Cautionary Tales: Disaster movies and social change

Disaster movies are an easy cash cow at the box office. Character development is secondary, and everyone’s going to see the Statue of Liberty or The White House blow up. Again.

With some exceptions and exaggerations, disaster movies hit home because of an element of realism. Tornadoes, earthquakes, even volcanoes. We can imagine any possibility thanks to CGI and wind machines and questionable acting.

Although I can’t call it a recent film anymore (though it still feels like anything since 2000 should be recent right?) the 2004 film The Day After Tomorrow has been on my mind a lot lately.

There is some typical Hollywood science at work in this film. Just look at this critical article from 2012 that had several issues with the movie.

But the bottom line was a concern about global warming causing catastrophic weather patterns. Hollywood overexaggeration? Sure. But political/ecological commentary? Definitely.

Note the tagline in the poster:

where will you be

“Where will you be?” Where indeed? The tagline and global warming-concious premise hook the viewer in on a personal level. The movie got a ton of press before and after it premiered. An Inconvenient Truth wouldn’t even come out for another two years. This was our shock-to-the-system wake-up-call about climate change.

Something became clear — althought fictional, The Day After Tomorrow had an impact in the real world.

Commercial movies, in particular can provide a platform for engaging in systematic dialogue regarding issues relating to social, scientific and environmental risks. The kind of information and messages transmitted through movies and television can be critical since “film and television have the greatest potential for activating environmental change (Gellhorn 1991, 12).


Numerous articles online pointed out scientific and political facets of the film, while others were encouraged a step further. It inspired petitions and political discussions, but it didn’t quite make it all the way to improving how we treat our world, which drew even more criticism.

They didn’t quite change the world like they hoped, but it got people talking, and that was a start.

Man-made disasters make for good movie material, and feel especially topical when humans have so much effect on the world around them. We will continue to make disaster movies for the foreseeable future, just switching around stories about floods and shipwrecks to zombies and germ warfare.

Should it be any surprise that there’s another disaster movie on the horizon? Although this one has suddenly gotten too real.

Geostorm‘s topical nature has actually seen its posters pulled. Warner Bros thought it best to pull the current poster which bears the tagline “Brave the Storm” as Hurricane Irma leaves a path of destruction.

Geostorm pulled poster

Fiction has long been concerned with our own human hubris. It examines our wants and desires and the mistakes we make, and shows us the worst possible scenarios. You see this in any wish-fulfillment storyline or even science fiction fantasies set in supposedly utopian futures.

There’s a reason why films examine the themes that they do. Sometimes it’s how technology could usurp our humanity (I Robot (2004), Terminator (1984). Movies like Titanic remind us that just because we think we can build the world’s biggest ship and outrun an iceberg, that’s not a great idea. (Sorry, too soon? It’s been over a century).

So why not the same with disaster movies? Maybe they are cautionary tales, warning us to curb our consumerist and selfish ways that put us in danger. I don’t expect drastic life changes. I doubt anyone moved out of California and away from the fault lines after San Andreas (2015) nor do I expect people to. The odds of something drastic like that happening in our lifetimes is still small.

See, that’s part of the allure of disaster movies. Topical, but usually at a safe distance. We don’t expect a volcano to pop up in our backyards, but if one does we feel we’re more prepared having seen the consequences play out on giant projection screens.

In my light research for this post, I saw I wasn’t the only one drawing parallels between  The Day After Tomorrow and the weather patterns we’re seeing right now. Films have cultural impact, and as things get crazier outside, we must wonder if the movies had been warning us all along and we just didn’t listen.


The Day After Tomorrow: A Scientific Critique (2012 article)

 Could ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ Happen? (2015 article)

‘Geostorm’ theater posters suggest moviegoers ‘Brave the Storm’ so yeah, they were pulled

Understanding the Impact of Disaster Movies on the Social Construction of Risk Perception

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