WHAT NATURAL DISASTER MOVIES TEACH US
Hollywood has always made itself feel better by producing films with an environmental message. But generally, behind the wafer-thin veil of humanitarian morality play is a big-budget special effects and explosions. Or sometimes it’s just Kevin Costner. Still, many of Hollywood’s “cautionary” Natural Disaster Movies have given us some great dialogue and exchanges that will stand the test of time, and keep teaching our children’s children’s children important lessons until the ozone layer depletes and they are incinerated like ants under a massive magnifying glass. *cockroaches rejoice in a long-awaited victory*
Here are some of those great pieces of Natural Disaster film dialogue, and what we can learn from them:
THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW
The dialogue that follows is from a scene in which Sam Hall (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Laura Chapman (Emmy Rossum) are trapped in the New York City Public Library in hopes of staving off imminent death from the Ice Age-like temperatures that have crippled the outside world. In hopes of staying warm, the people are burning the library’s books. Two supporting characters, Jeremy & Elsa, debate about burning a Gutenberg Bible:
Elsa: You're holding on to that bible pretty tight.
Jeremy: I'm protecting it.
[pause as Elsa glances at J.D. throwing books on the fire]
Jeremy: This Bible... is the first book ever printed. It represents... the dawn of the Age of Reason. As far as I'm concerned, the written word is mankind's greatest achievement.
[Elsa gives a light snort]
Jeremy: You can laugh... but if Western Civilization is finished... I'm gonna' save at least one little piece of it.
What the filmmakers wanted us to ask ourselves: What value, man’s physical achievements, in the face of man’s demise? That’s John Holmes deep.
What we really learned: Jeremy is a flipping idiot. The Gutenberg Bible is thicker than the last Harry Potter book, and would have lasted longer than one of those Duraflame logs. Sorry, Jeremy, but they have the Bible on Amazon Kindles now, and I hardly think this is the time to be a pack rat. I value my Spider-Man comics, but I had Amazing Spider-Man #252 (first appearance of Venom’s symbiote suit!!!) dipped in kerosene at the first sign of snow growing up in cold-ass St. Louis.
The following dialogue is from a scene in which Mike Roark (Tommy Lee Jones), the director of L.A.’s emergency management launches a crazy-but-it-just-might-work scheme to rescue as many Angelenos as possible. In the real world, no one in L.A. would even notice a supervolcano erupting in the middle of town, because they’re either too busy having lunch with their agents, or cleaning the homes/keeping up the gardens of the people lunching with their agents.
Roark: We're going to put as many people in front of it as it takes. Listen up, people! Let me tell you what's south of us: no more museums, no more department stores, just homes! People! If we turn and run now, they're going to be defenseless! You don't like my plan? That's good. Give me another plan, but don't tell me we're backing out!
What the Filmmakers wanted to say: In the face of adversity, people – even culturally disparate Los Angelenos – can come together.
What we really learned: Tommy Lee Jones doesn’t mind rehashing scenes from previous Tommy Lee Jones movies (see: The Fugitive speech) while also aping Mel Gibson movies (see: 40% of Braveheart, 100% of which is comprised of motivational speeches to the downtrodden). We also learned that L.A.’s San Vicente Blvd. is a real bitch for diverting molten lava.
At the end of this 1974 disaster classic co-written by The Godfather’s Mario Puzo, Dr. James Vance (Lloyd Nolan) and Sgt. Lew Slade (The Naked Gun’s George Kennedy) survey the wreckage left in the wake of an immeasurable earthquake that rocks Los Angeles. Such is the price of paradise.
Dr. James Vance: This used to be a helluva town, officer.
Sgt. Lew Slade: [on the edge of tears] Yeah...
What the filmmakers wanted to say: If an earthquake of immeasurable magnitude struck L.A. and destroyed its buildings, a piece of Americana – nay, of human history – would be lost forever. (Sort of like The Day After Tomorrow, but on a larger scale.)
What we learned: If an earthquake destroys a bunch of Los Angeles’s more desirable areas, it devalues the property quite a bit and allows “undesirable” people to move in. Sgt. Slade and Dr. Vance are racists.
In this scene, Maj. Gen. McClintock (Donald Sutherland) orders Col. Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman) to ground his aircraft at a nearby Air Force base, because he thinks that that’s going to somehow help stop the spread of deadly Ebola virus. Of course, Daniels knows way better, because he’s Dustin Hoffman, and his name is bigger than Sutherland’s on the poster. By the way, this movie counts as a Natural Disaster movie because viruses are natural. All you Bible thumpers who think AIDs is god’s way of ridding the planet of gays are hilarious, though. Keep the zingers coming!
General McClintock: With all due respect, Colonel Daniels, if you do not follow us to Travis Air Force Base, I will blow you out of the sky.
Daniels: General, with all due respect, fuck you, sir.
What the filmmakers wanted us to take away from this: In the event of a natural disaster like the Ebola virus spreading wildly, rank and file are thrown out the window (or recycled – this is Earth Day after all).
What we learned: Well, for starters, we learned that an avuncular middle-aged Dustin Hoffman is capable of dropping the F-Bomb. That was f’in awesome. And for seconds, we learned that if you begin an insult with “with all due respect,” then all wounds are healed. Especially if you save the planet from an Ebola epidemic.
This one counts as a Natural Disaster genre pic because it’s a fantastical representation of a future earth in which the polar ice caps have melted and “Dry Land” is but a myth in the eyes of the characters. Except Kevin Costner’s, because his name is bigger than anyone else’s on the poster. In this scene, Deacon (played with Busey-esque aplomb by Dennis Hopper) is, um, yelling at his henchmen to fight the heroes without mercy.
Deacon: Don't just stand there, kill something!
What the filmmakers wanted to teach us: Deacon is completely ruthless – like a one-dimensional Captain Planet baddie. It’s no coincidence that Deacon is the character in the film who leaves the largest carbon footprint, too. I mean, he drives around in an oil tanker and has his lackeys ride SeaDoos with guns mounted to them. Even without the additional weight from artillery, doesn’t he know that SeaDoos get shitty gas mileage? In other words, if yo drive a Hummer, you’re a murderer.
What we learned from this movie (for those of us who saw it): a) Dennis Hopper must have foreseen this crappy economy we’re in and hoped to make some dough on all those sweet Waterworld action figures made in his likeness; b) a stunt-spectacular at Universal studios can actually be more compelling than the film on which it was based.
In this scene, which might take the cake for the most awesome exchange in any Natural Disaster film ever ever ever ever for all time, the “good” storm chaser team – yes, just to differentiate between the “evil” rival one in the film – geeks out about the classification of tornados. It’s a master class in exposition, foreshadowing, and grating character work:
Joey (Joey Slotnick) : [Discussing at Meg's on the tornadoes they have seen so far] No, that was a good size twister. What was it, an F3?
Bill (Bill Paxton) : Solid F2.
Melissa (Jamie Gertz): See, now you have lost me again.
Bill: It's the Fujita scale. It measures a tornado's intensity by how much it eats.
Laurence (Jeremy Davies): That one we encountered back there was a strong F2, possibly an F3.
Beltzer (Todd Field): Maybe we'll see some 4's.
Haynes (Wendle Josepher): That would be sweet!
Bill: 4 is good. 4 will relocate your house very efficently.
Melissa: Is there an F5?
[Everyone goes dead silent]
Melissa: What would that be like?
Jason 'Preacher' Rowe (Scott Thompson): The Finger of God.
What the filmmakers wanted to teach us: That scientists love to debate tornado sizes like drunken frat guys – or sober frat guys, or guys in general – love to rate the beauty of women. “She’s definitely a butterface, bro. At most an F3.” Also, they want to teach us that storm chasing is cool, when in reality, it’s just dangerous. And that’s why the “evil” storm chasers in the film were way more realistic, because only nihilists who hate their own mothers would want to chase after tornados. By the way, if you ever meet a girl nicknamed "The Finger of God," please send pictures to feedback_at_screenjunkies.com.
What we learned from the film: How not to write expository dialogue.
And that concludes Screenjunkies’ Earth Day special. While we ragged on a few of these films, there’s no denying their place in cinema history. Hell, I’d pick any one of these over Bette Midler playing Mother Earth in “The Earth Day Special” on TV (available on VHS at Amazon!!!):
Note to producers of "The Earth Day Special": If you're going to use the tagline, "The biggest stars of the '90s in the most important story of our time," you had better be selling the "Saved By The Bell" episode where Jessie gets hooked on caffeine pills.