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Disaster movies: Why we love them (especially in hard times)

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At the local megaplex Saturday night, my wife and I were 25 minutes early walking into a theater to see 2012, but the place was already jammed, with scarcely a seat in sight. That’s not your average sold-out show – that’s anticipation. There’s nothing quite like the end of the world to get an audience united and juiced, all worked up. We were able to snag two seats in the fourth row, ordinarily too close for my taste, but in this case the super-close-up vantage worked smashingly well. Gawking up at the screen to watch all that corporate steel and glass buckle and collapse, and the earth itself crack open and erupt into an angry spew of lava, only to get doused in Biblical sci-fi tsunami waves, made for a Complete Eye-Popping Schlock Experience. It almost brought me back to the days of Sensurround, the stunt employed by Universal Studios 35 years ago to sell Earthquake (pictured above). In case you’re not old enough to remember, Sensurround consisted of giant speakers rumbling in ominous woofer frequencies so loud that the whole theater was supposed to shake. Just like in a real earthquake. There are times when, by God, I really do miss the ’70s.

I think I understand why that 2012 crowd was so beyond-punctual, so primed and pumped. Disaster movies, even more than horror films, speak — if not shout, happily — to the child within us. There’s a charmed, wide-eyed, and almost comically irreverent innocence to the way that they can turn an entire audience of sober, responsible, thinking adults into overgrown kids, sitting down to watch civilization get destroyed in much the same way that a 6-year-old lines up his toys to eagerly smash them. On some primal level, this kind of destruction simply has to be staged, so that we can all get a gander of what it might look like.

What really gives a disaster movie its flavor, though, is how well it connects with its time. The genre will always be associated, of course, with the ’70s, when Airport (1970) and The Poseidon Adventure (1972), with their tarnished-glamour B-movie ensemble casts, gave way, in 1974, to the even more openly trashy double whammy of Earthquake and The Towering Inferno. When you think about it, all of these apocalyptic Debbie Downer movies were made for the long post-’60s hangover — for the disillusioned age of Vietnam and Watergate, stagflation and oil crisis, the era of Stuff Not Working and Things Coming Apart. It might be a faulty jet plane or ocean liner; it could be a skyscraper that’s a badly protected firetrap. (One of the campiest speeches in Hollywood history has to be the big “message movie” warning at the end of The Towering Inferno about how these humongous buildings need to be constructed more safely. As if that redeems the 2 hours and 45 minutes of cheesy death porn we’ve just been watching.) The disaster genre probably found its purest — if junkiest — expression in Earthquake, in which the spectacle of Los Angeles, the city of the future, crumbling into rubble was really a vision of the American future itself laid to waste.

And where does 2012 fit into all this? Forget the Mayan calendar or the End of Days. These days, we hardly need ancient religious prophecy to feel as if the world is doomed. We’re already living in a society in which the bottom (or so we fear) is falling out; the movie, with its cracking and heaving earth, just makes that literal. What’s most timely about 2012 is that its fantasy of total annihilation becomes, by the end of the movie, not just a fear but a wish, a dream of starting over. (And in one very particular symbolic continent, no less.) That’s what makes it a disaster film for the Obama era. 2012, like every zeitgeist special-effects apocalypse before it, presents the destruction of our stability as a dread-ridden, calamitous, and visually exciting thing, yet in this movie it is also a necessary thing: a way, in pitiless economic times, to clear the world, in one fell swoop, of the mess it’s become. So that it can become something better.