Disaster films have always occupied an odd in-between in the movie genre — part action, part thriller and, if you’re Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in “San Andreas,” part workout reel. Even though disaster flicks are rooted in reality, they are far from realistic. Overdramatization and campiness are almost requirements when shooting a film about a cataclysmic volcano or earthquake. Some disaster movies aren’t even remotely realistic — “World War Z” took “viral epidemic” as a light suggestion and turned it into a high production value zombie movie.
Even if they have no grounding in realistic scenarios, it is clear we’re still drawn to disaster flicks. Then Jake Gyllenhaal’s “The Day After Tomorrow” was the sixth highest grossing film of the year when it was released. “2012” — yes, the movie made after the viral internet conspiracy theory and quite possibly the last time we’ve seen John Cusack in a major role, made almost $770 million dollars. With inflation, that’s almost a billion dollars today. The disaster movie based on a misreading of Mayan calendars made almost as much as an “Avengers” film! Ever since a radio airing of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” infamously caused mass panic in 1938, disaster stories have populated our media with their glamorized cataclysms.
So, what is it about disaster films that make them so darn entertaining? Is it the millions of dollars dumped into special effects, so we can believably think a hoard of zombies is attacking Brad Pitt? Is it something that taps into our primal instincts for extreme survival? Is it the many oiled muscle shots of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson?
Probably “yes” in response to all of the above — everyone loves a good Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson flick that has very little to do with plot and almost everything to do with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson free-climbing a building. But it is also important to remember how disaster films are hardly an accurate prediction of actual potential disastrous events. For one, no one is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Not even Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in real life is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in the movies. No one can single-handedly save a city’s worth of people on pure muscle alone.
If “San Andreas” made you want to avoid driving on the Golden Gate Bridge or “Contagion” made you wary of eating meat, don’t worry. As many, many scientists have noted, end-of-the-world movies rarely have any actual scientific backing to them. Every time the World Health Organization or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is mentioned in a “speedy lethal virus” movie, an actual WHO or CDC scientist rolls over in their grave. The American Geosciences Institute denounced “San Andreas” as “dreadful,” while environmental researcher William Hyde paralleled the global superstorm in “The Day After Tomorrow” as just as accurate “to climate science as Frankenstein is to transplant surgery.” NASA climatologist Gavin Schmidt also called it “appallingly bad.”
Ironically, by overdramatizing and glamorizing global catastrophes, disaster movies paradoxically don’t prepare us for the actualities of potential disasters. Nowhere in any earthquake film does it show the unglamorous task of preparing an emergency kit in the home or having an escape route and emergency plan in effect. In the case of an actual mass pandemic of a contagious deadly virus, the only thing “Contagion” has taught us is that buying a rifle can come in handy when your local town devolves into “Lord of the Flies”-esque chaos. And that Gwyneth Paltrow is great at mysterious virus-induced death scenes.
Scientists and film critics agree that there is something alluring to us about the triumph over memento mori in disaster movies — the idea that humans can face these impregnable catastrophes and still (mostly) survive is almost uplifting in a way, a testament to the human spirit. But in terms of accuracy on any front (scientific or otherwise), they are as realistic as The CW actors are when playing high schoolers. Because they tend to focus on the epic heroics of their main characters and death-defying moments to keep audience members at the edge of their seats, disaster flicks overlook actual precautions real people can take in case of a remotely similar event. It is more likely that One Direction will get back together than the San Andreas fault causing an earthquake of a magnitude as great as that presented in the film, but it never hurts to have an emergency plan in preparation for California’s next tremor.
So the next time you find yourself watching Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson somehow steering a tiny boat away from a cargo ship caught in a massive San Francisco tsunami or Brad Pitt running away from a literal wall of zombies, use it as a reminder to check up on your emergency plans, not a representation of actual disaster preparation.