Disaster films were the comicbook movies of the 1970s — and saw a resurgence in the ’90s with megahits like “Titanic” and “Twister” — but the genre has become nearly extinct.
Filmmakers have recently tried to revive these films, but with the exception of Roland Emmerich’s visions of an Earth beset by floods, storms and ice ages in “2012” and “The Day After Tomorrow,” other attempts to make disaster a staple of the moviegoing diet, such as last summer’s “Into the Storm” or 2006’s “Poseidon,” have been shunned by audiences.
“San Andreas” is hoping to shake up that trend when it debuts May 29 with an epic story of California rocked by the worst earthquake in history. But the team behind the $110 million adventure film acknowledges it’s taking a big gamble.
“We’re not a franchise film,” said star Dwayne Johnson. “We’re not connected to any superhero mythology. We’re about as original as it gets. We’re certainly the underdog in a packed summer.”
The elements that make “San Andreas” gripping — namely the prospect that thousands of lives will be lost if and when the titular fault goes off — is what makes the film such a risky proposition. Summer movie season abounds with images of major metropolises laid to waste, but the perpetrators in these pictures are often aliens or otherworldly beings, not natural disasters.
With a film of this ilk, Warner Bros. and its New Line Cinema unit are hoping that art won’t imitate life, which can make a disaster film seem crass. Just weeks before “San Andreas” hits theaters, earthquakes in Nepal killed 8,500 people. In response, Warner’s marketing division revised its promotional materials to include information about ways in which people can participate in relief efforts.
“You have to make the movie knowing that things like this happen in the world, and you have to go into it with a sensitivity,” said New Line president Toby Emmerich. “It has to be in good taste.”
If “San Andreas” works, it would establish a lucrative new direction for tentpole productions based on original story ideas. Superhero movies remain the dominant form of blockbuster entertainment, but the onslaught of films about costumed heroes could eventually cause audience fatigue. This summer alone will see three different comicbook adaptations, and with DC Comics and Disney committed to delivering at least two films a year, the number of such adventures will increase substantially.
Producer Beau Flynn said he was inspired to make “San Andreas” because of his love for films like “Earthquake,” “The Poseidon Adventure” and “The Towering Inferno.”
“It’s a great genre, because it’s one of those things that feels very real,” said Flynn. “It could happen to any of us at any moment.”
Flynn won’t forget his own earthquake experiences. He vividly remembers being roused from bed during 1994’s Northridge earthquake, as his television crashed to the ground, his dishes shattered and the screams of frightened neighbors echoed around him.
“It was terrifying, because you really felt like you were going to be swallowed by the earth and you felt completely helpless,” Flynn said.
Ostensibly, disaster films offer some of the elements that have made superhero films so successful — namely, visual effects-charged images that need to be seen on the widest screens possible.
“It is something intense, and with mass destruction on that scale, you want to experience it in a theater,” said Phil Contrino of BoxOffice.com.
Others are not as convinced. Disaster films had a brief resurgence in the 1990s, when “Armageddon,” “Deep Impact” and “Twister” topped box office charts, but by their very nature, these types of movies don’t typically spawn sequels. There are only so many times a group of people can face cataclysm. Moreover, their more realistic nature doesn’t attract many merchandising and promo opportunities.
“What scares people who greenlight these films is they cost over $100 million, and you’re probably not going to get a trilogy,” said Jeff Bock, a B.O. analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “You’re not going to see ‘San Andreas’ on Kellogg’s boxes.”
What appealed to Johnson and director Brad Peyton were not images of skyscrapers buckling or the Golden Gate Bridge getting swept away. It was the quiet scenes depicting Johnson’s character, a rescue worker mourning the death of a loved one, trying to reconnect with his daughter and estranged wife.
“We wanted to redefine the disaster genre, and part of that was by introducing elements that weren’t in the other movies, like family and heart,” said Johnson.
Peyton said he expended more energy helping Johnson and co-star Carla Gugino through scenes where they dig through the wreck of their marriage than he did orchestrating the destruction of much of the Bay Area. It was a tactical decision.
“To me, the disaster movie was just dressing,” he said. “It was important that you related to the people in the movie, because that’s what made it human and real, and keeps it scary.”
The bet is that it remains both fun and frightening, not just frightening.