Dispatches: Disaster!

Critics generally praised Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds for its cinematic virtuosity, citing the panache of his staging of fearful chases, narrow escapes, and random annihilation. This may be true, but the movie still struck me as reheated. Spielberg has done these things much more effectively in other movies – a scene in which a serpentine alien probe searches for the protagonists was lifted from Jurassic Park. From Duel through Jaws through Catch Me if You Can, Spielberg has turned nearly all of his films into feature-length chase sequences, with the heroes chasing a Macguffin as well as being chased by the authorities. This lets him indulge himself in his favorite pastime: the creation of suspense as a species of formal game-playing. To which he usually appends his other favorite pastime: wallowing in nostalgic depictions of the innocence and wonder of childhood and family. Both of these thematics saturate War of the Worlds, which jettisons most of the cynicism of Wells’ novel in favor of its director’s obsessions. His films have done this since the 1970s; nothing new there.

What did seem new about the movie, and reflective of current moods, though, was the scale of destruction it rather casually visits on the world. Asking us to feel remain engaged by the story of a working-class dad’s struggles to become a better parent and get over his divorce while around him the great cities of the world are destroyed and millions die seemed a little odd to me. When unthinkable horror is used as the backdrop for domestic drama, one feels a certain sense of proportion has gone missing. Spielberg’s defenders might argue that this is a response to the Age of Terror, an exploration of the effects of fear on ordinary people. Yet, thinking about it, this apocalyptic conceit had already become extremely common in Hollywood before 2001, with the approach of the millennium. Whether it’s done crudely and jingoistically (as with the repulsive Armageddon), cleverly and presciently (as with the gripping 28 Days Later), quietly (the intelligent Last Night), the disaster movie is perhaps the predominant mainstream genre of our time. I use the word genre very specifically to denote the way the destruction of human civilization has become a cinematic trope, one which barely affects anymore except as a generic form. (The Tristam Shandy of the genre, the work that predates it yet brilliantly satirizes all its features, is of course Dr. Strangelove.)

I think disaster movies have less to do with September 11th than with the status of moviemaking in contemporary culture. If the movies were, as James Agee wrote, the privileged aesthetic form of the twentieth century, then many competing media have disturbed that rank. The crown that the movies wore from silent era through the great studio period (detailed in The Genius of the System) through the nouvelle vague now lies uneasily, challenged by TV, video games, and, most importantly, the web. What’s more, these other, more virtual forms of information are difficult to visualize, making the job of representing modern reality onscreen much harder (there’s nothing less filmic than shots of a computer screen). What disaster movies do, then, is simplify the world, return it to a pre-technological state. By doing so they restore the potency of film narrative and reinstall the primacy of human-scale and embodied physical action: the world before computing. The disaster movie as a generic choice erases the changes that have made the movies themselves less capable of summing up human experience. The desire to annihilate the world is, maybe, really the desire to repress modernity instead of face it: thus, the common combination of disaster with nostalgic sentiment.

A final note: the other major genre that has emerged recently is the fantasy epic. The multi-part sagas of superheroes, of The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Harry Potter are the most successful studio productions of today. Poaching talented directors from outside Hollywood (Peter Jackson, Sam Raimi) and giving them vast technical resources, these films have revitalized the box office and in many cases produced superior popular entertainment. Examples include Alfonso Cuaron’s perfectly judged Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Alejandro Amenabar’s superb The Others, or Christopher Nolan’s enjoyable Batman Begins. These movies are intelligently directed but popularly accessible precisely because they rely on generic narratives: heroic quests, etc. They also replace modernity with a fantasy world in which magic, martial arts, or super powers replace technology.  Like disaster movies, then, they seek refuge in the generic in order to abolish the contemporary world.

Previous Dispatches:
On Ethnic Food and People of Color
Aesthetics of Impermanence