Friday, April 1, 2011


This week, my husband Vinnie and I are again putting on our Team Bartilucci caps—and Hazmat suits, because our currently topical topic is disaster films: why people like them (or don’t), and our own particular favorites. Let’s start with a Vin’s-eye-view:

After the horrific earthquake and tsunami in Japan, well-meaning busybody Graeme McMillan wrote a piece for Spinoff Online which basically asked Hollywood to stop making disaster movies. His argument was that since we have had so many REAL disasters, disaster movies are insensitive to people who have lived through them.  Happily, the replies (mine and The Wife’s included) skewed more to the “Get off your high-horse, you politically-correct crybaby” variety.

Disaster stories are a staple of entertainment.  The Bible is rife with them—The Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, not to mention the entire book of Revelations.  People love seeing and reading about shit blowing up real good.  Real disasters do not reduce that interest.  Some disaster films are pure fantasy, like the endless alien invasion films, one of which will be dissected below.  Others are intended to be “warning” films, attempting to alert people as to what might happen if we “go too far”; examples include The Day After Tomorrow, a film that far too many people think is a documentary.  Another category is a more direct exploitative variety of the second, using some topical event as the catalyst for the chaos that is to follow.  Day of the Animals is a film about beasts of the field run amok, caused by a patch of the ozone layer breaking loose and falling to Earth, driving the poor little four-leggers mad.  Quite often, disaster films are allegorical; Godzilla was a physical manifestation of the danger of “atomic” power, as were so many giant animal films of the 1950s. 

We’ll never see the end of disaster films, and that’s a great thing.  So this time around, we’re taking a look at the (usually destroyed) world of the Disaster Film.  Dori, it’s your turn!

Dorian’s Disaster Flick Pick: Independence Day (1996)

1996 was a banner year for us here at Team Bartilucci H.Q. First, I had just begun my third trimester of being big with child, an exciting and nerve-wracking time in itself. Siobhan, our literally bouncing baby girl (we went to see the percussion-heavy Off-Broadway show Stomp, you see. No, really!) was finally born on October 30th, and bless her, she still hasn’t stopped bouncing! The second bit of excitement that summer was the release of Independence Day (ID4, as it was dubbed in the movie posters). A far more exciting follow-up to Stargate, the 1994 SF collaboration between director Roland Emmerich and writer Dean Devlin, ID4 was an uber-blockbuster, the cinematic rollercoaster ride of the summer of ’96, eventually pulling in a cool $817,400,891 worldwide. This rock’em-sock’em science-fiction action-adventure further confirmed the stardom of both Will Smith, then best known and loved as a popular rapper and the star of TV’s Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and Jeff Goldblum, the endearingly quirky character actor who’d stolen the show in Jurassic Park (1993) and had been one of Team Bartilucci’s longtime faves ever since he’d co-starred with Ben Vereen in 1980’s playful but unfairly short-lived private eye TV series Tenspeed and Brown Shoe. Frankly, Goldblum was my first teenage celebrity crush (not to be confused with my childhood crush on Danny Kaye). Admittedly, I’ve always gone for the so-called offbeat types, including my own dear hubby…but I digress! J 

An eye-popping, nerve-wracking rendition of the classic trope “Alien Invaders Try to Take Over Earth and Drain our Natural Resources Dry Before We Humans Beat Them To It,” ID4 was like an Irwin Allen disaster movie updated for the 1990s. Oh yes, I absolutely meant that as a compliment!  ID4 grabs the audience and runs with it, supplying warmth and human interest in addition to the action, suspense, and cool F/X, even when the action reaches “Oh, come on!” levels. For example, Vivica A. Fox as Smith’s sweetie Jasmine, the world’s most wholesome stripper, saves her kid and their dog just in time to avoid alien annihilation. But hey, with a flick like ID4, that’s part of the fun; it’s a thrill ride, not a documentary!  That said, I’ll admit the New York City scenes and its shots of the World Trade Center, have become doubly poignant since 9/11, especially for those of us who are native New Yorkers. 

As Captain Steve Hiller and science whiz David Levinson, Smith and Goldblum end up as a fine buddy team, and the other actors in the large ensemble cast are impressive, too, including Bill Pullman as the beleaguered President Whitmore; Mary McDonnell as his endangered First Lady; Brent Spiner as the wild-eyed but well-meaning chief scientist in the fabled Area 51; Randy Quaid as the drunken pilot who’s seen the aliens and gets his shot at redemption;  Harvey Fierstein as David’s panicky boss; Margaret Colin as David’s ex-wife, who’s also President Whitmore’s most trusted advisor; and my favorite, Judd Hirsch’s underrated seriocomic performance as David’s elderly dad. When ID4 first hit theaters, it seemed like our family and Entertainment Weekly film critic Lisa Schwarzbaum were the only people who didn’t take offense at the portrayal of the unabashedly Jewish senior Levinson and his Bronx-by-way-of Omsk accent. (Fun Fact: According to the IMDb, Goldblum and Hirsch improvised quite a bit of their dialogue.) Come to the Riverdale section of the Bronx, where our family lived for many years, and to this day you’ll still find plenty of old Jewish guys like Hirsch’s character hanging around the neighborhood schmoozing with each other!

Vinnie’s Disaster Flick Pick: Crack in the World (1965)

Recently, a news item appeared about a scientist’s plan to drill down to the mantle of the Earth to get unpolluted samples of magma and other scientific discoveries.  As most of my thought processes are directly connected to films and TV shows I saw as a child, my first thought was “Oh, geez, we’re gonna have a Crack in the World scenario.” 

Crack in the World (CinW) was a classic “Science Gone Wrong” movie.  The idea was to drill to the mantle and use its incredible energy as a heat source for generating electrical power, as well as gaining access to already-melted minerals and ores.  And it was going well, until Dr. Stephen Sorenson (Dana Andrews, alumnus of too many sci-fi films to count) planned to use a A-Bomb to burn through the last layer of the crust.  Dr. Ted Rampion (Kieron Moore) disagrees, claiming it will cause the crust to fissure.

Wanna guess whose theory holds?

The titular crack appears, ripping across the surface of the Earth like a run in a fat chick’s nylons.  They attempt to stop it in its tracks by setting off (now get this) ANOTHER A-Bomb, in the hope of creating a sort of firebreak.  It fails spectacularly, and now there’s TWO cracks, cutting a big divot out of the planet which, if Sorenson is right, will cause a massive chunk of the planet to pop off like a bottlecap, releasing the pressure.

Sure, NOW he gets it right...

Despite an ending that will deplete your suspension of disbelief for three days, the science and terminology of the film is fairly well-grounded.  The concepts sound plausible enough to keep your OH-COME-ON buzzers from going off; indeed, they go to such lengths to explain the science and their plans, the film drags a bit at times.  The special effects are well done for the time, a combination of on-set work, miniatures and some pretty solid animation as the crack rips across the firmament.  Kieron Moore works better as a romantic lead than a scientist — he’s got a body that seems genetically bred to stand on an outcropping, arms akimbo, wearing a jaunty come-hither smile.  Andrews does well as the guy who knows he’s screwed the pooch, and is doing everything in his power to fix it, before his own personal issues (he’s dying of an undisclosed cancer-like movie disease) catch up with him. 

As opposed to most “End of the World” films, they don’t fix the problem.  The two cracks meet, back at the science lab that spawned them of course, the geographic trepanation flies into space, forming a second moon, and the planet has a massive wound, the mantle exposed, with presumably trillions of gallons of seawater pouring into it.  But because the romantic leads, Moore and Janette Scott (playing the far-younger wife of Dana Andrews), escape from the lab before it’s popped off into space, it’s viewed as a happy ending.  There they are, at the edge of the explosion, exposed to hellish temperatures and the shock wave of a portion of the planet being blown into the stratosphere, and they’re perfectly fine, save for an attractively torn shirt and dress and a bit of dirt on their faces.

Ah movies, where you can survive an atomic detonation by jumping into a ditch (or refrigerator), and radiation is only dangerous if you touch it. You don’t see that happen in too many of these types of films, you usually get that timer clicking down to one second and everybody getting saved.  When Worlds Collide is another example of that type of film; from square one, they know there’s no way to stop a fabulous evening’s apocalypse, so they spend the whole film simply trying to find a way off beforehand.  In both cases you’re spared having to think about the countless deaths caused by the events of the film, so long as the people you’ve been paying attention to are okay.

CitW is a solid film, just recently released on DVD and worth an evening’s viewing.


  1.'s my two cents about disaster movies relating to real world disasters....

    Just because disasters happen doesn't mean that we should stop making disaster films.

    Now...there are a couple of exceptions. For example, in the wake of the Japan tsunami the Clint Eastwood film "Hereafter" was pulled from the nation because of a central scene that graphically depicted a similar tsunami. That I can understand. I could easily imagine the movie offending and horrifying Japanese audiences for all of the wrong reasons.

    I mean...I'm an American. If somebody had shown me a film where a plane crashes into a skyscraper right after 9/11 I simply would not have been able to deal with it. Nearly ten years later, I STILL don't think that I could handle it.

    But then that raises the question of how long should we wait before disaster movies are okay to show in disaster-stricken countries? How long should we let Japan heal both physically, emotionally, and mentally before we show "Hereafter" in Japan?

    Here's another example:

    That was shown as a commercial at the Cannes Film Festival a year or so after 9/11. Was it tasteless? Yes. It specified and parodied a particular disaster to promote their agenda. But it was shown in France where 9/11 didn't happen. Does that give them the right to show it whenever they want? After all, it happened to someone else.

    Basically, we shouldn't stop making disaster films just because real disasters happen. But that doesn't mean that we should be callous and insensitive to areas, cultures, peoples, and countries that have suffered through the very same disasters frequently depicted in disaster films.

    Just my two cents....

  2. Nate, thanks for your thoughtful response and the valuable food for thought you provided. I agree that it's absolutely possible to make and enjoy disaster films while still being sensitive to people and places who have suffered in real life. Vinnie pointed out that to one degree or another, life will always have pain and pleasure in more or less equal measure, whether the pain in question is the result of natural disasters or brutal tragedies like 9/11, or personal pain on a scale that seems small in the scheme of things, but huge to the individuals involved -- for instance, a close friendship or marriage coming to an end. Few people will demand that filmmakers should never film love stories again, but to an individual going through that pain, of course it looms large in his/her life. I guess it's all relative, when you get down to it. Thanks for weighing in!

  3. Hey, always glad to comment on one of my favorite blogs! You should really do more articles with your husband. They're great!

    Also...if you want some more....unconventional...disaster films...

    I would recommend "Kairo" a Japanese film by Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira). It's a genuine jewel of a film that I am AMAZED isn't more popular. It also helps that it is easily one of the scariest films that I have ever seen...and I don't scare easily.

    There's also "Knowing" with Nicholas Cage, which I actually REALLY liked. Yeah...the story was kinda cliched, but it was expertly executed.

  4. Nate, thank you kindly for praising TotED as one of your "favorite blogs," including your praise of my dear hubby's terrific writing! While Vinnie and I each have blogs (he has one about comic books, THE FORTY-YEAR-OLD FANBOY, and we've each written blog posts for another Team Bartilucci joint, "IS THAT REALLY DESIRABLE?"), we always enjoy teaming up on TotED blog posts when we're inspired. Did you ever read our first TotED blog collaboration about our "Suave Hall of Fame" from last fall? If not, check it out; I think you'd enjoy it, and you'll no doubt come up with your own Suave Hall of Fame suggestions:

    Thanks for recommending KAIRO and KNOWING, too, Nate! You make them sound most intriguing. I'll keep an eye out for them! And good luck at NYC/Tisch, too!

  5. In general, disaster movies are not my cup of tea mostly because the story is usually nonsense. Not fun nonsense but 'stupid' nonsense. And there's ALWAYS a divorced couple trying to work their way back to each other while the world implodes. Puh-Leeze.

    Having said that: INDEPENDENCE DAY rules around here. With THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW second. Never did see CRACK IN THE WORLD. I also love the two oldies WAR OF THE WORLDS with Gene Barry and WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE. (Saw them both in a movie double header with 10 cartoons, eons ago.)

  6. Yvette, I'll admit my primary reason for seeing INDEPENDENCE DAY was Jeff Goldblum! :-) Once the film started, though, the cast and the action drew me in! The original WAR OF THE WORLDS was my favorite. I must say I always got a kick out of the fact that both WAR... and ID4 both used the virus gambit to defeat the evil aliens, with ID4 freshening it up with a computer virus. :-)

  7. These comments are respectfully dedicated to all those people who claim I automatically agree with everything Dorian says. Which is my rather roundabout way of saying I totally place myself in Vinnie’s corner in regards to the two disaster films being offered here.

    (In fact, I’ll go a step further and state that I hold STARGATE to be a much superior film to INDEPENDENCE DAY.)

    If Roland Emmerich was a chess player, instead of a film director, I’d say he possessed a very strong opening game, but was extremely weak in the middle and end portions. His films benefit from interesting premises, backed by state-of-the-art special effects providing excellent “money shots” (e.g. the destruction of the cities in ID4), but dramatically they run out of steam all too quickly, ending up a little more than an amateur shuffling around of effects shot in lieu of a real ending. Long before 10,000 BC was halfway over I was already set to walk out of the theater, go eat lunch and then go home to bed.

    It was Peter David who, I feel, delivered the best review concerning ID4 when he compared it to STAR WARS. I’m probably misquoting some here, but the gist of his remarks were that STAR WARS was about coming-of-age, sacrifice and heroism, and ID4 was about two hours long.

    This isn’t to say that Andrew Marton’s CRACK IN THE WORLD (Vinnie’s offering) is without its problems. Primary among these (to my point of view anyway) is Janette Scott’s reinforcement of the “Woman As Screaming Meemy” stereotype. In 1965, when the film was made, her performance might have caused more than a few tired sighs among the audience. In 2011, it’s downright embarrassing. It’s clear that Scott’s presence was simply to provide a love interest (and romantic triangle element). Trying to foist her off as an actual scientist was clearly a waste of time.

    Along with that, there’s also the questionable science to deal with. Or (to once again agree with Vinnie), I’ve always had trouble believing that one could escape being killed by the creation of a new moon simply through the action of taking a few steps away from the actual event.

    On the plus side, though, CRACK IN THE WORLD featured serviceable special effects, a wonderfully dramatic score courtesy of Johnny Douglas, and the presence of Alexander Knox (who makes any film he appears in worth multiple viewings). I’m happy to hear that this excellent film is finally available on DVD and hope to add it to my collection as soon as possible.

    As for Dorian, if she really wants to promote a superior disaster movie, then I feel she could do much much worse than Val Guest’s 1961 classic: THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE. The special effects certainly aren’t up to par with what Emmerich has been able to present, but the most is made of them via clever cinematography. The film also features crisp acting work courtesy of Edward Judd, Janet Munro and Leo McKern . . . as well as a brief appearance by that hot new rising star: Michael Caine!

  8. Hey Team Bartilucci -- loved this article! I have great taste in movies, intellectual stories, high-brow British dramas, Shakespeare... and I absolutely ADORE disaster movies. ID4 was so much fun! I couldn't help but see the obvious Bill/Hilary combination in the President and his wife. And who would not want a president like this one -- handsome, fighter pilot, real human being! I thought that about Henry Fonda in Failsafe, another sort-of disaster movie on the intellectual side. ID4 had everything -- cheesy plot, great characters, good actors -- one of the best!

    I've never seen CinW, but I've just got to now! I know I would love it. (How do we fix an atomic bomb disaster? Use ANOTHER atomic bomb! Yeah, that'll do it!) You guys MUST have seen Mystery Science Theatre 3000 theatrical release where they spoof This Island Earth! If you haven't, run or surf to the nearest place you can find it. My sons and I quote lines from that all the time -- good stuff!

    As for not making disaster movies because actual disasters happen -- what a pile of crap! People have car accidents, heart attacks, fall in the bathtub and crack their heads -- are we to try to make movies without anything like that? Typical modern cultural PC wimpy cowardly thought. Obviously you shouldn't make a cheap TV movie about a tsunami the day after it happens (which has been done before) just to exploit it. But that's not the case here, is it? Really, people -- life just happens -- shall we have only Disney movies?!!

    I love War of the Worlds (the ORIGINAL) -- I hated the remake. Same with The Day the Earth Stood Still. I really did give the remakes a chance, but I thought they really smelled of PC changes!

    This isn't really about the fun stuff, but the movie "Testament" with Jane Alexander is probably the most powerful, quiet film I have ever seen about the real world after an atomic disaster. Fabulous movie.

    I'm another one who just loves your blog. Come and see mine -- on Sunday I'm starting a 2-part series about the great gangsters of the golden age, 1930-1949. Hope you like it!

  9. Mike - This is a clip of Opie and Anthony, with screamingly funny comic Patrice Oneal just SAVAGING ID4 on their show, hitting almost every point you make.

    Becky - We adore MST3K in this house, but if that's the only way you've ever seen This Island Earth, seek out the original. The Boys had to hack it to bits to make it fit in their format, and it's actually a damn fine Sci-Fi film of the era, one of my faves.

    It also bears a great deal in common with another of our faves, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, in that the content of the original story is depleted very early in the film. It's an almost verbatim adapter of the story, up until the remote-controlled plane takes off; from there on it's all new.

  10. Michael, Becky, Vinnie, I couldn't have said it better myself -- all of your responses were as thoroughly entertaining as they were savvy and thoughtful! Becky, in addition, thanks for your heads-up about your 2-part gangster movie series this weekend. I look forward to reading it (and the rest of you are, too, I trust)! I'm reminded of the first time THE GODFATHER was on network TV. My dad, who was a bookie as well as the owner of an Italian restaurant, poked his head into the living room and watched for 10 or 15 minutes. Finally, he snorted, "That's a lotta malarkey!" and left the room. Such a character, that one, God rest his soul! :-)

  11. CRACK IN THE WORLD is one of those movies that's just fun. Heck, even the title is entertaining! Plus, no serious sci fi fan can go wrong with a movie starring Janette Scott from THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS. I haven't seen it in years, but do recall it being an entertaining, though not very believable, sci fi disaster film. That said, my favorite of this genre is the excellent and underrated THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE.

  12. Thanks, Rick -- glad you enjoyed our CRACK IN THE WORLD review! You're the second reader here who also recommended THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE. Vinnie has seen and enjoyed it. Now I'm interested in checking it out, too, especially since I'm a Michael Caine fan!

  13. Can never understand why somebody would direct something at "Hollywood". They do understand that it is a place and not an actual centralized organization in charge of filmmaking, don't they?

    It reminds me of the folks who made SPIDER-MAN and some other producers at the time erasing the World Trade Center from their films following 9/11. At the same time, I seem to recall some folks saying that "Hollywood" should refrain from any films or television shows that showed NYC or other major cities being attacked.

    Although INDEPENDENCE DAY had its share of laughable moments (some unintentional, I'm sure) it was pretty good. I'm positive that I saw CRACK IN THE WORLD & THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE years ago, but probably have them all mixed-up in my head. thanks for the memory jog.

  14. Excellent comments, Steve! As a native New Yorker, I've always thought that the revisionist-history gambit of CGI-ing away the World Trade Center after 9/11 was downright disrespectful to New York City and the people who showed such bravery and fortitude, many of whom paid for it with their lives. Sweeping tragedy under the rug doesn't do anyone any good; all we can do is move on and do our best to prevent future tragedies as best we can. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Steve!

  15. Hey, fellow TotED pals, please welcome our newest Follower, Reggie Ridgway! He's a writer, too, and his suspense novel IN THE MIDNIGHT HOUR will be published shortly. Find out more about Reggie at the Independent Author Network:

  16. My favorite is the disaster flick that is NOT a disaster flick.
    Wim Wenders "Until the End of the World".
    Likely one of the best science fiction films ever made as well.

  17. Shelley, thanks for suggesting Wim Wenders' UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD! It's a movie I've always heard great things about, but never had the free time to rent it. Thanks for your recommendation!