Film genres have formulas and rules, but how well do films follow those formulas?
Disaster films, an ongoing and recurring genre.
While there is a lot of crossover over in genres, with alien invasions, animal attacks, monster attacks, terrorist attacks and a number of other films share a lot of features and are often classified as disaster films I'm limiting the examples to straight disaster films (with Jaws as an example of an animal attack film to see if it fits the rules.)
|Airport (1970) [Cast photo]|
"There's a storm blowin' up - a whopper, to speak in the vernacular of the peasantry. Poor little kid, I hope she gets home all right." ~ Professor Marvel, Wizard of Oz (1939)
Disaster films will have an ensemble cast with a large number of characters with their own story lines, so when they (or someone in their life) is killed it is more meaningful.
- Male lead: will be an expert (scientist/architect/ship-builder) who has a theory of an upcoming catastrophe or the inventor of something that will stop a future theoretical disaster. They, however, will be considered obsessed and crazy and there is no chance of said catastrophe. Their obsession will lead to their relationship falling apart, leading them to live in their car or a camper van and probably giving them a drinking problem. They may even be suicidal (not really, but contemplate it). Out of a desperate attempt to warn people they will come off like a raving lunatic. Many of his problems (like drinking will immediately disappear once they are established). He will end up having to do many action heroy things.
- An important person: will be a rich guy who is cut corners to save money keep customers, etc; a military brass who are just stubborn; a politician more interested in votes, staying within budget, not scaring tourists/business or pandering to the rich guy to consider safety. These people will always be almost constantly wrong, obnoxious and made to look foolish as much as possible.
- Female lead: an ex of the male lead, who is still in love with the hero but hates what they've become. She will want to believe in the male lead's idea, but will have been burnt before. She may be connected to the important person in some way, allowing her to influence them to believe the lead at some later point.
- The new man: the female lead's replacement for the male lead. Possibly the important person or connected to them.
- The usurped official: A police chief, ship's captain, plant manager or the like who should be in charge of safety but is told what to do by the important person. They will want to err on the side of caution but will be told to do otherwise. Will eventually ignore the important person, but only once it is too late.
- A nerdy/geeky expert: usually the sidekick of one of the lead characters or someone working for or connected the government/main business who thinks that, the catastrophe is possible but doesn't have the confidence to stand up for the idea.
- The experienced tradesman: Usually the head engineer or in charge of plant maintenance. Their years experience will mean they recognise the danger exists, but may lead to overconfidence about their equipment. Will have some mutual trust with the usurped official. Won't like the book-learning and little experience of the Lead man or geeky expert but will grow to admire them. Will hate the important person.
- The wash-out: even worse than the male lead. A con-man, drinker, gambler, "degenerate." Will either die nobly (after a final change of heart) or will, upon seeing others dying nobly, will vow to change their life.
- The joker: someone who never takes life too seriously. May keep spirits up with humour or be hated for not seeing the gravity of the situation. May experience an outburst of anger or depression when they do take things seriously. Will probably die mid-joke or while laughing.
- The criminal: some low-life petty thief-type, probably young and a minority. Will have a similar arc to the wash-out but may change quicker, especially after his or her even-low-lifier friends are killed.
- Someone religious: So their faith can be tested (or someone who has lost faith and can regain it.)
- Minor celebrity: Someone a little recognisable to the others, who may consider themselves more important and may provide entertainment and encouragement.
- Relatives of the important guy: Someone who, upon discovery that it's not just other people at risk, it's someone he loves, can cause the important person to decide that, oh, yeah, something actually needs to be done.
- A typical family: or more than one.
- The child: possibly the child of the lead characters. The child is always getting itself into trouble. This is Hollywood, so precocious is to be assumed.
- The older woman: possibly involved with the washout or looking after the child. Or both.
- The officious but incompetent person: Someone who follows the rule book or has academic training but no life experience.
- Loving couple: Usually young, beautiful and newly wed, so the lose of one of them is worse.
- Bickering couple: Usually middle-aged, he will be less attractive and always arguing so they can discover what is important and if one of them dies, the other can realise they did love them after all.
- Tired couple: An elderly couple who haven't fallen out of love, but rather have become complacent in their relationship.
- Animals: Pets, usually part of the typical family. Somehow able to sense danger.
Sex & Nudity
"Jack, I want you to draw me like one of your French girls." ~ Rose, Titanic (1997)
- Nudity: Usually no or limited nudity. After all people are trying to watch someone slowly die with a pipe impaled through their chest, they don't want to be offended by the sight of a naked breast or butt. However, there may be early implied nudity or sexy clothing just to keep people interested. The heroine's clothes may be torn or her shirt need to be removed (leaving something white, sleeveless and functional).
- Sex: Once again, sex equals death. People who have sex will die. Be is the sleazy billionaire or politician cheating on his wife or the teen couple too busy petting to notice the wave of lava engulfing their car.
|City on Fire (1979)|
"Kind of galling when you realize that nutbags with cardboard signs had it right the whole time." ~ Carl Anheuser, 2012 (2009)
- Manmade disaster: Even the most natural of natural disasters will be exacerbated by budget cuts and human error.
- Size: The disaster will be far beyond the scope that these things would usually occur. Even the government scientists in the film will point this out.
- Unreal: The film will rely on fringe theories or exaggerations of an actual event.
- True story: Even though the theories are fringe or the events exaggerated they will push the "based on a true story" or "this could happen" to make it more effecting.
- The moment: There will be a moment of massive destruction and loss of life.
- Ongoing: Even an instant disaster will have ongoing issues that will lead to people being more endangered as time goes on.
- Sudden end: No matter how unlikely or how ongoing the disaster should be, the heroes will find a way to just stop it.
|The Amazing Spider-man (2012)|
"Well, we now have a name for this crisis. It is, according to the US Geological Survey, a volcano! As crazy as it sounds, a volcano, here, has been..." ~ TV Anchorwoman, Volcano (1997)
- Warnings: unattentive employees and poorly maintained equipment will lead to warnings being missed. Other tip-offs, like Jeff, the guy engulf by a brief localised burst of lava, being late back will be brushed off as him bunking off and heading home early. His abandoned vehicle will be wondered about but no one really notified.
- Warning issued too late: Governments or those in charge will, in an attempt to stop panic, refuse to warn people.
- An Event: There will be some event that put people in the area and in particular danger. Noise, music, shouting may cause warnings to go unheard. An event also allows a juxtaposition of celebration and impending disaster. It also means that it is expensive and fancy clothes that become torn and ragged during the escape (a female character may be especially upset by this.
- Sneaking out: Children and teens will sneak out for adventures and sexy adventures, respectively. This will put them in the danger zone without anyone realising. Some children by run-away due to an argument.
- Rescuers: People will go back into the danger zone to rescue people trapped there, like ex-wives and children who have snuck out.
- The stubborn: There will be stubborn old people who will refuse to leave. If their house in Kansas survived the bombing of Pearl Harbour, you'd better believe it'll survive a tornado.
- Criminal activity: There will be people performing criminal acts. This will lead them to avoid authorities sent to warn people. Later there many be looters who will be after the perfect television to have their blood splattered over.
- Unheard warnings: Some people will just miss warnings. Headphones, deaf, sleeping pills, phone turned off, looking away from the TV at the wrong moment, whatever.
- Meetings: Time will be spent in a conference to deal with the situation. If it's of national importance the (possibly black) US President will be involved. Everything will be explained in simple terms
for the audiencefor any politicians
- Arguments: Some will be killed by time wasted during a squabble over leadership or options. This argument may also on some level be an argument over who gets the girl.
- Fear: A dangerous escape plan, usually involving heights or jumping will cause some to freeze in fear, endangering themselves and possibly other after them, waiting for them or having to go back to get them.
"It looks like the food storm is following an unusual pattern of hitting the world's famous landmarks first and is now spreading to the rest of the globe." ~ Newsreader, Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs (2009)
- Panoramic opening: The film will start with slow, beautiful panoramic shots. While this is normal for films to establish the scene and normality of the situation, it is even more important in a disaster film as a juxtaposition of the later destruction. To tension there will be hints of disaster and dramatic music.
- Warning bouts of destruction: There will some small, sudden bouts of destruction. This is for the audiences members who are bored by all the plot and character stuff. And to remind us that this disaster film we're watching is a disaster film. These first events will either be in an isolated location (so the important guy has deniability) or in a normal everyday situation (to remind the audience that this could happen to them. This is the beginning of the slow build where other similar events will happen.
- Landmarks: If possible one or more major landmarks will be destroyed along the way.
- The tipping point: This will come before the official predictions and be big and sudden and cause lots of deaths and effects. Moments before the tipping there will be a moment realisation by someone, summed up in simple, direct almost understated phrase. The tipping point will be about 1/3 of the way through the film.
- Ongoing destruction: Once the tipping point is reached, there will be a whole lot of rumble, etc to get out of or some ongoing growing burny thing to avoid. All leading to the final event.
- The final event: There will be some big final event that it will all be leading to and that the leading male will have to stop.
|A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985)|
"Get out of here save yourselves." ~ Captain Phillip Laidlaw, DeepStar Six (1989)
- Prelude deaths: There will be a couple of minor, meaningless deaths early on. Something that can be ignored or left undiscovered: an engineer investigating a strange noise in the boiler room, or someone if by a small chunk of asteroid. These deaths tie into the initial destruction mentioned above.
- Mass casualties: There will me many sudden random deaths in the initial destruction.
- The black guy: Minorities will die earlier and have a higher death rate.
- Panic: Some will be killed by panic, often caused by media revealing the too much information.
- The important guy: will die a horrible/ironic death, hoisted on his own petard.
- The bad coward: This a person who's already bad and, in a final act of cowardice will abandon the others, often in a way guaranteeing the death of the rest of the group (sometimes to cover their mistakes). Just when they think that they're safe, however they are killed. Will usually be the important person.
- The good coward: This is a person who sensibly refuses to (or only grudgingly agrees to) put themselves in danger, even when it can save many other lives. This coward will, however, have a change of heart risk their life to save others. This will usually kill them. This type of coward is often the nerdy expert, or the wash-out.
- The older woman: Will die protecting children.
- The usurped official: Will often dying redeeming himself for submitting to the important person.
- The expert tradesman: Will die trying to hold his equipment together (figuratively, but possibly literally). This may occur early on just prior to the initial tipping point or near the end during the ridiculous resolution. If during the ridiculous resolution will probably have last words ironically mocking the expert or gently encouraging his equipment.
- Sacrifice: Someone will cut their own rope. Perhaps not always literally, but someone will sacrifice themselves to stop rescue attempts from killing others.
- Slow death: A number of people will die slow deaths, with a long goodbye and too much talking to people who should be trying to escape.
- Bad options: Someone will die proving that their idea for an escape route isn't the best option they claimed.
- Reminders of danger: There will be some quick random deaths of survivors as a reminder that everyone is at risk. Unexpected explosions, falls or sharp bits of metal are favourites. An explosion causing a fall onto a sharp bit of metal would be prefect.
- One half of a couple: will be killed. As noted above it can be a member of the loving couple or lead a member of the bickering couple to realise they did love each other. It may lead to the sacrifice of the other member of the couple (who will stay and die pointlessly rather then leave the one they love.)
- The noble death: a sacrifice made in knowledge that it would cost their own life to save the group.
- Children: will tend to surive.
- Pets: are claimed to be immune to death and pass their immunity onto those around them. But that's cute furry pets. Bird, especially canaries, are bound to die as warning that there's gas, smoke or too much heat.
- The lead male: will survive. Unless it's a really, really noble sacrifice that will save thousands of lives and instantly stop the disaster; after all, blowing up the dam will stop the fire, but someone's got to hold the bomb.
Last Ditch Group
"I need a complete team to operate this vehicle. Along with me I'm gonna need a scientist, an engineer, and, of course, a black person who can sacrifice himself in case something goes wrong." ~ Eric Cartman, "Die, Hippie, Die," South Park.
- Heroes: There will often be a hand chosen group of experts and scientists who are the only ones who can go on a special mission to stop or solve the disaster. They will be woefully undertrainned and there will be conflict between the specialists and the miltiary/pilots.
- Survivors: There will often be a final group of survivors, often gathered together from unrelated groups killed off one-by-one who will band together to survive. And argue about surviving.
"I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It's the only way to be sure." ~ Ripley, Aliens (1986)
- Outrun: There will be a successful attempt to outrun, out drive or out fly something that should easily catch up.
- A plan: In the end the hero will come up with a completely ridiculous solution (or have had it all along, it just hasn't been tested yet and is a foolhardy invention that no one believes will work) that has no chance of working in the real world. The sort of thing that only someone in a completely desperate situation would think up; someone like the survivor of a disaster or a writer with third act problems.
- Big & simple: The solution will be big, simple enough to explain to the audience and something that can be the FX highlight of the film.
- Critical fail: The device or whatever will have a final critical failure something that can only be fix by some unlikely fact or object inexplicably mentioned earlier in the film.
- Time: There will be competing countdowns - the impending major event of the disaster and the countdown to the fix. But there will always be enough time for a deep and meaningful discussion about the nature of love and sacrifice.
- Instant: The solution will be something that is inexplicably instantaneous (apart from a few spot fires) and doesn't cause more death and destruction than the disaster itself, even if it should.
- Dangerous: The solution should involve the male lead needing to be too close and not being visible and - gasp, probably dead - until he steps out of the smoke.
- Explosive: If possible, it will involve a nuke.
Happily Ever After
"I have to warn you, I've heard relationships based on intense experiences never work." ~ Jack, Speed (1994)
- Reunited: During the film the couple will be reunited. Because he was right and because of his determination to save lives and because of the resolution of a fight at a time when running from the 20 foot wall of water would have been smarter they are again in love.
- Together: The film will end with them in each other's arms.
- Vindicated: There will be an acknowledgement that the leading man was right all along.
- Retribution: There will be an acceptance that this disaster was almost divine retribution for the actions of humans, especially to try to defy nature.
- Lesson: This will be a lesson not to ignore the danger sign/build skyscrapers so high/cut costs/live in a hurricane zone. Mankind will remember this and learn from its mistakes.
- Or not...: Except will it? Will man ever really learn?
- Sunrise: It will be sunrise if they've struggled all night, or sunset if they've struggled all day. It's a time of change and is beautiful.
- Beautiful: The whole scene will be some how beautiful. Wisps of smoke, small fires and rescue personal wandering around and everything. Like a romance, it will all somehow be beautiful.
"How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice? "~ John McClane, Die Hard 2 (1990)
- Sequels: There will be few sequels as a second unbelievable disaster would be just unbelievable.
- Remakes: There may be some remakes or trips to the same well of ideas.
- More Deaths: Over the time the death count will increase.
- More Effect: Over the time the size of the area effected will increase: one building or vessel, one town... one side of the US... the entire planet...
- Better Effects: Over time the FX will be better.
- More Formulaic: Over time the films will follow the formula more.
Here are the 10 films I'm going to look at, in order. If you have an suggests for replacements feel free to comment below.
- The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
- Towering Inferno (1974)
- Airport 1975 (1974)
- Jaws (1979)
- Airplane! (1980)
- Daylight (1996)
- Dante's Peak (1997)
- Deep Impact (1998)
- The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
- Into The Storm (2014)