The end of history has come to the big screen. After the cold war, disaster movies are less anxious but more nihilisticby Stephen Brown / October 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
In armageddon, one of this summer’s two big-rocks-hitting-the-earth films, there is a sequence in which Paris, hit dead centre by a fragment from the meteor, is flattened by a wave of explosive force spreading across most of the city. The sequence lasts about a minute and, by itself, accounts for about a dozen people in the long special effects credits. This sequence ($500,000 worth?) has no relevance to the plot. The fragments which hit New York at the beginning and those which later obliterate Shanghai are key plot turning points. But this is incidental, in the way that only scenes of mass destruction can be.
Why destroy Paris? A riposte to French resistance to Hollywood imports? (Movies do not come more “Hollywood” and American than this.) A belated protest against the planning style of Baron Haussmann? Perhaps out of a desire to attract the French audience, to offer them exactly the thrill they want? Just for the hell of it?
Armageddon is part of the reappearance, over the past three years, of the disaster movie-and its big brother, the science fiction apocalypse movie. Witness Independence Day, Starship Troopers, Volcano, Dante’s Peak, Titanic, Deep Impact, Godzilla, Armageddon, Daylight-an incomplete list which includes several of the biggest grossing films of the year and, indeed, in the history of cinema.
The critic who wants to decode everything risks seeming po-faced when confronted with 1990s Hollywood blockbusters. But the problem is these are not “just films.” Successful Hollywood films are the most powerful cultural forms today, with the exception, perhaps, of certain kinds of marketing and branding material.
The difficulty is that these films are, simultaneously, incredibly blunt in the kind of demands they make on the viewer and incredibly sophisticated in the complexity of their references-their symbolic functioning. They are also often acutely self-aware, pop culture savvy and fliply ironic.
There is no need to denigrate these films-although they certainly vary in quality, from the dire to the genuinely entertaining. The question is not one of value but effectiveness. What are these films doing? Perhaps it pays to be a killjoy for a while. I’m laughing, yes, but I wonder whether irony and quotation are not, in the end, just meaningless, and whether meaninglessness is quite as meaningless as it seems.
Films about destruction on this scale are political films. A disaster movie is always a film about some kind of community…