New book explores the art of the disaster movie

22 March 2021

As the coronavirus outbreak swept across the world this time last year, the Steven Soderbergh-directed ‘Contagion’ – a 2011 film about a pandemic – became one of the most downloaded movies on iTunes, with people turning to fiction for some hint of what they might expect in real life. According to Media and Communications lecturer at the University of Notre Dame, Dr Ari Mattes, this is not an unusual phenomenon and his new book looks at what we can learn from films like this.

“During the Cold War when there was the threat of nuclear apocalypse, lots of nuclear apocalypse narratives sprung up in novels and some films,” says Dr Mattes, who has been investigating the idea of ‘the accident’ and disaster movies since 2017 and is currently finalising his book The Cinema of Accidents: Hollywood Film in the Disaster Ecology.

“What we see in films often channels, exaggerates and reflects our anxieties in the present – that’s what I love about science fiction and futuristic films; they can offer the most pointed discussions of the present in a way that realism cannot because they are able to speculate and create these different versions of the current world,” he says.

Due to be published later this year, Dr Mattes’s book is the culmination of years of research and examines the age of disaster in which we live, as well as the representation of accidents in Hollywood films from a social justice (environmental) perspective.

The book spends some time comparing the disaster films of the 1970s with those of the 21st century, noting that we can learn a lot about the concerns of the present day by examining how themes have changed. Where we were once preoccupied by nuclear war, today dystopian and post-apocalyptic content has developed unprecedented popularity.

“Think about in Australia alone, the bushfires and floods we have experienced, and then there are worldwide issues such as the global pandemic, climate change and global warming,” explains Dr Mattes. “This book asks the question: what can we learn about the way people are responding to issues like climate change and this era of disaster by studying popular film, and the way both disasters and accidents are represented in film?”

Dr Mattes explores this concept across four key areas: technology – and its role in both precipitating disaster and trying to mitigate the effects of disaster – politics together with economics, and ecology. “I also look at the effects of human behaviour on the environment; using the word ‘environment’ in a very broad way to talk not only about nature, but everything that’s around us including the built environment,” he adds.

Discussing how the philosophical paradigm of ‘the accident’, which has a history going back to philosophers such as Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, has become such an evolving and enduring theme in entertainment, Dr Mattes’s response is paradoxical.

“These movies give people the impression that disasters are manageable on one hand, but then on the other they give us a sense of cosmic significance that makes us feel powerless. I think that’s an interesting tension around the reason why we like disaster films,” he says.

“If something is out of our control on a cosmic level, it makes us believe in a power that’s greater than ourselves – and there’s a certain pleasure in feeling powerless in an age of disaster. It sounds counterintuitive but a good example can be taken from the film San Andreas starring Dwayne Johnson. As absurd as that film seems, the people who made it had a genuine and sincere belief that making the film would better prepare people in California to deal with natural disaster. However, what actually happened was that people saw the film and thought, ‘we don’t have to prepare at all because a hero or the government will come and save us if there’s a disaster’.  It led to a less prepared state of mind among the audience, and the very engagement the producers hoped the film would bring about to do with climate change and natural disasters didn’t occur; it had the opposite effect.”

Dr Mattes says working on this book throughout the pandemic has only served to sharpen it and bring a new perspective to the discussion. “While much of the content has remained the same in terms of the kinds of films I am looking at, it has changed the overall approach and focus, and impacted the writing of the introduction, where I can now actually to speak to living in what I call a ‘disaster ecology’ myself.”

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