Disaster Movies: The Cinema of Catastrophe

by Stephen Keane

Published by Wallflower

133 pages, 2001

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Avoiding Disaster

Reviewed by Claude Lalumière


Stephen Keane's Disaster Movies: The Cinema of Catastrophe is the sixth book in Wallflower's Short Cuts series. The books in this set are meant to be primers for a diverse range of film studies subjects, spanning genres (The Horror Genre: From Beelzebub to Blair Witch), national cinemas (Early Soviet Cinema: Innovation, Ideology and Propaganda), and cultural phenomena (The Star System: Hollywood's Production of Popular Identities). I was particularly eager to read this volume on disaster movies because, although the genre has long been a popular one, it is not written about as much as, say, noir or horror.

In sharp contrast with the dynamic writing found in, for example, most of the British Film Institute's books -- which often succeed in being academically rigorous while still being engaging for film buffs -- Disaster Movies adopts a more hermetically academic style. Such dry exposition fails to convey the spectacle of disaster films and a quick scan of the series' other titles betrays that the Keane volume is not alone in privileging a specifically academic tone. Nevertheless, Keane's enthusiasm does shine through at times and he succeeds in forging the history of disaster movies into a narrative.

The introduction sets up the book's theoretical framework and briefly discusses the pre-1970s era. Chapter One focuses on the famous disaster movies of the 1970s, such as the Airport series and The Towering Inferno. Chapter Two charts the transition from those 1970s classics to the late 1990s revival of the disaster genre, using the Die Hard series as a case study. Chapter Three concentrates on the intense output of the late 1990s, including Independence Day and Godzilla. And, finally, Chapter Four analyzes the special case of James Cameron's Titanic. Where the book fails the most in conveying the history of the genre -- and this is not a problem specific to this volume but endemic to the series -- is in the filmography. Instead of supplying readers with a chronological list of selected disaster movies, the filmography lists -- in alphabetical order (thus ensuring that glancing at the list cannot convey a historical panorama) -- every film mentioned in the text, whether or not they can be counted as part of the genre. I can see the bibliographical use of this, but the book sorely needs a list of disaster films.

I was most perplexed and disappointed by the inclusions and exclusions in Keane's consideration of disaster movies. He dismisses pre-1970s disaster films, arguing that they do not truly fall within the "disaster movie" genre. Citing several academic sources, he attempts, but never clearly lays out, a definition of the genre. His arguments include denying science fiction or historical films entry into the genre, but then he blithely ignores his own parameters in Chapters Three and Four, where he decides to focus almost exclusively on recent science fiction and historical cinema, to the near-complete exclusion of the many strictly genre disaster films from the same era. He briefly raises the issue of the 1990s wave of weather (Twister, etc.), environmental disaster (Volcano, etc.), and virus (Outbreak, etc.) movies -- indicating that, like their 1970s predecessors, they addressed prevalent societal concerns -- but fails to discuss them at any length or depth, despite his avowed goal of linking disaster movies with contemporary issues. Instead, he devotes some 20 pages to two films -- Independence Day and Godzilla -- that are not truly disaster movies at all.

At first, I was similarly annoyed by his lengthy exposition on the Die Hard films; but, in this case, his observations on how Die Hard and its sequels integrated and played with conventions and ideas from the 1970s cycle of disaster movies was both insightful and well argued. Nevertheless, in view of the book's limited length, the Die Hard section feels too long, especially considering the exclusion of pre-1970s cinema and the lacunae of the 1990s chapter. In the case of Independence Day and Godzilla, however, he utterly fails to argue that they are disaster movies and readers are left with the impression that they were included simply because the author wanted to discuss them and not because they had anything to do with the book's subject. While it is amply demonstrated that Titanic is both a historical film and a disaster movie, its showcased inclusion only emphasizes the questionable absence of pre-1970s films, especially, as Keane himself points out, because Titanic is very much reminiscent of spectacular films from the 1930s to the 1960s.

In a way, Disaster Movies achieves what this sort of book should always strive for. It incites discussion, reflection and argument. But, as a primer for disaster movies, it is inadequate and frustrating. | July 2002


Claude Lalumière is a writer and editor. He founded the popular 1990s Montreal bookshops danger! and Nebula.