Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

In Defense of Disaster Movies

Josh Larsen


In Defense of Disaster Movies

July 29, 2013

By Josh Larsen


Every summer brings complaints that Hollywood leans too heavily on 9/11 imagery in its action blockbusters, and such criticism has been louder than usual this year.


Citing the wanton destruction of cities that features prominently in Star Trek Into Darkness, Man of Steel and World War Z, Kyle Buchanan of Vulture wrote, “It’s lazy, it’s cheap, it’s deadening and it needs to stop.” And he hadn’t even seen the giant monsters vs. robots extravaganza Pacific Rim yet.


Critics like Buchanan – and there have been others - have a point. There is a difference between evoking an event such as 9/11 and exploiting it, and far too many summer movies do the latter. In the filmmakers’ attempt to wow audiences by calling upon the imagery, they often fail to pause and recognize the loss of life that would accompany such onscreen incidents.


Yet there’s something culturally myopic about this challenge to recent disaster movies. We Americans tend to act as if 9/11 was the first atrocity to become fodder for the big screen. In truth, the practice is almost as old - and certainly as global - as the art form. This summer’s Pacific Rim, with its giant rampaging sea creatures, brought to mind one famous example: 1954’s Gojira, known in the United States as Godzilla. A Japanese production about a gargantuan lizard awakened by nuclear radiation, the movie functions as a mournful allegory for the atomic assault on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. And so, before we consider 9/11 too precious (to use an awkward term) for Hollywood blockbusters to “play with,” we have to be willing to say the same of other historical events, including those that took place in other nations.


I, for one, wouldn’t want to see such a limitation placed on film art. Doing so would deny disaster movies a valuable function: their role as historical monuments. In their own pop culture way, these pictures can be iconic markers of significant, real-world events. Surely I wasn’t the only kid to first learn about what happened at Hiroshima by watching Godzilla. Even in the re-edited American version, with the unfortunate distraction of Raymond Burr, the movie’s vision of a cityscape laid to waste held an unsettling power. Upon encountering the original Japanese edition in later years, I was struck most by the sense of sadness that director Ishiro Honda allowed to seep into so many of the scenes.


And it isn’t only Hiroshima and Nagasaki that Gojira evokes. In A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series, David Kalat notes that the movie’s original Japanese audiences would also have had in mind the atomic tests being conducted by the United Sates on the nearby Marshall Islands in 1954. “Ironically, this piece of recent history is best known among Godzilla fans,” Kalat writes. “In a way, Godzilla-fandom has helped with the process of ‘oral history,’ keeping memories alive that have otherwise fallen through the cracks of American education.” Gojira, then, functions in two ways: as a sci-fi spectacle with a guy in a rubber lizard suit and as an artwork encompassing themes of memory, honor, and justice.


Of course, not all disaster movies qualify as genuine monuments, especially in a genre rife with cheap copycats and silly sequels. Is there an easy way to discern the ennobling work from the exploitative junk? I suspect it often takes time to tell. Certainly there were some, upon Gojira’s release in Japan, who decried its depiction of the sort of urban destruction that the country had experienced only a few years earlier. Yet today, cineastes around the world recognize Gojira as one of the great sci-fi allegories. The true ones tend to linger.


Will Man of Steel and Pacific Rim be remembered this way? Not likely, which is why so many critics are rightly crying foul. Yet other recent films have shown themselves to be capable of such sensitivity. Cloverfield, another giant creature feature from the post-9/11 era, employed a handheld-camera aesthetic that emphasized exactly what so many of this summer’s films have been missing: a sense of personal loss. Last year’s The Impossible , a Spanish filmmaker’s recreation of a Thai tsunami through the eyes of a British family, was such an intimately scaled human drama that some accused it of ignoring the Thai nationals in the process. What can’t be denied, though, is that the movie put the preciousness of human life front and center.


So let’s not give up on disaster films just yet, or declare 9/11 imagery out of artistic bounds. Like any other subject taken up by such a sensationalistic medium, that September day will surely be exploited by unscrupulous filmmakers. Yet the shoddy flicks that do so will eventually be forgotten, lost in the shadows of those rare and just pictures that deserve to be called movie monuments.


 -  Josh Larsen is editor of Think Christian. He also writes about movies at LarsenOnFilm and is the co-host of Filmspotting. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”