Natural Disasters & Movies

Natural Disasters

Are Natural Disasters Portrayed Realistically in Movies?

By Frankie Wallace.

There’s nothing like a good doomsday action-adventure movie where the world is coming to an end and the protagonist goes to great lengths to save humankind. Usually, the protagonist battles unforgiving natural forces and saves the day against all odds. Over the past few years, disaster movies have expanded their focus to catastrophes as a result of human intervention, such as climate change and global warming. 



But how realistic are these scenarios? 

Disaster Movies and Human Perception

As humans, we use stories to understand the world. Movies are fun to watch, but they also are cultural works that provide a lens through which we can make sense of various real-world issues. Movies like Waterworld (while critically panned) have shaped the way we perceive natural disasters.

An article featured in Quartz states, “Back in 1994, Waterworld imagined a planet flooded by global warming, with a ragged bunch of survivors searching for any traces of land … (It) offered a vision of how something like soil—a key element of our environment, which we take utterly for granted—could become rare and precious.” 

The movie raised awareness about key environmental issues, bringing important issues to the forefront of public discourse. In fact, filmmakers’ ability to influence behavior and change perceptions around sensitive topics makes for one of the reasons why corporations and individuals alike have placed a renewed focus on sustainability. 

While depictions of disasters in film can sometimes oversimplify the relationship between cause and effect, they do emphasize the urgent need to address our impact on the planet. To quote the Quartz article referenced above, these movies “affirm the connections that scientists have made between some natural disasters and human-caused environmental degradation, especially between climate change and the greater likelihood of extreme weather events like hurricanes.” 

This concern is clearly warranted, as evidenced by real-world statistics. The total spending on sustainability engagements is predicted to grow to over $1 billion this year.  After all, no one in their right mind would want anything close to a Geostorm or Exploding Sun situation on their hands. 

True or False? Looking at Disasters in Movies

There will always be a bit of doubt in regards to how realistic the movies are. No doubt natural disasters make for an interesting and exciting movie plot — but is the way they’re portrayed in movies actually accurate? The answer depends on the movie. Let’s look at some examples:

Dante’s Peak

Consider Dante’s Peak, inspired by the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in the state of Washington. Volcanologists consider it one of the most accurate disaster movies ever created. The movie properly depicts the composite volcano eruption. Still, it did have some flaws. For one, the movie showed lava flowing quickly; in reality, composite volcanoes have slow-moving lava that typically forms large domes after an eruption occurs. 

Deepwater Horizon

Another movie that was mostly accurate is Deepwater Horizon. In an article on the Washington Post, Joel Achenbach, who covered the infamous BP oil spill, writes that the movie admirably got most of the facts right: “You could imagine all manner of ways in which Hollywood could have turned the blowout in the Gulf of Mexico into a more traditional disaster movie. You could invent love stories, improbable acts of square-jawed heroism, maybe throw in a sea monster.” On the contrary, the film sticks to true events and is a pretty accurate portrayal of the oil rig explosion. 

However, where the movie slightly veers from the truth is when it establishes culpability. The movie focuses blame on Donald Vidrine, the BP well site leader on duty. In doing so, it seems to side with an argument made by BP — “that this disaster was the result of mistakes on the rig, rather than a broader array of mistakes and compromises by BP engineers in Houston.” 

In reality, the disaster was a result of several missteps and oversights by many of the stakeholders — not the fault of just one employee. Eventually BP paid billions in fines and damages. So while the movie was pretty accurate in its representations of events, the aftermath seems to be overly simplified. 

2012

While a lot of disaster films will depict catastrophes somewhat accurately, some are based on hypotheses that are simply impossible. For instance, consider 2012, crams every possible natural disaster into one. From volcanic eruptions and earthquakes to ice worlds and tsunamis — 2012 has it all. 

Unfortunately, it’s based on the premise of “mutated neutrinos,” which, simply put, don’t exist. An article by Forbes that details five of the worst natural disaster movies states, “It’s hard to imagine how they came up with that premise; it would be difficult to come up with a more impossible series of events. On top of that, the amount of energy needed to heat up the inner core, especially to a liquid state, is nearly impossible.” 

The Day After Tomorrow

Another such film is The Day After Tomorrow. Unlike 2012, the movie is based on a plausible hypothesis put forth by Wally Broeker, a well-respected paleoclimatologist. However, the timing of events is completely off. 

Experts claim that there’s no way that the movie’s portrayal of events — shifting from an overheated Earth where all the continental ice has melted to be in the midst of an Ice Age within just one week — is remotely possible. To quote the article in Forbes, “The process by which fresh, melted ice water slows down ocean circulation does happen rapidly in geologic timescales, but that’s over the course of hundreds of years, not days.” 

How Do Depictions of the Effects of Climate Change Affect Discourse?

Movies like these are exciting to watch and often result in major adrenaline rushes — but they can also result in major apathy. According to Bulfin, because of the scale of disasters shown, these movies often leave us feeling like “it is pointless to bother with mitigation behavior for real-world environmental problems, or even with being realistically prepared for smaller-scale real-world natural disasters.” 

In reality, this apathy can be dangerous, especially in the face of a real-life natural disaster. We must be prepared for imminent threats due to climate change. For instance, an accessible emergency kit is integral in the event of a disaster and should never be overlooked just because of the feeling that they too big for individuals to do anything about. 

Movies differ in their portrayals of catastrophic events. While some movies tackle disasters realistically, other films choose to explore unlikely premises that may even generate unnecessary negativity and apathy. That being said, movies provide for an accessible and far-reaching lens through which we as humans can interpret environmental and global crises. 

Thus, even when they’re unrealistic, we stand to learn a lot from disaster films. If nothing else, they force us to face issues like climate change and think about what we can and should do to prevent a doomsday situation. Ultimately, disaster movies make for a great tool to shed light on the environmental issues that plague the world as we know it.


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