In the ‘70s, the celebrated and/or reviled Irwin Allen (“The Towering Inferno,” “The Poseidon Adventure,” “The Swarm,” “When Time Ran Out . . . ") and Jennings Lang (“Earthquake,” “Rollercoaster” and the “Airport” sequels) made movies that gave us what we wanted--namely, havoc, and piles of it.
In their epics--these movies were always way too long, padded with scale-enhancing shots of helicopters taking off and landing and stately autos and limos cruising down boulevards and pulling up in front of luxury hotels--lots of things, mostly miniatures, were blown up and smashed into pieces. Lots of people, even big-name stars, died; lots of extras screamed; lots of effects weren’t too special; lots of plotting and dialogue were inane beyond belief. That was entertainment.
The disaster genre was not particularly well-received in its day, but that may be because during this time Hollywood proved it was capable of making truly great films--Spielberg, Coppola, Altman, Lucas and Scorsese were all pretty much at the top of their game. Critics sniffed that these disaster movies represented the worst that a cynical Hollywood had to offer, just the hollow spectacle of a cache of stars walking through two-dimensional roles under preposterous circumstances and frequent attempts at spurious “statements” amid the lavish destruction.
Today, of course, we’re so used to that kind of filmmaking that these movies don’t seem all that crass. Their chief appeal now is as grandly unapologetic kitsch. In fact, the least interesting ones today feature the fewest number of howler lines, such as the blandly competent “Gray Lady Down,” about a crippled submarine, and “The Hindenburg,” which tried to blend history, Nazis and an ersatz mystery into mayhem with a message.
And as summer celluloid entertainments are devolving to the point where plot is actually considered a liability, the disaster flick is looking pretty darn good.
“Twister” has jump-started the genre, though in many instances it drastically departs from the tried-and-true formula. It does have a quintessential disaster-movie line: “He’s in it for the money, not the science!” It lacks, alas, the sprawling B-list cast (couldn’t they have ditched one tornado sequence in order to pick up Chris Elliot, Loni Anderson and Charlton Heston?) and the satisfyingly arbitrary body count (couldn’t one of the “good” tornado chasers have gotten pasted?). The producers, moreover, refuse to concede that the movie is good, old-fashioned schlock, though “Twister” star Helen Hunt has roots in the genre: She played George Segal’s daughter in “Rollercoaster,” about terror, of a sort, in the nation’s amusement parks.
On the other hand, “Independence Day,” opening Tuesday, is being unabashedly touted by its writing-producing-directing team as a proud return to the disaster flicks of yesteryear. Sundry upcoming disaster flicks include “Titanic” (think “The Poseidon Adventure”), “Deep Impact” (“Meteor” redux), “Volcano” and “Dante’s Peak” (“When Time Ran Out. . .” with computer graphics). Also on tap: “Daylight” (“Rollercoaster” meets “Earthquake” meets Stallone), “Turbulence” (or “Airport ’97"), “The Flood” and “Firestorm” (Allen made TV pics called “Flood!” and “Fire!”).
Disaster flicks followed formulas as astringent as any genre, yet the “Grand Hotel"-inspired multi-character, multi-subplot format allowed filmmakers to play around quite a bit within that framework. Invariably, nature was not kind to the inhabitants of a ship/island/building/city/planet, yet the crisis was just as inevitably exacerbated by some buffoonish techno-bureaucrat insisting that the danger was overstated. That character was routinely and gratifyingly proven wrong.
The hero was frequently an “expert” deeply ambivalent about his position within a technocracy, a formula which underscores the era’s environmental awakening and burgeoning suspicion of technology. Characters generally occupied many of the rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, and were forced to bond together to defeat or survive the menace.
In most of the best ones, the disaster struck early on, and the rest of the movie was given over to nail-biting survival scenes and residual horrors. Cheesier ones, such as Roger Corman’s “Avalanche” and Samuel Z. Arkoff’s “Meteor,” spent the whole movie building up to a conflagration that meant only 10 or 15 minutes of costly action and special effects sequences.
Star-power was an overwhelming part of the genre, which probably kept half of the Screen Actors Guild afloat in the ‘70s. One can imagine Allen and Lang getting in endless “mine’s bigger!” debates--Allen had the better casts, but at least Lang had Sensurround!
Frequently imperiled stars included Charlton Heston (“Earthquake,” “Airport ’75,” “Gray Lady Down”), Paul Newman (“Towering Inferno,” “When Time Ran Out. . .”), George Kennedy (“Earthquake” and the “Airport” movies), Robert Wagner and Susan Blakely (both in “Towering Inferno” and “The Concorde--Airport ’79"), Ernest Borgnine and Red Buttons (playing bickering buddies in both “Poseidon Adventure” and “When Time Ran Out. . .”), Michael Caine (“The Swarm,” “Beyond the Poseidon Adventure”), Jacqueline Bisset (“Airport,” “When Time Ran Out. . .”) Burgess Meredith (“Hindenburg,” “When Time Ran Out. . .”) and the venerable Henry Fonda, who lent the credence of his name to such junky productions as “Meteor,” “The Swarm” and “Rollercoaster” while taking the teeniest of roles.
These movies also gave work to the likes of Charo, Avery Schreiber, Marjoe Gortner and O. J. Simpson, who rescued a kitty halfway through “Towering Inferno” and wasn’t seen again until he handed it to Fred Astaire at the film’s end.
Flagrant stupidity on the behalf of characters, aside from the bozos who insisted against all evidence that there was no danger on the horizon, was also a hallmark. Perhaps the dumbest character in the genre is the fatuous journalist played by Blakely in “Concorde,” who, handed a scoop of breathtaking proportions, decides to tell her arms-dealing boyfriend (whom the scoop concerns) about it and goes on vacation to mull over whether or not to report it. He, of course, decides to dispatch a missile to destroy the plane she’s traveling on.
Stupidity, on the other hand, helps make these things watchable. Today, a couple of the more enjoyable disaster movies are two of the silliest, which received the most excoriating reviews upon their release: Allen’s “The Swarm” and “Beyond the Poseidon Adventure.”
“The Swarm,” about a killer-bee attack stopped by Michael Caine, is the apotheosis of disaster idiocy. Even though killer bees have, nearly 20 years later, become something of an issue in America, it’s still impossible to take seriously lines like “Oh my God, bees, bees, millions of bees! . . . Oh my God! Oooooh!” and “What the bees did here they can do all over the Southwest and ultimately, all over the country!” and “The honeybee is vital to America! Every year in America they pollinate $6 billion worth of crops! If you kill the crops, you kill the people! No, General! No! There will be no airdrop until we know exactly what we are dropping! And where! And how! Excuse me!”
On the other hand, “Beyond the Poseidon Adventure” showed how slick the genre had gotten. Its characters were perhaps the most insanely and calculatedly disparate, yet they weren’t allowed to interact in any interesting way that didn’t include gunfire. Yes, as if they weren’t in danger of drowning or being blown up anyway, they were busy exerting their energies on trying to kill each other off.
And Allen, who had helped give birth to the genre, killed it off decisively with “When Time Ran Out. . .,” a bloated leviathan about an island volcano eruption that concluded with such a cheesy special effect (someone apparently just painted individual frames of film) that the genre truly went out with a whimper, not a bang.
Of course, filmmakers today have much more sophisticated technology to make these scares much more convincing, and screenwriters haven’t seemed to improve much in terms of unmotivated plotting or paper-thin characterizations. Which makes today a perfect time for the rebirth of all that rampant death.