In 2017, the world was rocked by natural disasters. Hurricanes devastated Puerto Rico and much of the Caribbean, along with Texas and Florida. A powerful earthquake in Mexico left hundreds dead. And severe floods killed more than 1,000 people in South Asia this summer alone.
How are we to make sense of such disasters? Hollywood disaster movies have long attempted to grapple with the question. Over the past few decades, disaster movies have moved into the mainstream of cinema and have increasingly focused on catastrophes linked to human intervention—particularly climate change.
Back in 1994, Waterworld imagined a planet flooded by global warming, with a ragged bunch of survivors searching for any traces of land. A clichéd post-apocalyptic film in many ways, it nonetheless offered a vision of how something like soil—a key element of our environment, which we take utterly for granted—could become rare and precious. Because we use stories to make sense of our world, cultural works like movies provide an interpretative lens through which we can understand various issues. This means that movies like Waterworld, along with The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and Interstellar (2014), have helped shape the way we think about natural disasters, generating pervasive myths about them which can influence the ways we understand them.
This refers to the reiterated premise that many seemingly natural disasters are actually caused by human activity—for example, in Geostorm (2017), 10.0 Earthquake (2014), and Exploding Sun (2013), geological and solar events like tidal waves, earthquakes, and solar flares are recurrently portrayed as resulting from the activities of exploitative corporations or secret government laboratories.
Effects: These depictions are often incorrect or overly simplistic when it comes to cause and effect. But they do affirm the connections that scientists have made between some natural disasters and human-caused environmental degradation, especially between climate change and the greater likelihood of extreme weather events like hurricanes. Given the difficulties caused by climate-change denial to the efforts to mitigate its effects, even simplistic popular culture representations of the cause and effect of exploitative human behavior may be potentially useful.
This refers to the assumption that natural disasters are sudden, massive, globally cataclysmic events – as, for example, in the movies Deep Impact and Armageddon from 1998, and the rapid global climate change scenario depicted in The Day After Tomorrow. In these movies, all human life on earth stands to be totally and irrevocably disrupted by either massive comet strikes or a large-scale global freeze.
Effects: This kind of portrayal potentially causes apathy, promulgating the sense that these events are too big for individuals to do anything about. In the face of such large-scale disaster, they seem to suggest that it is pointless to bother with mitigation behavior for real-world environmental problems, or even with being realistically prepared for smaller-scale real-world natural disasters—for example, having a short-term supply of drinking water, torches, batteries, preserved food, etc.
This entails the belief that human ingenuity, often in the form of a small team of anti-establishment scientists, will ultimately find a solution to avert the worst of the catastrophe. This is evident in the preposterous scenarios in The Core (2003) and Interstellar (2014). In the first, teams of scientists drill to the center of the Earth to restart the rotation of the Earth’s core. In the second, scientists travel through a wormhole in space to find a new home for humanity after Earth becomes uninhabitable.
Effects: On the upside, it’s helpful to acknowledge that technological solutions to real-world problems are possible and should be pursued. But these depictions may also lead the public to the conclusion that scientists will inevitably come to the rescue—so why bother with personally inconvenient mitigation behavior.
Whether it’s for the sake of drama or arises from a fundamentally pessimistic view of human nature, many movies suggest that human responses in the post-disaster period are highly individualistic and aggressive. Consider the violence and cannibalism portrayed in the Mad Max movies (1979-2015) and The Road (2009), which suggest that it’s every man (and woman) for themselves.
Effects: This tends to undermine belief in the ability of communal action to tackle real-world problems, and may even prompt extreme survivalist “prepping” type responses, as depicted in this year’s New Yorker article about extravagant doomsday preparations in Silicon Valley. In reality, sociological research shows that most of the time, communities come together after disaster, despite what is portrayed in sensationalist media reports.
Cumulatively the endlessly recycled and increasingly sensational disaster plots may contribute to the sense that massive, global cataclysmic events are increasingly likely. For instance, the movies Supervolcano (2005) and Super Eruption (2011) focus on the most extreme kinds of volcanic eruption to try to refresh the jaded premise.
Effects: Cognitive psychology shows that the more readily a scenario comes to mind, the more likely people are to believe that it will actually happen (this is known as the availability heuristic). As popular culture is absolutely saturated with images of natural and environmental disaster and social collapse, it is possible that this influences people towards holding negative beliefs about their own futures.
However, from audience response surveys, it has been demonstrated that audiences do manage to derive sophisticated messages from often simplistic popular culture representations. For instance, audiences were easily able to see past the exaggerated rapid climate change scenario presented in The Day After Tomorrow to the real environmental issues behind it and the need to reconsider their own behavior.
Overall, this implies that popular culture plays an ambivalent role in our thinking about natural and environmental disaster. Movies may generate negativity, individualism and apathy. But in capitalizing on and inflating social anxieties about environmental issues, movies may also help real-world problems like climate change gain cultural prominence.