The New Disaster Movie

How the events of September 11 renewed Hollywood's appetite for destruction

The movies love mayhem, and inevitably, the televised events of 9-11 were experienced by millions as a sort of real-life disaster film. Is a movie about 9-11 then a disaster movie about a disaster movie?

Oliver Stone's upcoming World Trade Center is in some sense a remake of the 1974 Towering Inferno; United 93 could be construed as a revisionist sequel to the '70s Airport series. One may be mega and the other meta, but both take their disasters extremely seriously. World Trade Center will likely be promoted as the most significant event in American history since JFK; United 93 is already the first movie since The Passion of the Christ to position itself as something other than entertainment.

Long ago, Susan Sontag wrote that only in the movies could one "participate in the fantasy of living through one's own death and more, the death of cities, the destruction of humanity itself." Yes, and what's more, enjoy it! The old-school disaster movies that glutted theaters during the run-up to the millennium eschewed all but the most perfunctory human interest in F/X spectacles of wholesale urban destruction. Armageddon, Deep Impact, and Godzilla—three of 1998's top-grossing movies behind Titanic—featured the destruction of New York City. Magical thinking perhaps, but on September 11, 2001, Hollywood felt implicated. Was Al Qaeda guilty of intellectual piracy? Within days, studios and studio execs were recalling, recutting, and canceling movies.

A ritual ordeal: United 93
photo: Jonathan Olley/
A ritual ordeal: United 93

The summer of 2004 brought a new sort of disaster film—one with pretensions to responsibility. In old-school disaster films, nature was the terrorist. And while greedy, mendacious, or foolish individuals might be at fault, the system was essentially sound and sufficiently internalized to allow a natural leader to emerge from the chaos, often in uniform. The Day After Tomorrow, however, clumsily inserted itself into the presidential election by transparently blaming the Bush administration for the threat of global climate change.

A few months later, the puppet animation Team America satirized the whole notion of the new socially responsible disaster film, but last summer Steven Spielberg gave the mode its first real hit: War of the Worlds deliberately evoked the trauma of 9-11, complete with political allegory in which a deadbeat dad becomes a heroic solid citizen. The movie was not meant to be seen so much as experienced—or rather, since it reimagined the recent past, re-experienced. (The summer's other great disaster show, Hurricane Katrina, reflected less well on the nation's leadership—as did the recent TV movie Fatal Contact, remaking The Birds in the light of avian flu.)

Poseidon, which occupied the 'plexes last weekend, is an old-fashioned disaster flick, and not only because it remakes the 1972 Poseidon Adventure. Poseidon is pure showbiz and all business: The audience doesn't have to wait for the catastrophe. The movie is total action, predicated on the beauty of mayhem and the suspense of survival. Hundreds of extras may "die" for our amusement, but who cares? In lit-crit terms, Poseidon is a comedy—ending with the construction of two marriageable young couples. Yet the shadow of 9-11 is not altogether absent. The classic Vietnam- and Watergate-inflected disaster films of the early '70s showed heroism under stress practiced by nearly everyone except top public officials; Poseidon's principals include an ex–mayor of New York.

United 93 resembles an old-school disaster film in that it has been constructed as an Event everyone must see to fully participate in American life. But unlike Airport or Poseidon, United 93 is not fun—if anything it is a ritual ordeal. Although time will tell how the movie will play overseas, it's possible that the enjoyment demographic is strictly Al Qaeda. Zacarias Moussaoui was reported to have "smiled broadly" when the Flight 93 tape was played during his trial 12 days before Paul Greengrass's film had its premiere at Tribeca.

Why was United 93 made, and why should people want to experience it? Is the movie a commercial enterprise, a form of knowledge, a sort of group therapy? Thanks to Greengrass's brilliant direction, United 93 looks and sounds like a documentary—but it is a dramatic reconstruction. Despite the existent phone calls and flight recording, there can be no absolute certainty of what happened during the flight. The fatal stabbing of the plane's captain and co-pilot, as well as a first-class passenger and one flight attendant, can only be surmised—and yet are witnessed by those who see the movie.

New disaster is experiential and communal. Explicit in its use of real time, United 93 is designed for audience participation. Just as the now notorious trailer distilled the movie's narrative arc (albeit without offering the final catharsis), audiences mimicked the action: Having paid to see Inside Man, unsuspecting viewers had their attention "hijacked." According to some descriptions, the angry patrons at AMC Loews Lincoln Square banded together to yank the trailer.

Since the ending is known, United 93 substitutes anxiety for suspense. Perhaps twice as much screen time is devoted to the FAA and air force command centers as to the plane itself. Is the system working? "We're trying to get the military involved—we're not getting an answer," beleaguered air traffic controllers cry. The military, for its part, can't find the president or vice president. (The spectator may insert a mental cutaway to Bush in Florida, reading "The Pet Goat.") Greengrass forestalls the disaster, wringing maximum tension from the viewer's foreknowledge that the passengers are doomed.

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