Escapism vs. Disaster Porn

When the whole of the economy more or less collapsed in 2008, people responded in a number of ways at the Domestic box office. A lot of people seemed to feel that while their money was evaporating into nothing and their new and expensive technologies were passing them by since they hadn’t a dime to buy them with, they might as well watch said technology blow up by someone who could afford to do it.

With climate change and long-ago predicted apocalypses finally catching up with us, sentiments about the stability of our society is not at an all-time high. Discovery Channel seems to run a new special every week about predictions concerning the apocalypse and how it might happen sooner than we’d like (though really isn’t ANY time sooner than we’d like?), and in how many millions of varied and random ways it could happen.

The whole concept of the Apocalypse, when taken in light of our performer/audience-obsessed society, is a bad deal. Almost every prediction that ends in our destruction involves explosions and mass death. What makes it even worse is that we can’t even be around to see the full brunt of it. Ever want to see Paris explode indefinitely? Too bad; you’ll be melting in your hometown at the same time.

And so perhaps the ridiculous influx of equally ridiculous disaster movies of the last few years is understandable. We now have the cinematic power to show, in the breadth of a single ~2 hour movie, the entire world being destroyed. So much death, so much destruction! All for only the price of a movie ticket! And the best part? You can see all of it, think about it, tell yourself that would really suck if it were to actually happen, and then gleefully exit the theater and resume the life you lead, in which no mass deaths or mass destruction are (yet) occurring in your neighborhood.

In light of what some may consider the global (or at least domestic) depression of the last few years, the boom of what will henceforth be referred to as “Disaster Porn movies” can be taken as a resignation, in a way.

2012 was directed by Roland Emmerich, a director who paved the way for disaster porn movies with Independence Day (granted, the destruction in that case was brought on by aliens) and The Day After Tomorrow. As such, there were no questions about what 2012 would involve. It would obviously have tons and tons of destructive scenes on a global scale, and that’s why people went to see it. Did it hurt that the movie was also a disaster for critics, getting a mere 39% on Rotten Tomatoes? No; it still gained back some $7.7 million, making it the 15th highest-grossing movie of 2009.

Knowing, a similarly bad and shallow disaster movie, came out the same year. And they just keep coming. With the world in such a unanimously sorry state, it’s surprising that everyone wants to pay continually-inflated ticket prices to see someone like Nic Cage or John Cusack stumble around futilely trying to stop the destruction of all of planet Earth.

But that’s where the opposing side comes into the debate: Escapism.

People have always gone to the movies to escape their boring 9 to 5 jobs and whiny kids, so it’s not like escapism in cinema is any new development. What is new, however, is how widespread the escapism has become.

It goes beyond movies, too. Newspapers are failing all across the country because people are sick of the sad stories or because of things like the Internet making the acquisition of news a free and hassle-free task. More people are reading fantasy novels, and more of them fall under the somewhat less-than-reputable “paranormal romance” sub-heading, one of the most noteworthy being the Twilight series, which was initially intended for teens but somehow managed to draw an incomprehensively huge following of adults.

Escapism in film can’t be brought up without first and foremost mentioning Avatar. As if you weren’t yet aware, Avatar is currently the highest-grossing film of all time. A lot can be said for its success, since, unlike the most popular disaster porn movies, it actually fared well with critics.  Even in that arena, however, the near-constant similarities that people love to draw between it and Dances With Wolves or Fern Gully or any other number of movies utilizing the classical archetypes found in the film are all well-founded; in other words, the story is far from original. The technology certainly is, but therein lies a reason for its impressive box office success: at the cheapest, a 3D ticket adds $3 to a normal movie ticket. With everyone proclaiming that Avatar must be seen in 3D, there’s no wonder that it brought in as much money as it did.

Other escapism films continues to flood the market, but it’s doubtful that any will quite match the behemoth that is Avatar.

So, then, where does that put us?

Our economy is less-than-healthy, and our movies are either hopeful to the point of transporting us to other worlds or they deal with the complete and utter destruction of our own world, a la Michael Bay. But then on each side we have those movies that don’t fully buy into either mentality, leaving us with films such as The Road, based on the fabulous McCarthy novel. Keeping true to the novel to the point of killing all optimism of the entire audience, The Road was a fine film whose major flaw was that it was too realistic.

If the world’s going to end, today’s moviegoers want to SEE IT HAPPENING, not just see its depressing aftermath. That, or they want to just take a trip off this rock and see if the climate’s any nicer on some other planet.


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~ by Jon C. Forisha on September 7, 2010.

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