I have been watching the trailers and other footage of the soon to be released San Andreas and although the disaster scenes appear fantastic something seems off. Reviewers at Rotten Tomatoes are widely panning the film for the exact reasons I was fearing. The reviews are pretty consistent across the board that San Andreas is nothing more than disaster porn, no real plot and sadly no real characters or writing. That is fine if a viewer wishes to watch LA and San Francisco get demolished, again. Those two cities are 2 of 3 targets for disaster, the third being New York, I guess we could throw Washington DC in the mix and make it a nice round number. Back in the day disaster films were not about mass destruction, let me explain.
In 1972 Irwin Allen produced the Poseidon Adventure, a taught thriller about a small group of survivors trapped in a capsized luxury liner. The group struggles to escape an increasingly dangerous situation. This is Hollywood and there’s got to be a morning after, the audience just did not know which of the ragtag group would see that morning. The survivors struggle to overcome themselves and their violently overturned world. Steam, fire, water, and explosions were not nearly as dangerous as the group’s clashing personalities. The story is tight, the characters compelling and even 43 years later the film is just as good today. The ship was simply a set piece used to trigger deeper conflicts. If you have not seen Poseidon Adventure or it has been a few years, give it a watch for the movie is a true classic and a flawless gem of the genera and the first of the disaster trinity. The Poseidon Adventure was nominated for 8 Academy Awards and won for best original song.
Irwin Allen sealed his title of master of disaster by producing 1974’s The Towering Inferno. Not only was the film a mix of two novels, The Tower by Richard Martin Stern and The Glass Inferno by Thomas N Scortia and Frank M Robinson it was produced by Fox and Warner. Two stories, two competing film companies and two competing lead actors surrounded by an all-star cast created a flaming, 4 hour, 135 floor masterpiece. Unlike the simplicity of Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno was an elegant tapestry of compelling characters and storylines. The flaming spire and the topsy-turvy Poseidon were just containers framing very human drama. Watching Steve McQueen and Paul Newman chew the scenery from both ends is a joy to watch and yet they do not overshadow the other characters. The Towering Inferno is and has been an absolute favorite movie of mine and with 8 Academy nominations and taking home 3.
Earthquake is the 3rd and final installment of the disaster trilogy. The producers attempted to use the dramatic formula of Poseidon and Inferno. The human element is in place but the massive destruction has taken a larger roll. Earthquake is the tipping point from human centered disaster films to destruction spectacular. There is none of the human hubris that is at the heart of Towering Inferno or the claustrophobic and intimate danger of Poseidon. The effects used in Earthquake are primitive, negative stretching and the blood spatter in the elevator scene is somewhat laugh inducing. In my mind Earthquake is the end of the great disaster films and the beginning of disaster porn. Earthquake was the 3rd highest grossing film of 1974 but it is far from the classic that Poseidon and Inferno are considered today.
The death of the good disaster movie can be tied directly into the rise of special effects. The use of computer modeling and rendering has made the scenes of mass destruction more spectacular than ever dreamed of in 74. It has become easier for directors and producers to split the earth and level entire cities than to create engaging characters and story lines. The movie have suffered greatly. The great modern disaster epics inflicted upon movie goers, thanks mostly to Roland Emmerich’s, Independence Day, Day After Tomorrow and 2012. The modern disaster flick is truly a disaster when compared to the early 70’s iterations. Very little more than quirky characters spouting quirky one liners superimposed on massive slick Rube Goldberg machines of distant and emotionless destruction. Sure that can be cool, and too much cool can be awesome but there is a danger zone where too much awesome can get stupid. The disaster scenes may be exquisite but that is not enough to make an entertaining film.
I would rather watch a well-crafted and tense human drama than slick effects extravaganzas. I have nothing against disaster and destruction I just want more than that from a film. Sure I could be getting old, crotchety, and filled with nostalgia for my childhood favorite films. I guess I have to accept that I am getting older, but it will be hard to convince me that any recent disaster film is as good as Poseidon, Inferno, and even the deeply flawed Earthquake. I will see San Andreas, I will not spend 14 to 20 dollars to see it on the big screen. On a cold winter day I will be sitting at home flipping channels and San Andreas will be playing. I will watch it then.
For now – GET OFF MY LAWN!
Please note that I did not forget about Airport (1970), I just chose to ignore it, it is my blog and I can do what I want