Disasterism on the Rise?

Is it my imagination, or are there more and more movies and books, not to mention television series, dealing with what I’d call either disasterism or grandiose triumphalism?  What I mean by disasterism is obvious – great and awful cataclysms, either natural or man-made, that threaten nations or the entire world or what the world is like in the wake of such disasters. Grandiose triumphalism – those are the stories whereby the single hero or the small band of heroes saves the world or the nation from evil aliens, or “bad guys” or cosmic disasters.

If you go back thirty years or longer, such movies were far fewer in number, and they generally were relegated to Saturday serials or grade B or below low-budget films. Now… they’re everywhere.

One possibility is, of course, that the incredible improvement in special effects and computer generated graphics allows film to capture/create events that simply couldn’t be filmed before, and that the appeal of such epics was always there, but could never be exploited because the industry lacked the ability to portray them in any even semi-realistic fashion.

Another possibility is that the audience has changed.  Certainly, immediately after WWII many Americans, indeed many across the world, had just experienced the greatest single global conflict the world had ever seen… and it just could be that they really didn’t want to see another, even in futuristic cinema, whereas today a comparatively small percentage of movie-goers in the western world has ever personally experienced that sort of disaster, and a cinematic disaster doesn’t recall past personal experiences. 

A third possibility is that the growth of disaster books and movies and their popularity in the U.S. is occurring because we don’t want to face the disasters we’ve already created – the ones that will take years and years of discipline and drudgery – and rather than consider them, we escape into the vast and unreal disasters and challenges, in essence saying, “What we’re facing isn’t as bad as what’s in this movie.”

But… for whatever reason, doesn’t the growth of all the disaster flicks and one man/one group against the aliens/world/nature/galaxy seem just a little creepy?

9 thoughts on “Disasterism on the Rise?”

  1. Robert The Addlede says:

    I’m thinking special effects mostly. Even to including the the most common man-made disaster – war – the movies I recall from growing up (I’m pushing 40) were more built around the disaster rather than the how/why/happening of the disaster itself. Key events/scenes were localized and limited to those essential to the narrative. Now we see massive scenes that span the world – people in cities on the other side of the world obliterated by the volcano/meteor/earthquake/tsunami while on the phone/videolink with the characters at the ‘main’ scene.

  2. Richard Hamilton says:

    Supposedly the _Lensman_ series is finally being made into a movie. Now _that_ portrayed a large scale conflict – millions of years in the making, entire galaxies at stake, a race of super-beings behind each side, although a very small number of humans (or their successor species) played a prominent role. And the books (well, actually the magazine serial originals) were mostly written in the ’30s and ’40s…between, or during actual major conflicts.

    The books have always been there, even in times when people might well have been tired of the real thing.

    I think if there’s really in increase in that sort of entertainment, it’s two things as much as anything: special effects, and that it’s perhaps perceived as easier for spectacle than for nuance to succeed in the entertainment marketplace.

    Add to that the 24/7 worldwide news cycle, which leads to at least a perception that the number of disasters occurring is on the rise, not to mention the demagoguery of those who oversell their political or environmental causes with predictions of disaster if they aren’t given more power, and it’s not hard to see how the disaster spectacle serves a variety of interests, both commercial and otherwise.

  3. Joe says:

    Something akin to the last point, I think. Because global scale problems are such a component of common knowledge today, hero-building tales increasingly find a need to escalate their conflicts to a comparable level lest they be thought so trivial as to be laughable.

    And… has this trend not also been reflected in your own writing, Mr. Modesitt? Lerris’ family working to boil the Hamorian fleet, lest Recluse and the semblance of economic freedom in Candar both fall? Empress of Eternity, in which the whole universe might be unraveled? Two men causing artificial novas, and murdering millions, to fight off religious imperialism in The Ethos Effect?

    1. To some extent, I plead guilty… but my disasters take up a very small segment of the text and are more the backdrop or rationale for personal action and character rather than the “raison d’etre” for the books.

  4. Bob Howard says:

    I think all three of your possibilities are valid, to some extent. I also recall a character in King’s “The Stand” making an observation that the global catastrophe portrayed there was almost welcomed by some people. Many people felt, apparently, that society was sick and in need of a serious cleansing, as with the biblical flood. Another aspect might be simple schadefreude, only relatively guilt-free as it’s make-believe.

    I might also suggest that the principal audience for these disaster films is male, and us guys really like to see stuff blown up! I remember actual cheering in “Independence Day” when the White House was blown up (of course, some political fantasies might have been in play, as well!).

    I believe your third possiblity is the key factor, though. Just as escapism in the Depression involved fluffy film fare about rich folk, disaster films today can, as you say, make our own problems appear rather more mundane, or let us escape to a world where even complex problems can be solved with pluck and forthright action. They also make the point that even these seemingly insurmountable difficulties can indeed be dealt with at all. We are always looking for The Hero figure that can save the day. Unlike real life, we can indulge the fantasy of this mythical figure in the movies and feel, for just a couple of hours, that our Hero will solve our real problems too.

  5. David Sims says:

    There’s also the possibility that grandiose triumphalism is allegory. The one group who fights the aliens and wins presumably did not fight on their own behalf alone, but for others who lacked either the strength to fight or the wisdom to see that fighting was necessary. Now, given the idea that the very people who own all eight of the major movie production companies in Hollywood belong to what might be considered an “alien” group, this possibility carries with it a degree of irony. It’s as if they were telling us, “You don’t have the GUTS to oppose us! By making this movie, we are mocking you to demonstrate our power. And you don’t even have the intelligence to understand the message. Muhahahahaaaa!”

  6. Robert The Addled says:

    To add to my above – my wife is watching 2012 accross the room right now. They seem to have packed in every possible disaster VISUAL possible. Effects WAY beyond anything concievably describable in text or audio without becoming redundantly repetative (I phrased that on purpose). Weak to Moderate storyline, exciting/dramatic visuals to carry the story.

  7. Ryan Jackson says:

    I’d also say that many stories throughout the years have shown us what happens after the disaster, without ever showing us what really happened. That’s lead many folks (Myself included) to want to see the actual fall, to know what the mistake was that caused it, or at least what the people at the time went through that resulted in what we get after.

    Example being Jordan’s Wheel of Time. Many of his fans are deeply curious about his Age of Legends timeframe and eat up every scene we get in flashback or recall of what that time was like and what the massive war that lead to the world the series takes place was like for its survivors.

    I think the same desire for epic disaster movies and the such is similar to those of us who will continually ask, even though we know the answer, when you will write about the world the Angels and Cyadorans come from, or show us the founding of Cyador. We’ve seen the aftermath and what was made by the survivors, now we’d like to see those survivors themselves and how they lived.

  8. Chris McLean says:

    In reply to your writing, I think the issue is larger than just what you are talking about. I think you hit on it in small part with your third point, the problems facing us.

    The United States 10 years ago, during my generations rise to adult hood, we experienced the golden age of the modern era. We did not have negative personal experiences en masse. We are of the mind that what we want will happen. We can escape to any place and time due to the proliferation of the media and mediums that are now available at our fingertips. You have hinted at these things in many of your novels as well. Is this not more reminiscent of history repeating itself?

    I am of the opinion that The United States is in decline. Starting with the baby boomer generation we have become less and less inclined to tackle the big issues. We are looking for escapism. I plead guilty myself, using your novels as my form of escapism.

    I think that a parallel can be drawn between us and the Roman Empire for example. During it’s golden age, the Romans enjoyed a great power and a great ability to do what they wanted, when they wanted for the most part. The decline started with that false belief. We have that same belief.

    I think that we should be asking ourselves, “How do we change our culture before it is too late?”

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