93 disaster movies were released in the 1990’s. How many of them can you name? This writer recalls about 20 off the top of his head, and accepts the remainder must be so obscure that only the geekiest of film fanatics can name them. This genre, and its depiction of quivering, paranoid and panic shopping humans as the shroud of doom begins to loom, has proven successful throughout film history but never more so than in the 90s.
Disaster movies are generally successful if they are able to capture the anxieties felt en mass at a particular time. For the 1990’s the greatest cultural angst surrounded technological advancement, the new millennium (Y2K) and Londoners expecting to see mushroom clouds on the horizon as soon as the clock struck midnight on 31st December 2000. How the millennium Apocalypse was going to pan out was a complete mystery. Hollywood producers milked concepts from the past to address how we were all going to die; monsters, meteors, alien invasions, natural disasters. It must be noted that the protagonist’s survival of said exaggerated mass extinction was just as important, and the whole experience made more realistic by developments in special effects technology.
When it comes to death by monster attack, Godzilla (1998) comes to mind. The film begins with a montage of images showing nuclear testing on an island in the Pacific ocean inhabited by lizards, and after the signature mushroom cloud has dissipated, a single egg remains. A giant unseen monster then attacks a Japanese fishing trawler, leaving a single survivor whom links the two scenes by the name “Gojira”, a giant lizard in Japanese mythology said to be a product of the atomic bombing of Japan. The monster heads north to Manhattan and causes mass havoc. It is up to scientists Niko “Nick” Tatopoulous (Matthew Broderick), Philippe Roaché (Jean Reno) and Audrey Timmonds (Maria Pitillo) to identify the monster and do what the U.S. military couldn’t and get rid of the irradiated monster. I still remember how amazed I was with the special effects and how irritating Mathew Broderick’s wholesome anti-‘hero’ character was. Even though it split the critics on release, Godzilla still did well at the box office and should be part of any good monster movie marathon.
Executive producer of Godzilla, Roland Emmerich, has an ongoing relationship with disaster movies. From recent releases 2012 (2009), and The Day After Tomorrow (2004) to one of his more notable, 90s alien apocalypse movie, Independence Day (1996), Emmerich seems to revel in obliterating major cities and upending the Statue of Liberty. Independence Day saw Will Smith playing Captain Steven Hiller in his first role since The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The plot centres on the days leading up to the 4th July and the appearance of unidentified objects across the globe. They are revealed as an alien armada with the sole intention of wiping out the human race. Their immense power is demonstrated by the now iconic image of an enormous alien spaceship obliterating New York with a single beam of blue light. Captain Steven Hiller and super scientist David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) are tasked to stop the menacing invasion force. Even though Independence Day‘s story is littered with coincidences and contrivances, it remains stupidly good fun and boasts spectacular, Oscar-winning special effects. With the likes of Skyline (2010) and Battle: Los Angeles (2011) recently released, Independence Day continues to influence the alien invasion sub-genre fifteen years on.
Deep Impact (1998), meanwhile, demonstrated the decade’s fad of ‘meteor movies’ as Earth is threatened by giant rocks from space. The film’s big question is how will the U.S. government be prepared in time for the inevitable cataclysm? They begin digging an underground cave complex capable of protecting one million people from extinction for two years. Two hundred thousand places have already been allocated to the brainiest. The remaining places will be given away by a lottery system. The film is only noteworthy for its cast, including Morgan Freeman playing the President and Elijah Wood whose family attempts to nab a lucrative spot in the tunnel, and the fact that the comet actually hits its target, with no miraculous technological advancement being developed to destroy the comet in the nick of time. Not everyone lives happily ever after however, but Frodo’s…I mean Elijah’s heroic mountaineering started here.
Another category of the 90s disaster cycle involved Mother Nature fighting back! That’s right. Natural disasters of apocalyptic proportions were the norm in this decade and a film which highlighted her mighty wrath was Volcano (1997). Tommy Lee Jones (Mike Roark) works at the Office of Emergency Management and he is obsessed with his work, shirking his responsibilities as a father in the process. With the help of geologist Dr. Amy Barnes (Anne Heche), he investigates a series of tremors which have ripped open a fissure underneath Los Angeles causing the birth of a new volcano. Can he keep his cool (pun intended) and manage the situation or is L.A. doomed? This film is one of my guilty pleasures. It is filled with scientific inconsistencies but acted amazingly, but when does Tommy Lee Jones not give 110%? And I would like to give special note to the man who sacrifices himself to save an unconscious passenger by jumping into the lava and, while melting from the waist up, throws them to safety. He is an unsung movie legend.
Even though the millennium bug turned out to be a whole load of hooey, there is an increasing number of disaster movies being made today as Hollywood cashes in on uncertainty related to the end of the Mayan calendar in December 2012. Will we learn the lessons from the past and not completely overreact? Who knows, but if the movies are anything to go by, I guess we will be okay in the long run.