This year has seen a worsening of Syria’s civil war, severe floods, terrorist attacks, building collapses and urban riots. Perhaps to escape these disconcerting realities, millions of moviegoers have headed for the cinema, only to find a glut of disaster films presenting fantastical versions of the cataclysmic events they’ve been witnessing in the real world.
The blockbuster World War Z has the globe being ravaged by hordes of aggressive zombies, in both Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down, a US president and his surroundings are under terrorist attack – and in Pacific Rim, marauding aliens emerge from the ocean floor.
Countless theories abound as to why audiences want apocalyptic films but Wheeler Winston Dixon, author of Disaster and Memory, says: “People go to disaster movies to prove to themselves that they can go through the worst possible experience but somehow they’re immortal.”
Some of Hollywood’s master creators of disaster movies think their films provide psychological relief. “They are somewhat cathartic. You see all this destruction and everything but at the end the right people save the day,” says Roland Emmerich who directed the disaster movie classic Independence Day – and more recently White House Down.
Whether Philadelphia is under attack in World War Z or a New York-like Metropolis is undergoing destruction in Man of Steel, much of Hollywood’s apocalyptic fare is preying on audiences’ post-9/11 anxieties. The terror attacks of 9/11 have had a major impact at the studios in shaping the disaster films that get made.
Fear and loathing
Some of the pictures also seem to be tapping into American moviegoers’ frustrations in politically divisive times. National landmarks including the White House, the US Capitol Building and the Washington Monument have all been attacked in this year’s disaster pictures.
Wheeler Winston Dixon says “the destruction of American government buildings and icons has really ramped up in films because of the polarisation of American politics. Each side really wants to destroy the other side, so they settle for these fantasies of destruction to work out their frustrations about what’s happening in the real world.”
It’s not just political frustrations or fears of terrorism. The images in World War Z reflect overpopulation anxieties with its shots of overwhelming zombie armies.
“The idea of the swarm, the swarm of mindless people like ants – that is a fear World War Z exploits for our entertainment,” observes John Wildman a contributing writer at filmcomment.com.
Audience anxieties may fuel demand for disaster pictures but film industry economics have played a role in bringing about the current glut. With Hollywood’s focus on the overseas market, studio executives are constantly looking for films that are easy to export. Disaster films neatly fit the bill – they’re visual spectacles understandable in any language. And computer-generated effects are becoming more sophisticated, enabling Armageddon to be depicted on screen in ways that were unthinkable a few years ago and spurring filmmakers into making bigger and better disaster pictures.
“Computer generated effects gives more toys in the toolbox,” says John Wildman. “A film like Pacific Rim has much more viability and much more vitality than it would have had pre-Avatar. It just allows and gives the opportunity for filmmakers to operate on a larger scale.”
Although many of this year’s disaster movies have won a strong following, they’ve been criticised for a lack of originality. Los Angeles-based actor Jeff Grace, who stars in the low-budget black comedy It’s A Disaster, says: “ I love the disaster film when done right but a lot of times, it just feels like it’s your colour by numbers, blow up the White House, blow up the Empire State Building, and then that’ll be enough for people to be satisfied.”
Kevin Brennan, who stars with Jeff Grace in It’s A Disaster sees their picture as providing something rather different and more homespun than studio fare. It’s a comedy which revolves around couples getting together for brunch as a toxic cloud approaches. He says: “Unlike World War Z where you’ve got Brad Pitt travelling the world in helicopters and shooting zombies, ours is definitely the view of what would the average person and their friends [do] at a brunch if the world were to end.”
Other current films have played with the disaster genre. The black comedy This is the End has stars James Franco, Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill portraying fictional versions of themselves during an apocalypse. And the British trio of Nick Frost, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright have brought their skills to apocalyptic comedy The World’s End in which friends discover an alien invasion during an extended pub crawl.
Jeff Grace says: “I think the genre’s become so familiar to people that this seems to be the year where people felt like it was safe to finally make fun of this a little bit, and the audience would get all the tropes that we’re making fun of.”
Hollywood has future disaster pictures in the pipeline but there’s some nervousness. Both White House Down and Pacific Rim underperformed in ticket sales on their opening weekends. But World War Z scored impressively so far, bringing in more than $470m globally. A sequel is reportedly in the works.
Although the genre’s popularity waxes and wanes, Hollywood will never abandon the disaster movie. Its existence has become a permanent cyclical part of American pop culture. With the US populace remaining extremely fearful in a post-9/11 world, the studios will continue to prey on those fears to create disaster movies that the rest of the world gets to see.
Rather ominously, Wheeler Winston Dixon sees today’s disaster movies as getting America into a state of readiness: “I think they’re sort of preparing us for something that’s going to happen in the future,” he says with a sense of foreboding. “Which I certainly hope does not happen.”
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.