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The Globe and Mail

Ten movies: Charting the evolution of the disaster flick

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Recent summer blockbusters (Man of Steel, Star Trek Into Darkness, pictured here, and Iron Man 3) have featured scenes of such extensive urban devastation that critics have questioned whether these images of toppling buildings and panicked citizen exploit images of the 9/11 attacks. Though the films may go too far, the acceptance of such images has been gradual.

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The current cycle of spectacular disaster movies began in the late nineties with developments in Computer Generated Imagery. In a post-Cold War world, such films as Independence Day (in 1996)…

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…and Armageddon (1998) showed devastation coming from natural disasters or alien attacks.

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After the World Trade Center attacks, numerous commentators noted how much the televised footage of 9/11 was polished by television networks to look like a disaster movie, emphasizing spectacular destruction while largely avoiding the horrors of the human carnage.

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Among the initial group of “responsible” post-9/11 movies: Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005), starring Tom Cruise, showed the dusty faces of panicked crowds and survivors looking for the missing, emphasizing the importance of family in a time of calamity.

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Two trilogies of comic book movies, Spider-Man…

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…and Batman, focus on implacable terrorist ideologues and heroes who must defend their cities, while controlling their urges for revenge.

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The movie Cloverfield, in 2008, used fictional found footage, a cast of largely unknown actors and a generic monster-movie conceit for a dark victims-eye view of an urban disaster.

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Last year’s The Avengers, which opened almost exactly a year after the killing of Osama bin Laden, showed central Manhattan devastated by an alien attack. Some critics saw the movie as a 9/11 revenge fantasy. A special screening was held for New York’s “first responders” – firemen, policemen and military personnel – to signal the moment when the post-9/11 moratorium on Manhattan disaster movies was officially over.

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