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Coming soon: Disaster movies

”Twister,” ”Independence Day,” and ”Deep Impact” add special effects to danger and doom

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Tornadoes, floods, infernos, earthquakes, volcanoes — not since Moses smote the Egyptians has mankind been plagued by such a devastating string of calamities. Well, not since the 1970s, anyway.

As the world is about to discover, the disaster movie has returned with a vengeance. This week, Twister blows into theaters, and soon a swarm of other catastrophe-themed pictures will be crashing into multiplexes. Opening July 3 is Independence Day, in which aliens disintegrate the White House and take over the world. And due in the coming months are such cataclysms as Titanic, about the doomed cruise liner; Volcano, about a massive eruption in L.A.’s La Brea tar pits; and Deep Impact, which shows what would happen if a comet was headed toward Earth (hint: Property values would take a beating). And that’s not all. The Flood and Firestorm are also in the works, along with another volcano movie, Dante’s Peak, and the plane-in-distress flick Turbulence.

So what gives? How come every producer in Hollywood now fancies himself an Irwin Allen? ”Trends are always a reflection of what’s happening in the world,” offers Independence Day producer Dean Devlin. ”Having gone through fires and riots and floods in the last few years, Hollywood has been inspired.”

”We’re coming up on a new millennium,” suggests Volcano scripter Jerome Armstrong. ”Apocalyptic elements are in the air.”

”Or else it could just be the cyclical nature of the movie business,” says screenwriter Leslie Bohem, who penned Daylight, a fall release that has Sylvester Stallone leading New Yorkers trapped inside a collapsed tunnel — a sort of Towering Inferno meets The Poseidon Adventure meets the 1010 WINS news-radio traffic update. ”Next,” deadpans Bohem, ”look for the return of the boxing movie.”

As it happens, the new disaster movies aren’t all that different from the old disaster movies. Most seem to stick to the old-fashioned multiple-subplot formula, following ensemble casts as they deal with the trauma du jour. And, as with the Irwin Allen classics, those ensemble casts are largely made up of B-list actors (Twister stars Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton, while Independence Day features Will Smith, Judd Hirsch, and Bill Pullman). Even the disasters haven’t changed all that much: If you want a sneak peek at Deep Impact, try renting 1979’s Meteor.

Still, there are differences. ”When we made Earthquake [in 1974] we used miniatures and that was about it,” says veteran disaster-movie exec Sid Sheinberg. ”Right now, with the world of computer-generated imagery and robotics, the new toys are very attractive.” And very expensive. Independence Day, which is being hyped as one of the splashiest special-effects extravaganzas of all time, reportedly cost more than $70 million. And Dante’s Peak, starring Pierce Brosnan, will begin production in June with a budget starting just under $100 million.

But even with big bucks and state-of-the-art visual effects, a disaster movie is still a disaster movie. The stigma of cheesiness left over from the ’70s remains so powerful that some producers are in denial about their films’ genre. ”It’s absolutely not a disaster movie,” insists coproducer Kathleen Kennedy about Twister. ”This movie does not fit a disaster-film definition. We’re not doing what those ’70s movies did. The reference isn’t anything we want to talk about.”

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