Disaster Movies: The Cinema of Catastrophe (review)
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 33, Number 1, 2003
- pp. 80-81
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Book Reviews | Regular Feature Stephen Keane. Disaster Movies: The Cinema of Catastrophe. London: Wallflower, 2001. 133 pages; $16.95 paper. A Second Look This book's classy cover at first appears to be a 1950s Bmovie photo of a father desperately and protectively clutching his young daughter. On closer examination, the image captures Hal Holbrook from The Towering Inferno (1974) holding his adult daughter, dressed in an evening gown, afterhis character's building nears its fateful destination toward destruction. Because these appearances can seem deceiving, the images deserve a second look. Author Stephen Keane believes that disaster movies also deserve a second look, a closer examination and not the usual dismissal. Disaster Movies: The Cinema of Catastrophe is part of the Short Cuts series (Introductions to Film Studies) by Wallflower Press which examines seven other cinematic genres. This text is 121 pages with seven movie posters and photographs. The introduction examines the concept and history of the genre from the 1910s through the 1930s, and the remaining four chapters define and further analyze chronological advances. Disaster movies have endured a common dismissal by film critics and historians as "formulaic and spectatorial" with "ingenious moments of destruction invariably wasted on cardboard characters" (1). Keane argues that disaster movies are more than "spectacular scenes of death and destruction" because these films often critique such complex topics as technological advances and economic class distinctions as well as the disastrous hubris of humanity. This introduction also provides an overview with such films as The Last Days ofPompeii (1910) along with Roman and biblical disasters such as End of the World (1930). Science fiction B-movies ofthe 1950s contained spectacular action with little production cost but consequently little developed plot. The "savage seventies" produced fifty-three disaster films which can be classified into two types— travel and natural—and divided into three phases—classic, 1970-1974; intermittent, 1975-1977; and running out of ideas, 1978-1980. All disaster movies essentially center on the elemental forces ofair, fire, earth, or water. The popular success oíAirport (1970) and its two sequels initiated the decade. Its "ship of fools" typology and clichéd characters also developed a typical male character plot: the professionals versus the moneyed fools. But on a more serious note, according to Keane, disastermovies have often carried a strong moral lesson of survival: "Disaster movies are thus not so much about clinging onto dear life as making your way, out ofthe rubble, toward a life with renewed perspective" (26). The more successful films ofthe 1970s included 77ie Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974), and Earthquake (1974). In his description of such works, Keane utilizes successful pairing ofterms: "survival and salvation" (36), "industry and ideology " (39), "spectacle and stars" (42), and "well-staged and grizzly " (42). He concludes that "ideological readings are such that we go to see these films to watch the rich and greedy get their comeuppance ; an allied draw is watching famous film stars really working for their money" (42). Although much of the films' focus remains on the heroics and antics of men, Keane does pay tribute to Faye Dunaway and her role's "sensuality and strength" rather than the usual "cloying and screaming wives and girlfriends" (46). Keane cites figures from "Disaster Online" that twenty-five disaster movies were produced in the 1980s and 56 in 1990 with fourteen in 1997 alone (73). The late 1990s were marked by "millennial movies"— end of the century and the end of the world—with the most successful being Independence Day (1996), Armageddon (1998), and Godzilla (1998). Keane also analyzes Titanic (1997) as both an historical and romantic example of the genre, yet Titanic remains difficult to classify (but successful as the largest moneymaker) with its different structure, character development, and technical innovations. Titanic does utilize a central female character as did several other 1990s movies such as Twister (1996), Volcano (1997), and Deep Impact (1998). Throughout Keane's writing, his language is never too technical or marred with excessive filmjargon but is both rather accessible and challenging, and his book will work well in an undergraduate film studies course to compare and contrast specific movies from the last three decades. His...