Holding out for a hero 

Finding the solace in disaster movies

Should any of the freakish environmental anomalies or extinction-inducing human blunders addressed in this week’s cover story actually occur, we’re toast. That’s the expectation, anyway, unless you believe stockpiling rations and building your own underground bunker are realistic survival tactics.

Hollywood, however, takes a more heroic approach when it comes to disasters, offering us the idea that any Tom-(-my Lee Jones; Volcano), Dick (Chamberlain; The Swarm) or Billy (Bob Thornton; Armageddon), properly motivated by a steamy love interest or familial obligation—not to mention episodic music—can single-handedly overcome an epic disaster and derail its imminent and possibly biblical outcome. So read all the emergency preparedness lists you want and soak up the wisdom of Homeland Security (i.e. get duct tape), but when the lava/killer bees/fault lines/floodwaters hit the fan I’m holding out hope for a Hollywood ending. Here’s a selected sampling of some of cinema’s most notable disaster heroes, along with some of the secret survival tricks we can learn, but probably not emulate, from their films.

Earthquake (1974)

When the Yellowstone Caldera belches unprecedented quantities of poisonous gases and blows volcanic chunks across my backyard, I will not be stocking bottled water and SPAM, but rather praying for the ultimate savior—namely Moses, as in Charlton Heston. In this disastrously cheesy flick, Heston, who famously played Moses in The Ten Commandments, overcomes an adulterous relationship, improbable storylines, outrageous subplots (including one with an Evel Knievel-type daredevil), poor acting (most notably the screeching of Ava Gardner), dated-even-then special effects and the largest earthquake ever to hit Los Angeles to save everyone in sight.

The Swarm (1978) “Master of Disaster” Irwin Allen (The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno) directed this terribly unpopular tale of killer bees—a flop despite the fact that migrant bees wreck a commuter train, destroy a nuclear power plant and devour Houston. Perhaps it failed at the box office because the bees are so small on-screen they look like clouds of coffee grounds. Regardless, it’s Michael Caine as the bee expert working with the Army to thwart the swarm. How exactly does Caine escape the carnage? He covers his head with a pristine-looking, wet white towel. Lesson learned: do your laundry.

Dante’s Peak (1997) The small town of Dante’s Peak has just been named the second best little place in America to live—ranking just behind, according to one townie, “some piece of crap town in Montana.” Maybe the fictional town placed second because a believed-to-be dormant volcano towers above it—or because an especially manly-looking Linda Hamilton is the reigning mayor. In fact, the biggest disaster in this film appears to be Pierce Brosnan having to awkwardly make out with Hamilton but, alas, the volcano erupts. Brosnan flails as a hero (he’s dealing with the fact he once lost his girl trying to escape from a past lava-related incident; I’m sure we can all relate to that), and Hamilton looks like Barry Bonds, but the film does offer this telltale warning sign: when your buddy dies boiling in hot springs next to a volcano, maybe something’s gone wrong.

Deep Impact (1998)

The biggest tragedy associated with this comparatively intelligent thriller is that Armageddon, an unwatchable piece of big-budget poppycock, overshadowed it. At the forefront of Deep Impact’s appeal is Morgan Freeman leading the free world—he’s faced with delivering the news that two comets are hurtling toward earth, the first with an impact expected to cause 3,000-foot tidal waves across the Eastern seaboard, and the second instantly killing all life. There’s not much hope for Earth, other than Robert Duvall and some recognizable television actors cast as astronauts who’ve been shot up to space to somehow deflect the comets. Freeman and Duvall are just three members of an ensemble cast that almost rivals the film’s special effects, what with two stars from “ER,” two from “The West Wing,” two ex-boyfriends from “Sex and the City,” the dad from “That ’70s Show,” the farmer from Babe and Frodo. It’s Frodo, aka Elijah Wood, who saves himself by marrying Leelee Sobieski and riding a mountain bike to the top of a peak. Frodo’s no Heston, but he teaches the valuable lesson that hitching up with a blond is essential to mankind’s continued existence.

The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

A thermometer has never looked as scary as it does in this special-effects extravaganza. When sea temperatures start to unexpectedly drop and Mother Nature throws a global warming hissy fit, Los Angeles is suddenly littered with tornados and New York City freezes over. At the center of the meteorological mayhem is Dennis Quaid, a deadbeat dad scientist, and his bookish son, played by Jake Gyllenhall. These two protagonists teach us that it helps to have disposable friends who can die while saving you, that having an unresolved romance helps your chances of survival (as long as you promise to say “I love you” once things calm down) and that if your wife/mom is trying to save a kid cancer patient throughout the cataclysmic event, you’ll be rewarded with a heartwarming family reunion. Never mind that millions have died and the entire Northern hemisphere’s an iceberg—it’s a happy ending full of hope and love. I told you Hollywood’s version of natural disasters is better.


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