Reeling from Disaster

No sooner had news arrived Friday of Japan’s unprecedented 9.0 magnitude earthquake than we heard this: “There are unprecedented meteor showers off the coast of Tokyo.”

A country, pulverized by temblors and tsunami, being slammed again?

Frames of Reference: "It was just like a movie!"

No, one was real life, the other reel life, as played out in the new sci-fi epic “Battle: Los Angeles.”

What do you bet the folks at Columbia Pictures were scrambling to figure out how to respond to the synchronicity. Do they play it up, play it down … or just ignore it, for fear of appearing crass and unfeeling? (Over the weekend, Warner Bros. jerked “Hereafter” from Tokyo theaters because the film includes a harrowing reenactment of the 2004 tsunami that ravaged Thailand.)

There are plenty of similar scenarios to guide them. Apollo 13 was trapped in orbit in April 1970, while “Marooned” was still in theaters. Universal’s “Airport ’77” opened in March 1977, the same week as two jumbo 747s collided on a runway, killing 583 in what was called “the worst air disaster in aviation history.” The partial meltdown at Three Mile Island occurred less than two weeks into the run of “The China Syndrome,” lending a stark credibility to the speculative thriller.

Rather than exploit the real-life drama that was unfolding in space, Columbia Pictures discreetly scaled back its ads for “Marooned.” Universal pulled the ads altogether for “Airport ’77” and newspapers delayed their reviews. In contrast, “China Syndrome” director James Bridges, realizing events had overtaken his cautionary drama, made himself available to the media. (I interviewed at the time.) The film went on to become a huge hit.

Following the attacks of 9/11, the terrorist thriller “Collateral Damage,” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, was pulled from Warner Bros.’ fall lineup (it opened in Feb. 2002) and shots of the World Trade Center were edited out or digitally removed from “Zoolander,” “Serendipity” and “Spider-Man.” I remember citing each case in print.

As callous as it sounds, disasters fuel box office because our method of processing real life is through cinematic similes, which never fail to trivialize indescribable events. How many times have you heard an eyewitness to a shooting or an explosion struggle to communicate his amazement, then, relieved, offer, “It was just like a movie.”

More than one person has responded to the eerie helicopter footage of spreading flood waters in Japan by saying, “It looks like something out of ‘2012′ … or ‘The Day after Tomorrow.’ ”

Viewing the vortex that had opened up off Sendai, Anderson Cooper gasped, “It looks like something from science fiction.”

While they won’t or can’t articulate it, people are rushing to “Battle: L.A.” for the same reason audiences mobbed “King Kong” during the Depression: for reassurance, to feel better about themselves and their lives. It’s their way of saying, “As terrible as things are, I’m safe.”


One Response to “Reeling from Disaster”

  1. Ronald Pottol Says:

    After 9/11, you forgot about Big Trouble which was to come out less than a month later (there were already adds out for it), a major theme was that airport security was too dumb to stop a guy carrying a nuke onto a flight.

    Fun movie.


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