Seeing as it’s now 2012, and the end of the world is pretty much nigh, I figured that it was time to ponder world disasters. I mean, it’s only a matter of time before a solar flare or an earthquake or a massive fire wipes out all of humanity in a painful and weeks-long process that slowly drains us of our wills before destroying our bodies and our millennia-long legacy. Perhaps we ought to be discussing the inevitable apocalypse a little more openly. Allow me, your humble professor, to take your hands and calmly lead you on a leisurely walk through the end times. How do we feel about our end? Why does it fascinate us so? Of course, seeing as this is the Free Film School, I will not be so much giving any sort of philosophical breakthroughs or reliable end-of-the-world scenarios, so much as I will be offering up various feature films that deal with the apocalypse, and exploring one of the most notable makers of disaster films in the form’s history, the prolific producer Irwin Allen.
First, a look at the history of apocalypse films. Feature films, we all have to agree, offer a dandy way to exorcize our fears of death. Apart from sex and driving cars, death is one of the most commonly filmed events in cinema. What better way to explore the Undiscovered Country than to dramatize it in a safe environment, free of actual death. We all have our theories as to what happens after death. Some of us fear death. Some of us are cynical. Some are hopeful. Some are placid. But we are all, to a degree, preoccupied with our mortality. I have discussed this topic in the Free Film School before, albeit in a horror movie capacity.
And, since time immemorial, much of humanity has been preoccupied with the inevitable death of the world itself. We understand that all things have an end, including planet Earth, and that it will have to eventually drift, fragmented and dead into the waiting arms of the near-infinite cosmos. And, as long as there has been film, there has been a filmmaker or two who have been gleefully exploring the idea of the world’s demise with great interest. Film may dramatize death, but we can, after all, actually personally experience the death of a loved one. The end of the world, by contrast, can never be personal. It is always going to be conjecture. Film (and other fictions) then, are going to be ideally suited for looking at death on a grand scale. How would we, as a society, react to a grand disaster? How did we feel about the earthquake in Haiti? In Japan? Hurricane Katrina? Leaving the politics of my examples aside, how do we deal with the seemingly random deaths of thousands? Big disasters (at least the ones in faraway countries) may not affect our day-to-day lives in a significant fashion, but it’s hard not to be philosophical. And when it comes to the ultimate disaster, the snuffing out of all human endeavors, well, what better way to look at that than to film it using miniature sets, recognizable stars, and really, really clunky drama?
Indeed, our filmic exploration of the end of the world is rarely as thoughtful as one might first assume. Occasionally you’ll get a film like the underrated predict-the-future film Knowing which is more cogent than you’d assume, despite the presence of angelic alien creatures (it’s actually kind of bonkers). 2011 saw Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, which brought the world to an end as a parallel for extreme human depression. Many minor sci-fi films deal with a kind of post-apocalyptic scenario, wherein only a few humans remain in a destroyed landscape. It’s been said that there are only two kinds of films: pre-apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic. But most of us, at least of my generation, were introduced to major disasters through the big-budget work of German director Roland Emmerich. It was Emmerich, if you’ll recall, who blew up the White House with an alien phaser in 1996’s Independence Day. It was Emmerich who, in 1998, designed a souped-up Godzilla to rip apart New York City in 1998. It was Emmerich who posited that really bad weather could kill us all in 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow, a cautionary tale about climate change. And it was Emmerich who simply offed the planet kind of randomly in 2009’s now-archetypal disaster film 2012.
Disaster films all seem to have a similar structure: We are introduced to a single protagonist, but also a wide swath of ancillary characters, usually each representing a different marketing demographic. Characters are included partly to sympathize with, but mostly to depict the breadth of the destruction on the film’s given disaster. When the disaster strikes, our protagonist has something uncompleted in their personal life. Their bravery in the face of the disaster will prove to the world that they can achieve anything, and that they are far stronger/more virtuous/better off than they previously assumed. The ancillary characters may be given backstories as well, and we’ll often get one or two people who are bitter, cynical and shallow up to the very end, but those people often die off or are least humbled by the disaster. Other characters may be placid and/or virtuous, and they will live or die according to the machinations of the plot, their deaths colored by how much we care about them.
Disaster films serve to humble us all. We have our lives, but we are but mere candle flames waiting to be snuffed out in the face of nature’s overwhelming influence.
I cited Emmerich as sort of a bulwark of disaster films, but it was the producer Irwin Allen who really codified this trend back in the 1960s and 1970s. Yes, I am citing Irwin Allen, one of the few Golden Turkey winners for Worst Career, as an important figure in the world of cinema. Allen, you see, was mostly known for corny low-budget (yet immensely popular) television shows like Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel, and the immensely milquetoast Swiss Family Robinson. His one technical contribution to the world of film and TV was his pioneering of the “shaky-cam” technique to imply aerial turbulence or earthquake. His approach was to simply tilt the camera back and forth, and have his actors throw themselves across a set. This technique is familiar to anyone who has seen the original Star Trek; how many times has the guy at Conn been thrown from his chair? Even in the early 1960s, this looked kind of silly. And yet it was employed massively in all films and TV thereafter. To this day, whenever an earthquake is needed, the camera is merely shaken. Some filmmakers have begun using digital effects to add the shake. This seems kind of silly to me.
But Allen is best known in the world of feature films (despite having won a 1952 Academy Award for a documentary called The Sea Around Us) for a long string of big budget and high profile disaster films that practically serve to define the decade. Allen was a TV man, and a formula guy through-and-through. Rather than set out on any new territory, Allen stayed by the filmmaking mainstays that had seemed to work for decades. That is, sheer spectacle, a central love story, and big-name actors. While it can be said that smaller names and new daring material is what truly moves film forward (indeed, Allen was a bit baffled by the success of the love- and star-free Star Wars), there is also something to be said for the bloody-minded insistence on the old-fashioned systems. Indeed, to this day, major film studios are still rutted in the exact same success formulae that they always have been. Sometimes, said system can produce greatness; keep an eye out for a future Free Film School article on Casablanca for a more explicit illustration of this.
(It should be noted here that the first of the 1970s Disaster Cycle began with Airport in 1970. It may be the first, but Allen provided us with the best, and with the code).
Irwin Allen’s first major film in the disaster genre was the 1972 star-studded popcorn flick The Poseidon Adventure. In the film, a cruise ship carrying Gene Hackman, Shelley Winters, Ernest Borgnine, Roddy McDowall, Leslie Nielsen and others, flips upside-down during a voyage from New York to Greece when a tsunami wave thunders by. While the ocean liner threatens to sink, the characters, all trapped in different parts of the ship, crawling around on the ceilings, must surmount various obstacles and make their way to safety. There is little amount of thought, and there isn’t a whole lot of real philosophy in the film, but man oh man is it ever exciting. There is a charm to its clunky storytelling, and its close-up look at direct mechanical crises. The Poseidon Adventure became one of the most successful films of all time, and was the biggest money-earner of 1972, beating out the second place Deliverance by nearly double. It was followed by a sequel in 1979, a TV remake in 2005, and a theatrical remake in 2006.
The tone was set, and the formula in place. In 1974, Allen produced The Towering Inferno, which was essentially the same film, only set in a burning skyscraper. The cast this time lumped in Fred Astaire, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, and even O.J. Simpson. Allen’s disaster films, I have to point out, were all notoriously long. The Towering Inferno runs 165 minutes, and packs the entire film with high-tension situations. I admire this approach. I mean, if you’re going to be selling a summer blockbuster to audiences, you may as well give them their money’s worth. Say what you will about the dumb stories, contrived situations, or paper-thin characterizations (the sheer number of big stars usually limits the time given to character moments), you’ll never walk away from a big-budget disaster film feeling ripped off. Even the notoriously panned 2012, clearly modeled on Irwin Allen’s films, is 158 minutes of crisis after crisis.
Allen had the true soul of an old-fashioned showman. He may not have been much of an auteur (he was, after all, usually a producer or a co-director on his films, and not the writer or first director), but he was a powerful show biz figure with unflagging faith in his product. He was, it could be said, the Jerry Bruckheimer of his day. But whereas Bruckheimer is a mere producer, Allen was more of an old guard character. He was from the era of Hollywood filmmaking when the producer would have a bigger hand in production, and would take active day-to-day part in his projects.
In the mid-1970s, he also made several TV movies (back when such things were more commonly seen on network TV) with titles that make their content easy to interpret. Flood!, Fire! and Cave-In! came during this period. If you grew up at a certain time, you likely saw these as a child. Or at least snippets of them. The images of shaking buildings, burning buildings, collapsing buildings, and a general hatred for architecture is probably swimming around in your subconsciousness.
It was Allen’s own faith in the old-guard system that ultimately led to his eventual decline. Thanks to the success of Star Wars (which, if you think about it, did a lot to destroy campy, fun, low-budget exploitation movies), studios began to shy away from big-name actors, clunky predictable stories, and earth-bound special effects. Space operas were now the word of the day, and few wanted to shell out money for 1978's The Swarm (about, well, a killer swarm), or 1980’s When Time Ran Out (about an erupting volcano). Irwin Allen's disaster cycle was at an end.
Allen moved onto to other TV movies, including a notable (and Emmy-nominated) version of Alice in Wonderland in 1985, with a cast that includes both Sammy Davis, Jr. and Scott Baio. Ill health, however, eventually took him out of the game. He died in 1991.
Irwin Allen's disaster films, however, still live on. Every single disaster film you have seen, be it 1974's Earthquake, 1996's Twister, or 2009's 2012, is directly inspired by the 1970s blockbusters of Irwin Allen. His look at the end of the world at the hands of nature is indelible, earnest and bloody entertaining. Never has the apocalypse been so much fun as when Irwin Allen made his camera shake.
HOMEWORK FOR THE WEEK: Watch any disaster movie. Start with Airport and work your way forward. You might notice that the films are clichéd . Are the clichés effective? Why are or aren't they? What is the tone of the movies? Are they silly or serious? What is the better way to depict death on a massive scale? Why do you think Irwin Allen chose to include so many characters? Is a single hero more effective than an ensemble? Get out your own camera. Ask a friend to stumble around a room while you film them, shaking the camera all the while. It looks like an earthquake, doesn't it?