• Written by Ari Mattes, Lecturer in Communications and Media, University of Notre Dame Australia
A scene from the 2017 film Geostorm: many societies have historically attempted to deal with collective trauma by replaying and restaging it in art. Warner Bros., Electric Entertainment, Rat Pac-Dune Entertainment

It seems like every time we switch on the idiot box we are confronted with news footage of another disaster. Bushfires in Australia. A hurricane in North America. A tsunami in Indonesia.

Part of this, of course, is merely a reflection of the sensationalist rationale of commercial news in the first place – in order to sell advertising space, this news needs to be sufficiently engaging to keep people from switching the channel.

But the unfortunate reality of global warming means that natural disasters are becoming more frequent and more severe. And Hollywood cinema has kept pace, offering some recent spectacular depictions of natural disaster in the context of global warming.

Climate change is central to the narrative of the 2004 film The Day After Tomorrow directed by Roland Emmerich. In it, a changing climate leads to a series of extreme storms in a precursor to a cataclysmic shift into a new Ice Age.

The 2015 film San Andreas, meanwhile, looks at the effects of a massive earthquake throughout California.

Geostorm (2017) posits a scientific response to global warming - through the international development of a planetary network of satellites that can control the weather - and what happens when it becomes weaponised.

The latest in this genre of big budget, Hollywood eco-disaster movies is Moonfall slated to begin production in 2020. Emmerich will be directing the $150 million project, which follows a team attempting to stop the moon from colliding with earth after it has been struck by an asteroid.

The script has been co-written by Emmerich and his regular collaborator Harald Kloser - with whom Emmerich wrote the disaster epic 2012, a 2009 film about the race to save the planet as the earth’s core heats up.

Emmerich has described Moonfall as a cross between 2012 and Independence Day (minus the extra-terrestrial element). It’s unclear whether global warming will feature directly in its plot, but given Emmerich’s record of making ecologically aware films, it seems likely.

How, then, do such films help and/or hinder us in managing our anxieties regarding the progressive deterioration of the planet? As natural disasters become more commonplace, is there a point at which we will become too distressed by the real to reproduce it as entertaining spectacle?

A woman wears a mask to protect herself from bushfire-related smoke haze in Sydney this month. Paul Braven/AAP

‘Bad stars’

The term disaster, with its etymology from ancient Greek for “bad star,” has always elicited cosmic allusions. Disaster suggests that the universe is awry; the planets are out of alignment, bad stars are causing chaos and disorder.

The secularisation of disaster in the modern era, through the notion of risk and insurance, attempts to sever this connection to the word’s planetary origins, envisioning it on the scale of the manageable “accident”, which can be insured against.

Yet, in the context of global warming, and following the large-scale atrocities of the 20th century such as the two world wars, the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Holocaust, it’s clear that disasters are far from manageable. One of the ways we have sought to manage our anxieties about disaster is through popular film.

A photo made available by the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum shows a view of the mushroom cloud photographed from the ground during the bombing of Nagasaki, Japan in 1945. Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum handout/EPA

The Hollywood disaster film genre has undergone, roughly, two major cycles. The first was in the 1970s. It included blockbuster melodramas like The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, and the Airport films (so brilliantly parodied in Flying High).

These cinematic disasters were often instigated by some kind of natural element – an earthquake, or a tidal wave. But they were also often structured around the malfunctioning of technologies in human-built environments (The China Syndrome being a prime example).

The heroes in these films were usually strong, hard-boiled men. Gene Hackman in The Poseidon Adventure, for example, leads, as though by sheer willpower alone, a group to safety following the capsizing of the eponymous ship. As viewers, we are awed by his grim determination in overcoming adversity amid often stark images of people dying.

The second cinematic cycle begins in the 1990s with ecologically sensitive films like Twister, which follows a group of meteorologists as they chase violent tornadoes across Oklahoma, and Dante’s Peak, about the disastrous effects of the eruption of a volcano on a small Washington town. Such films prefigure later, more explicit global warming eco-disaster films, like Emmerich’s masterful The Day After Tomorrow.

While the earlier disaster films were characterised by their ensemble casts and soap-opera like structures, these newer ones dedicate more energy towards showing the disasters (using elaborate CGI and high definition), and imagining social and governmental responses to them.

Affectively, they depend upon the pathos of groups working together to overcome adversity. As in a Christian vigil, the viewer of these films takes solace from participating in this community of suffering.

The Vigil, 1884. Oil on canvas, by John Pettie. Wikimedia Commons

The pleasure of disaster on film

On one level, popular film as “entertainment” offers us reprieve from the petty banalities, inconsistencies and disappointments of everyday life, by giving us a vision of a world ordered into timely narrative. Events are tied together in a fundamentally meaningful fashion.

We are able to defer the concerns of the ordinary for a couple of hours, and participate in a viscerally stimulating and pathos-laden experience. The unwieldy disasters we see in the real world are thereby represented in a contained fashion, allowing us the illusion of conceptual and emotional mastery. But at the same time, this process pacifies us, numbing us to, and distracting us from, reality.

Similarly, our response to disaster films is ambivalent. On one hand, we enjoy watching the ultimately effective responses of the state to the disaster. In The Day After Tomorrow, for example, following some initial bumbling, the US government saves millions of Americans by organising a deal for US migration to Mexico(!)

On the other hand, epic images of full-scale disaster are the visual and visceral centrepieces of these films, and awe and terrify us. Indeed, our most intense pleasure in these films emerges from their sublime images of destruction.

Read more: Explainer: the ideas of Kant

Watching San Francisco fall to pieces in San Andreas is awe inspiring. In The Day After Tomorrow, one of the most sublime sequences involves the ocean swelling and rolling through Manhattan, gathering people and vehicles in its stead after crashing into the Statue of Liberty.

Watching San Francisco fall to pieces in San Andreas is awe-inspiring. New Line Cinema, Village Roadshow Pictures, RatPac-Dune Entertainment

These pleasures in destruction and restoration occur within the context of a more saccharine kind of empathy we feel with the masses of faceless victims. By the films’ endings, we can take solace in the images and acts of community building and collective overcoming. Along with the victims, we mourn worlds destroyed, and are hopeful about worlds beginning to be rebuilt.

The economics of disaster

Hollywood disaster films often feature antagonists who are stubborn bureaucrats and greedy capitalists, but also US presidents who are calm, compassionate and measured, taking an appropriate amount of time to decide how to act and then acting decisively.

In The Day After Tomorrow, this is firstly President Blake (Perry King), who makes cool-headed decisions about the future of America and dies when his motorcade is caught in a storm and destroyed. Later, President Becker (Kenneth Welsh) is magically transformed from a pig-headed obstructionist after he assumes the presidency.

Perry King in The Day After Tomorrow (2004). Twentieth Century Fox, Centropolis Entertainment, Lions Gate Films

This, of course, contrasts with real-life presidential responses to disaster. In 2017, following Hurricane Maria’s devastating effects on Puerto Rico, Donald Trump criticised Puerto Ricans for the economic burden Maria gifted the US government, while simultaneously implying the event wasn’t very bad – not a “real catastrophe” compared to Katrina. This was all while delivering his emergency address on Puerto Rican soil!

At a time in which solidarity and compassion were expected, Trump was criticised by many for making the issue about the US’s economic burden; and yet, like many things Trump does, this inadvertently raised some critical issues surrounding the economics of disaster in the modern era.

US President Donald Trump speaks next to Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rossello and US First Lady Melania Trump at the Luis Muniz aerial base in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in October 2017. Thais Llorca / POOL/EPA

The imagination of disaster – its preempting, in a sense, its prediction – offers insurers (and the reinsurers who back them), following rapidly updated actuarial tables, a unique opportunity to capitalise on risk.

At the same time, disasters are a boon to some capitalist investors, who are able to buy into the development of new infrastructure for a profit.

Disaster in this way is a chief “innovator”, sucking up surplus capital, offering the most literal realisation of what conservative economist Joseph Schumpeter celebrated as one of the virtues of capitalism – its capacity for “creative destruction”.

Technology and disaster

French philosopher Paul Virilio has argued that the invention of every technology is simultaneously the invention of its accident. The invention of the car, for instance, invents the car crash. While the disaster film is acutely aware of these failures built into every technology, the genre’s relationship towards technology is more complex than outright critique.

Perhaps the most striking ambivalence of disaster films concerns the role – and virtues – of technology in facilitating and overcoming disaster. This is explicitly worked through in “man-made” disaster films like The China Syndrome, The Towering Inferno, and, more recently, Deepwater Horizon.

Read more: Friday essay: the Rise and Fall of oil in popular culture

Natural disaster films like The Day After Tomorrow and Geostorm envision global warming as the product of devastating technological practices, and offer technological solutions to this. In Geostorm, the network of satellites that control the weather malfunction, and rapidly become the cause of even greater disaster as the film progresses.

Geostorm (2017) envisions global warming as the product of devastating technological practices, and offers technological solutions to this. Warner Bros., Electric Entertainment, RatPac-Dune Entertainment

And yet, at a higher level, these films are entirely dependent on cutting edge visual and aural technologies to stage the awe inspiring disasters in the first place. They also require a great deal of investment - of capital, and human labour - and, therefore, create a great deal of waste.

Disaster cinema, in unconsciously teasing out the relationship between technophilia and technophobia, forces us to confront one of most pressing dilemmas of the age of the Anthropocene: should we reflect on and think through the causes of disaster, or use technology to act in the hope of preventing future disasters?

A discourse of technological “solutions” to climate change fits squarely into the logic critiqued by philosopher Timothy Morton in his book Dark Ecology.

Technology, in the first place, depends on the extraction of power from nature, and the conversion of the natural into waste-creating power. Suggesting that something can cohere with a technological “problem: solution” framework is thus perhaps part of the problem itself.

Indeed, the myth that there can be a “growth”-oriented solution to global warming is convincingly undone in one of the key academic works on global warming discourse, Anneleen Kevis and Matthias Lievens’ The Limits of the Green Economy.

By studying Hollywood’s mediations of disaster – its attempts at containment and emotional management – we can perhaps begin to learn something about the ongoing tensions and contradictions that define ecological existence in modernity.

The future of disaster

The sheer frequency of contemporary natural disasters raises the question - is there a point at which we will lose our appetite for watching them staged on film?

I suspect the answer is a resounding “no.” Following September 11, it was commonplace to hear people say the footage of the planes crashing into the World Trade Centre looked like it was from a movie. But what movie? The documentary photo-realism of the footage barely resembled Hollywood’s slick action and disaster spectacles.

More notably, Hollywood films began to adopt the September 11 style after the event itself, with the hand-held, found-footage style realism of films like Cloverfield becoming a cliche by the end of the first decade of the 21st century.

This, once again, exemplifies the comforting finitude popular film narratives offer viewers. The more frequent disasters become, the greater will be the need for emotional management by the corporations that produce popular news and entertainment.

The more desperate people become about global warming - and the emergence of grassroots activist groups like Extinction Rebellion suggests people are becoming increasingly desperate - the more popular media corporations will assuage our anxieties with carefully ordered, pacifying spectacles.

For the last week or so, people have been walking around Sydney with their heads down, eyes red from the smoke, wearing masks to filter the air.

Pedestrians are seen wearing masks as smoke haze from bushfires in New South Wales blankets the CBD in Sydney this week. Steven Saphore)/AAP

This is like something from a disaster film - and similar scenes of the effects and aftermath of catastrophe are continuing to appear around the globe.

Yet, there is no evidence this will curb Hollywood’s appetite for disaster. In fact, cultures and societies - like individuals - have historically attempted to deal with collective trauma by replaying and restaging it in art, from the Chauvet cave paintings to The Longest Day. This may make people feel both better and more helpless at the same time.

Ari Mattes does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Authors: Ari Mattes, Lecturer in Communications and Media, University of Notre Dame Australia

Read more http://theconversation.com/friday-essay-eco-disaster-films-in-the-21st-century-helpful-or-harmful-127097

All You Need to Know About Trenchless Technology

For many years, the traditional sewerage lines and pipe developments were not enough due to the long wait and cracking. The traditional sewer pipe repairs involved cracking the earth to find the par...

News Company - avatar News Company

Before we rush to rebuild after fires, we need to think about where and how

A primary school in East Gippsland was burnt down in the current bushfire crisis. While Premier Daniel Andrews immediately committed to rebuilding the school as it was, media reported the local CFA ca...

Mark Maund, PhD Candidate, School of Architecture and Built Environment, University of Newcastle - avatar Mark Maund, PhD Candidate, School of Architecture and Built Environment, University of Newcastle

Australian sea lions are declining. Using drones to check their health can help us understand why

Australian sea lions (Neophoca cinerea) are one of the rarest pinnipeds in the world and they are declining. Jarrod Hodgson, CC BY-NDAustralian sea lions are in trouble. Their population has never rec...

Jarrod Hodgson, PhD Candidate, University of Adelaide - avatar Jarrod Hodgson, PhD Candidate, University of Adelaide

With costs approaching $100 billion, the fires are Australia's costliest natural disaster

It’s hard to estimate the eventual economic cost of Australia’s 2019-20 megafires, partly because they are still underway, and partly because it is hard to know the cost to attribute to de...

Paul Read, Climate Criminologist & Senior Instructor/Lecturer, Faculty of Medicine, Monash University - avatar Paul Read, Climate Criminologist & Senior Instructor/Lecturer, Faculty of Medicine, Monash University

In cases of cardiac arrest, time is everything. Community responders can save lives

Cardiac arrest can occur with little or no warning in people who were previously healthy, including young people. From shutterstock.comEach year more than 24,000 Australians experience a sudden cardia...

Bill Lord, Adjunct Associate Professor, Monash University - avatar Bill Lord, Adjunct Associate Professor, Monash University

So the government gave sports grants to marginal seats. What happens now?

When Australians pay their income tax, they assume the money is going to areas of the community that need it, rather than being used by the government to shore up votes for the next election. This is...

Maria O'Sullivan, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, and Deputy Director, Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, Monash University - avatar Maria O'Sullivan, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, and Deputy Director, Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, Monash University

The Olympics have always been a platform for protest. Banning hand gestures and kneeling ignores their history

It is the year of the Tokyo Olympics, and the International Olympic Committee was quickly out of the blocks with new guidelines regarding athlete protests. The IOC is worried the biggest stories of...

David Rowe, Emeritus Professor of Cultural Research, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University - avatar David Rowe, Emeritus Professor of Cultural Research, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University

Where Can You Get Weed By Ordering It Online?

Nowadays, everyone wants to get their hands on some weed. Marijuana has become legalized in a lot of countries worldwide. People wait in lines for days to buy some. You couldn’t have imagined that...

News Company - avatar News Company

Hidden women of history: Catherine Hay Thomson, the Australian undercover journalist who went inside asylums and hospitals

Catherine Hay Thomson went undercover as an assistant nurse for her series on conditions at Melbourne Hospital. A. J. Campbell Collection/National Library of AustraliaIn this series, we look at under...

Kerrie Davies, Lecturer, School of the Arts & Media, UNSW - avatar Kerrie Davies, Lecturer, School of the Arts & Media, UNSW

Sick and Tired of Your Dead End Job? Try Teaching!

Tired of the same old grind at the office? Want an opportunity to impact lives both in your community and around the world? Do you love to travel and have new experiences? Teaching English is the perfect job for you! All you need is a willingness to ...

News Company - avatar News Company

The Impact of an Aging Population in Australia

There’s an issue on the horizon that Australia needs to prepare for. The portion of elderly citizens that make up the country’s overall population is increasing, and we might not have the infrastructure in place to support this. Australians h...

News Company - avatar News Company