Once upon a time, around the mid-1970s, the disaster movie reigned supreme. We gorged ourselves with popcorn, and sat safely in the plush red cinema seats, shivering at the thought of what crises have been bravely averted by top actors of the day. We watched airplanes crash, terrorist attacks, and worse. We lauded them all, and blinked into the safe sunlight and solid ground when the movie ended.
Those days are gone, and we’re left with a pale shadow in their stead, movies that should be bigger, better, more explosive end up just being damp squibs in comparison. We have the technology to create the impossible, eye popping scenes that blur the lines between reality and fantasy so completely that it’s impossible to see the join.
Where we fail and our presescesors succeeded is twofold. Firstly, they knew that if a story is big enough, it needs no central human interest theme to weaken the plot, Secondly, the money actors demand (and get) mean the days of the “all star cast” are long gone; it’s one, maybe two, lead actors, and they therefore demand a central storyline to justify their time in the limelight.
Here’s a case in point. Towering Inferno starred almost everyone who was anyone in one huge movie. Steve McQueen?, Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway, even Fred Astaire – there’s no equivelent movies being made nowadays with anything like the sheer number of 5-star actors on the screen at anyone time. No budget could stretch that far, and none of the current egos would be able to compete in a crowd.
We’ve watched two movies recently, both scarred beyond measure by terrible scripting. Day After Tomorrow and War of the Worlds both have the same critical flaw; both have had injected into the storyline a need to have “human insterest”; a dysfunctional father rescuing his children against overwhelming odds. In each case, that story has done nothing at all to improve the telling. In each case, the disaster is story enough. We don’t need a Tom Cruise to save his kids; we don’t need a moral. Disaster movies are about just that – the disaster itself. The horror is enough; the aliens in War of the Worlds or the global climate change in Day After Tomorrow really, honestly, truely is big enough in itself.
Please, producers, don’t moralise. Just tell the tale. If the ridiculous earnings of top stars puts them out of the picture, don’t use them; we lose the need for that aweful plot thread, and that’s about it. Honestly, people will still come to see the movie without them. And they will thank you for it too, and tell their friends, and they will come.
you never know; it might just work.
ps: as I type this, I’m listening to Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds. It’s 1,000 times scarier, more evocative and more “real” than the latest movie. Even without the amazing special effects.