalyptic, and as realistic as they come (despite the hopeful denouement).

    But yes, I would like to hear Mark's official response to The Road, but maybe nearer its release?

  • Comment number 16.

    They are not all bad. In fact the latest of this genre is The Road, which I think is a terrific post apocalyptic drama, beautifully and devastatingly rendering the world being a deserted wasteland, plus featuring a haunting score from Nick Cave as well as Viggo Mortensen's best performance to date, and further proving Mark's theory that he is indeed the next Robert De Niro.

  • Comment number 17.

    It's already been mentioned, but "Dr. Strangelove" is one of the best films, ever. So that's your thesis busted right there. :-)

    It's also a film, armodilloslim, that arguably ends without any hope unless it's the hope of Peter Sellers relishing the 10-1 female to male ratio in an attempt to keep the species extant.

    "On the Beach" although frankly a bummer in tone, was not "apocalyptically bad" and does end with absolutely no hope for anybody.

    "28 Months Later" (another decent apocalyptic movie) also ends without hope unless it's hope of another sequel.

    Arguably "Cloverfield" which apart from the first 30 minutes was a decent movie that ends abruptly and without much hope except with the knowledge that the video survived and is being viewed by somebody/something. But since Cloverfield 2 is in the works we'll have to assume something survived.

    Even out of your own mouth, you declared that "Knowing" was not *that* bad.

  • Comment number 18.

    Dr Kermode,

    "Threads" definitely gets my vote as a powerful and terribly effective disaster film. However, it is not a film, but in fact a feature length television program. I only hope you find it good enough to be included.

  • Comment number 19.

    As many users before me have aforementioned, if Hollywood wasn't only concerning themselves about mainly spectacle but included character driven personal dilemmas among the chaos, I don't see why a really good film based on the last book in the Bible, Revelation couldn't be made. And no, the upcoming Legion doesn't count (the trailer looks awful).

    As a kid, I grew up with Independence Day, Deep Impact, Carriers, Outbreak among a few of the mainly apocolyptic 90s output I saw. In retrospect, a lot of it was pretty superficial stuff, compared with the original The Day The Earth Stood Still.

    It's nice to see When The Wind Blows get a mention as that's one of the most depressing films I've seen and a world away from the feel-good family friendly Father Christmas and The Snowman.

  • Comment number 20.

    I thank the above posts for jogging my memory. Dr Strangelove; hat has to be considered as a great film about the end of the world.

    I'll add War Games and Fail Safe as other [good cinematic] examples of 1960s -1980s nuclear war fears.

    The decline of the natural disaster genre may be because TV (and YouTube) have brought into our living rooms the reality of what such disasters mean.
    It must be very hard now, for example, to pitch a movie about a tsunami striking a group of tourists on Boxing Day ...
    After 9/11, no matter how good the script, a remake of Towering Inferno isn't really on the cards.
    Any appetite to see a film about a famine in Ethiopia? Thought not.

    Post apocalypse movies mean they don't have to address fears as to what causes the apocalypse. The Terminators & Matrix etc excepted. The shot of a robotic foot crushing a human skull has to be the modern day Frankenstein cinematic money-shot.

    And cinema really hasn't done anything (Moore apart) with the abject failure of the banking and political system that almost broke the western economies last year, and now pretend nothing happened. Stone and Mamet where are you?

    Nathaniel #9: ' If you count zombie apocalypse then I would say George Romero's Dawn of the Dead is one of the greats. His other movies are great as well in my opinion but Night is more a pre-apocalypse movie and Day is more of a post-apocalypse movie.'

    You're absolutely right, thank you for pointing that out.
    But, when I saw 'Night' I saw it as representing in microcosm what was happening elsewhere too, not just in that town. (Romero took the idea and developed it long before I saw his first effort.)
    I do think the zombie genre currently reflects fears about the breakdown of society.

  • Comment number 21.

    Did you literally only have 25 seconds to do that segment? You were charging through it!

  • Comment number 22.

    I think the disaster movie sub genre has to be divided up into two separate category. Firstly the apocalypse movie which includes the likes of Independence Day, Armageddon, The Day After Tomorrow, Deep Impact, generic popcorn trash, etc etc. These tend to be poorer genre of apocalypse film.
    However I think one of the best examples (and only good example?) of this sub-sub-genre is the 1956 Invaders of the Body Snatchers (not the horrible 78 version with Donald Sutherland). While the ending is ambiguous about the earths fate I'd still count it as apocalyptic film because in my mind the evil, heartless, alien parasites/commie bastards succeed in their dastardly plot and engulf us all.

    Then there is the far superior, although often misfiring, post-apocalyptic sub-genre which includes the excellent, Mad Max series (yes, even Thunderdome is pretty good), George A Remero's Dead films (asides from Land and Diary), 28 Days Later, Planet of the Apes, Doomsday (a severely underrated splice of mindless, but enjoyable, nonsense) and even films like Silent Running and, dare I say it, Titan AE.
    The problem with this sub genre is when "actors" like Jean Claude Van Damme are introduced into it and the result is Cyborg. Luckily there are enough quality films of this genre for you to watch without lowering yourself to that.

    So why do post apocalyptic films fare better than films about the apocalypse itself? Is it because we enjoy looking to see where and how we will end up? Or is it because, as Dr K pointed out, that apocalypse films spend 2/3 of the films watching the planet being destroyed and then, in the final reel, the script pulls out some horrible deus ex machina and it turns out the alien space craft can be defeated by a Mac laptop?

  • Comment number 23.

    I seem to remember "Sunshine" and "War of the Worlds" both being praised by a certain Mark Kermode.

  • Comment number 24.

    How about 'The Wild Bunch' as a reverse disaster film? Civilization comes to the wild west and the bad guys have to face the fact there is no place for them any more?

  • Comment number 25.

    Sorry to comment this in the wrong place; but regarding 3D film:

    I just watched the screening room episode with the 3D film discussion, and it helped me clarify my opinion on it. Right now, essentially yes, 3D is a gimmick, the tool is used well sparsely (see Coraline) and otherwise is not something that deepens or broadens the value of the current string of pictures that it is in. However, I think its important to attach the line 'as relates film content' when people suggest 3D is crap.

    Not to turn your own words against you Mark...but I will! Within that screening room discussion you suggested that its best kept to the trashy films where it will sit well. In another blog sometime this year, you also proposed that exploitation pictures were a key conduit through which top quality filmakers learn their trade. Logically this would suggest that through use of the 3D tool with tongue firmly in cheek for a horror or comedy, a great director could really learn how to best use the technique.

    Whether this is as another small tool in the arsenal of the cinema director, or as something now all of its own; a digital media experience, this still means that 3D has potential. Personally I'm not a huge fan of 3D beyond the gimmick, but its wrong to rule out the potential.

    Working in the videogames industry means I have high hopes 3D will come into its own in that platform. Given that 3D artist already create fully functioning 3D worlds for games, it only makes logical sense to utilise them, unlike in film where laborious set-ups have to be arranged, beyond what would be the norm for 2D.

    In summation- give the technique a chance- whether in film or not.

  • Comment number 26.

    When you touched on mutually assured annihilation I also thought of Dr Strangelove as a classic in that disaster subgenre.
    A paranoid US general thinking the USSR were responsible for poisoning the water supply with chlorine and scrambling the B52s, pitched against the Russians saving money by investing in a counterstrike technology which requires no human input.
    Funny and chilling in turns, a great example of giving mankind enough rope to hang itself.
    General Jack D Ripper as a character is almost too close to reality for comfort!

  • Comment number 27.

    Have to agree with many on this post about Doctor Strangelove: one of Stanley Kubrick's best film, hilarious yet chilling, still both of those things and retaining its relevance even today.

  • Comment number 28.

    I feel disaster movies go wrong because we are almost always presented with cliché characters and themes. The lead will generally have charcter flaws, but will risk their own life to save the group of people that are tagging along on a regular basis, but won't die even from severe injuries. There is also usually a character that will sacrifice themeselves to save everyone else, such the drunk father who crashes his plane into the spaceship in Independence Day.
    I know the plot of apocalypse movies is about end-of-the-world destruction, but that means that there is no originality in what happens, we basically know what is going to occur before we even sit down in theatre.
    I've always enjoyed disaster/apocalypse movies, but I look forward to anything that may try something different, which is why I'm going to see 'The Road' as it focuses on what happened after the apocalypse.

  • Comment number 29.

    Dr K! The King (or should that be Queen) of bad apocalyptic movies is 'Tank Girl'

  • Comment number 30.

    Does Dr. Strangelove count? If so, that's probably one of the finest end of the world movies ever made.

  • Comment number 31.

    Best example- Stalker. Tarkovsky's masterpiece that follows the journey of Writer, Professor and the eponymous Stalker through the post-apocalyptic 'Zone' entirely avoids all the typical special effects trappings and still creates more tension, mystery and suspense than any other similar film i can think of. Re-watch the 'meat grinder' sequence as the best example of how all this is accomplished in the imagination with so little shown on the screen.

    That along with Barry Hines's Threads stands head and shoulders for me but I'm looking forward to the seeing the Road. As an aside I once went on holidays to Sheffield looking for the main locations of Threads but was disappointed to find out many of them have been redeveloped. How depressing=]

  • Comment number 32.

    adrian the n/z film you are thinking about is 'the quiet earth'1985 directed by geoff murphy. it's pretty good

    also 'the day the earth caught fire' 1961

    both films available on youtube

    any decent zombie film does it for me

  • Comment number 33.

    All your 5live review of current disaster movies are spot on.

    My favourite disaster movie of all time is The Towering Inferno. Firstly because no character in the movie was safe. I recall watching it as a kid and the shock of seeing Robert Vaughan bumped off early on really gave an edge to it. Plus all the effects had a physically, and the model work was superb. The lift sequence stays with me, and I can watch it over again and still be gripped.

    I suppose that's why I have to dissent from your praise of Independence Day. I can still recall the scene where they're trapped down the road tunnel and the flames are burning up all cars. Then, in the last second, the dog jumps to safety as inferno passed. From that moment all the peril and menace has gone and I didn't feel anything for the people in the film anymore. I wanted the aliens to win and anally probe the cast into eternity. Including that bleeding dog.

  • Comment number 34.

    I think we have to differentiate between a disaster and an apocalypse. In Judeo Christian terms the apocalypse is the time, prior to the end of the world, when God judges humanity. As much as I love the Towering Inferno and other Diaster films I think the apocalypse is much harder to do because there are so many themes that can be explored and let's face it the outcome is fairly predictable. Hollywood apocalypse films are so gaggingly bad because they tend to be star vehicles bogged down in special effects with nothing important to say. The apocalypse ought not to have a happy ending.

  • Comment number 35.

    Working in Visual Effects myself I find the suggestion that 2012 is bad because of it's CGI content a little offensive. CGI often gets represented in a negative light because directors like Roland Emmerich over or mis-use it as a tool. Put the same VFX artists under the instruction of a talented director like, for instance, Guillermo del Toro and you can get fantastic cinema where the effects add to the experience.

    The problem with 2012 isn't the CGI it's Roland Emmerich, and whatever ends up on screen is what HE wanted to end up there. If you feel the CGI has no weight then that's the way he wanted it. It's just the nature of the client/vendor relationship and CGI 'nerds' shouldn't be criticised for that.

  • Comment number 36.

    The most effective disaster movie is the TV film 'Threads'. Despite the fact it was made in the 1980s, it is still exceptionally harrowing and nihilistic by today's standards. You don't need CGI to portray pure and simple human extinction.

    What could be more effective than a disaster movie which was banned for simply being 'too realistic'?

  • Comment number 37.

    I'm going with Mars Attacks! It makes fun of all the aspects that the genre takes so seriously and most of the headline cast are killed off, except for Tom Jones.
    Diaster movies are meant to be fun, Post-apocalyptic movies are meant to teach us a lesson and scare us out of our self-destructive ways.

  • Comment number 38.

    I saw "2012" yesterday, and I don't really see why it got Mark Kermode's goat like it did. Compared to all of Emmerich's films, 2012 had the best humour, the best CGI work to date, and the acting performances and screenplay were passable as well. All in all, 2012 went far beyond my expectations, so I'd like to say that in terms of the best disaster films of all time, 2012 lies at the top for sheer spectacle and entertainment.

  • Comment number 39.

    The greatest disaster movie of all time is magnolia-
    I know that the disaster bit doesn't happen until near the end, but what a disaster it is! ...and as with any genre it's all about character and plot and there are few characters more adorable than those in PT Anderson greatest work

  • Comment number 40.

    Surly one of the best "End of World" stories would be Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

  • Comment number 41.

    I agree, the problem with apocalypse movies isn't apocalypse movies per se, it's that Roland Emmerich keeps making them (and therefore lowering the average). His films are - bar none - lazily scripted, at least 40 minutes too long and have poor casting decisions (with actors either typecast a la Jeff Goldblum, or horribly miscast like John Cusack). This man's single demonstrated talent is a deft hand at plagiarism, and he's even getting worse at that as the movies role on.

  • Comment number 42.

    Why is it that in Hollywood movies, whenever there is a disaster the president is usually African-American? Should we be worried now that Obama is president?

  • Comment number 43.

    I watched a double bill of Threads followed by Where The Wind Blows. Man.. It was a grey depressing Sunday!

    Great Films though. Threads is terifying.

  • Comment number 44.

    I saw 2012 today and it was really quite bad (I havent seen Bride Wars but surely it wasn't worse than this).

    Now, what did you mean by saying (twice) they didn't mention the Olympics? It was quite clearly mentioned that the Olympics were suspended, there was even "news" footage of British Bobbies standing around not doing very much to illustrate it. Explain yourself, sir!

    The Mayan calender ends at December 21st(ish), so really there should be time to get the olympics in.

  • Comment number 45.

    Oh, yes, and a Razzie nomination for Woody Harrelson's old man of the woods impersonation. I have to agree with you about the length and the CGI and yes, what were all the skyscrapers doing up in the air? I think the plane even flew under an airborne subway train at one point. Boring.

  • Comment number 46.

    I feel I have to stick up for Independence Day. It's a great film with characters you actually care about, Jeff Goldblum, Will Smith and Bill Pullman are all very likeable, great spectacle that has some weight and a good sense of humour. The film doesn't really take itself that seriously, which is why its gets away with scene's such as the Presidents speech, which is a brilliant piece of tongue-in-cheek screenwriting.

  • Comment number 47.

    The best disaster movie never made has to be The Drowned World, JG Ballard's first novel, and one of the first to feature people actually welcoming the end of the world.

    In movie terms it quite obviously forms the spiritual and narrative basis for much of Alex Garland's work (Sunshine, 28 Days Later, The Beach).


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