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Categorization of Disaster Movies

Posted 2008.07.29 0.00 in Music/Movies/TV by Stephanie

Although the Disaster Movie genre is not my very favorite, it’s certainly one of them. It seems to me that in the 70s or 80s there were a few rather enjoyable films which fit this genre, and by and large, they seemed to fall into one of two main categories.

Type One Disaster Movies are the kind in which the calamity takes place during the first 25% of the film – usually within the first 15 to 30 minutes. The storyline then follows a group of survivors — typically their numbers dwindle as the movie progresses — and we gradually know more and more about the fewer and fewer characters, till the end of the movie when a handful reach safety. The Posiedon Adventure and Towering Inferno are, to me, the most typical of this class of disaster movie. To me, this category is designed primarily for suspense and ‘thrills’ as you follow the group through each step of progress or setback.

Type Two Disaster Movies are more rare, I think. These are the movies in which the majority of the film is spent introducing us to a group of select characters and a looming or growing crisis which threatens them. The actual disaster is saved for the latter 1/3 or 1/4 of the film, in which some of the characters we are to have become interested in are killed, and some of them survive. Part of the fun of this type is in trying to guess which of the characters will survive and which won’t. Score more points for guessing early, before you even know which ones you are supposed to be interested in. Interestingly, the best example of this category that I can think of offhand is Two Minute Warning, which most may not recognize as a disaster movie at all – the disaster is played by a man, rather than Nature or Technology. Nonetheless it is typical of the category, and the disaster does not occur until almost the end of the film. A more recent example that I would classify as a Type Two disaster film is Deep Impact. Also, virtually every episode of the documantary TV series Disasters of the Century fit in this category, as the show’s basic formula is to introduce a handful of real people, set up the disaster, then depict the disaster in the second half of the show, and finally reveal (through narration or interviews) who survived and who did not.

As with all ‘rules’ there will be exceptions. More recently, I have seen a trend towards a new Type Three Disaster Movie, in which the disaster is more of an on-going event. These start out like a Type One movie, in which we get to meet some characters then something terrible happens. The difference is, the Something Terrible continues to happen, or even gets worse, and we may or may not get new characters along the way. Initially the Type Three movies may feel more like Type One, and it may be argued that there shouldn’t be a third type at all. Or that Type One movies follow the Type Three formula – in Poseidon Adventure, the ship kept sinking, in Towering Inferno, the building kept burning. True. In both cases, however, the continuation of the primary disaster was just that – a continuation, not a prolonged main event. A good example of Type Three was the relatively recent Dante’s Peak, where the disaster was set up in the first 1/3 of the film, then continued as an ongoing event through most of the final 2/3s.Day After Tomorrow is another example of the type three, I think.

At one point I was thinking of expanding my categorization system to include some hybrid types, such as a One-Two (disaster occurs at the beginning, group struggles to survive, then gets wiped out at the end) or Two-One (1st half of the movie sets up lots of characters and threat, disaster in the middle, then 2nd half of movie follows the plight of some survivors – Earthquake comes to mind here) but at this stage I think these types do not need their own category; they may be viewed merely as unusual or malformed type ones or type twos – or even type threes, depending on how it plays out.

And one last comment – if you enjoy disaster movies, and you haven’t seen Two Minute Warning, do go and see it. It’s atypical of the disaster genre, but there is a large cast of familiar actors, and a lot of them get wiped out in the end. Classic Type Two disaster.