I am a fan of disaster movies. They allow me to confront my death anxiety while indulging in the fantasy that I and my friends might manage to survive, but over the last few years I have noticed something interesting going on in disaster movies with respect to patriarchy.
With a few exceptions, disaster movies tend to present strictly gendered worlds in which men are MEN and women are WOMEN. Since the 1990s a lot of disaster movies have more or less explicitly linked the representation of a terrible disaster with the representation of fatherhood. The emotional centre of these narratives is the story of a man who is a Dad, or at least a potential Dad. At the beginning of the film, he does not appear to be a good candidate for fatherhood because he’s emotionally shut down/divorced/doesn’t see enough of his kids/obsessed with his work etc. But as the disaster unfolds, so too does his increasingly heroic Dad potential.
Warning: this post contains spoilers for several disaster movies.
The two volcano-based disaster movies are good examples. In Volcano (1997) Tommy Lee Jones is a workaholic Dad who in the course of the film vanquishes a Volcano and recreates his family. In Dante’s Peak (1997), Pierce Brosnan is an emotionally shut down, work-obsessed scientist, but he clearly has heroic Dad potential and, by the end of the film, accepts his role as father to the children of his new girlfriend.
I think we can include Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005) here too. Technically it’s SF but it borrows a lot from disaster movies, including the narrative in which deadbeat, divorced Dad, Tom Cruise, must work very hard to keep his high-maintenance daughter safe from the aliens.
Armageddon (1998) is an interesting example of this narrative with a father/daughter relationship. Although Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) has had custody of his daughter, Grace, he’s still a bit of a dodgy Dad – he’s dragged her around oil rigs her entire life and is a control freak of a parent. Armageddon adds a creepy incest narrative in which Liv Tyler’s character has fallen in love with a man who is exactly like her father (the film keeps reiterating this point so we can’t ignore it, no matter how much we might want to) and Daddy is, of course, freaking out with jealousy. When he finds out that his employee A.J has been sleeping with his “little girl” (who appears to be about 25), Bruce, playing one of the most phallic fathers ever seen in disaster movies, chases his potential replacement all over his oil rig with a big gun trying to maim (castrate) him. I won’t attempt to explain the plot because it doesn’t matter, but Harry Stamper and his gang of oil drillers are conscripted by the Government to fly into space land on a huge asteroid that is heading towards Earth, drill a hole in it, stick a nuclear bomb down the hole and blow it up, so saving Earth from destruction. Thank goodness we did all of that drilling for oil because now the transferable skills we gained from the activity are going to help us save the planet! Using his gigantic ah “drill” Harry must literally penetrate this asteroid into oblivion (everyone keeps screaming that the drill has to reach a depth of 800 feet and apparently only Harry can get the drill to that depth because he’s “the best”). At the end of movie, A.J. takes over the drill and proves his worth by getting it down to the appropriate depth. Harry then resigns himself to the situation, accepts the young man as his “son” and packs him back off to Earth to marry Grace, while he stays behind to do the nuclear bomb bit and sacrifice himself. One of them has to die because they can’t both have Grace. Interestingly, one of Harry’s gang is another deadbeat Dad who isn’t allowed to visit his son, with the result that the kid doesn’t know who he is anymore. When this kid’s Mum sees her ex on TV, about to be sent into space on the shuttle, she tells her son, “That’s your Daddy”. You don’t get to be a Dad in a disaster movie without undertaking immense trials and proving yourself to be a serious hero. Through his heroism this guy achieves the right to be a Daddy and when he gets back to Earth (and we know he will get back) his son is waiting and runs into his arms because being a hero wipes the slate clean of any Dad fail you might have committed in the past.
In the last few years Roland Emmerich has taken this narrative to extremes in his films The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and 2012 (2009). In The Day After Tomorrow Dennis Quaid plays Jack Hall, a divorced Dad who prioritises his work over getting to know his son – he’s late for picking him up and bad stuff like that. When human environmental fail results in a new ice age, the disaster brings out Jack Hall’s heroic Dad potential and he sets out across the ice to save his son who is trapped in New York. In fact this adventure is pretty pointless because the son is doing just fine and Jack doesn’t really rescue him in the end; he simply arrives and they catch the rescue helicopter together (which is kind of a bummer for the dude who got killed on the journey). But the point is not really to rescue the son; it is to prove Jack Hall’s heroic Dadness. As some critics pointed out at the time, what’s really frightening about The Day After Tomorrow is its apparent desire for the annihilation of a large portion of the human race and suggestion that this disaster may be a good thing. At the end, people viewing Earth from the space station say that they have never seen the skies so clear. Not only is the air clear, even more importantly, the disaster has enabled a Dad to be a hero. Possibly, there is something a bit paradoxical about a film which claims that a patriarchal, capitalist system has almost trashed the Earth only to end with an affirmation of, well, patriarchy.
2012 goes further and does something really interesting with its Dads. The kids in this film have TWO Dads. There’s John Cusack, who plays Jackson, their divorced, work-obsessed, but charismatic, biological Dad. He’s a writer so we know he’s cool, but he’s rubbish at taking them on camping trips. Then there’s Thomas McCarthy, who plays Gordon, their nurturing and much more present in their lives, but kind of dull, stepfather. The mother is completely inane – she has no character beyond being a Mom and isn’t even that bothered by the end of the world as long as her children are safe. I rather expected stepdad Gordon to be killed off in the first 10 minutes so as to give Jackson a chance to shine, but Emmerich is cleverer than that and when disaster strikes, both Dads immediately become heroes. Through a feat of detective work and some amazing driving, Jackson finds out what’s really going on and hatches a plan to save his family. Gordon, meanwhile, keeps them out of danger through his amazing ability to fly planes (big ones and little ones) after just a couple of lessons. Gosh, I thought to myself, how is this film going to handle two such heroic Dads? But, I shouldn’t have feared. Jackson and Gordon are doubles – two sides of the same figure – and the film is really about the union of their qualities into one perfect Dad. Gordon is finally killed off in a gruesome blood sacrifice while Jackson rises from death (almost drowned) as a new man who has incorporated Gordon. He is still charismatic, but is now nurturing and there for his family. At the end of the film, no one is grieving for Gordon because they don’t have to and Jackson’s daughter is actually less traumatised than she was at the beginning (we are told that she has stopped wetting the bed). Presumably, having a hero for a father cancels out the trauma of seeing the world almost destroyed. Two other Dads in 2012 are heroes – Danny Glover as the president who stays behind but gets his daughter out of harm’s way, and the evil Russian oligarch who sacrifices himself to save his sons. There are Dads everywhere in this film. Even Jackson’s son is instructed that if his father dies he must look after his little sister (it is a rule of disaster movies that women cannot fend for themselves). This makes the point that little boys are always potential MEN and if Dad dies, this little boy must take over and become Dad to his sister.
The true nightmare in 2012 is not the end of the world as we know it; it is the bleak and cynical vision of human nature which proposes that humans would respond to mass destruction with Fascism. The world’s governments keep their knowledge of the imminent end of the world secret and set about building arks which they fund by selling seats at 1 billion Euros a pop to the richest people on the planet, while some of the poorest (the Chinese workers) labour to build the things. This means that Bill Gates and Richard Branson will live, while the rest of us die. However, there is an exception. A few ordinary people who show the best genetic breeding potential for repopulating the world have been selected for rescue. I guess this means that no queer or disabled people (who don’t have a billion Euros) will be allowed on the arks. As the arks sail for South Africa packed with the world’s wealthy elite and some human breeding stock, you could be excused for having your doubts about the future of this society, but perhaps Jackson’s ascension to heroic Dadhood makes it all OK.
Disaster movies present us with highly questionable mythologies – bad dads are really good dads; if women are allowed to divorce men, men will lose their sense of identity; men are at their best when dealing with horror and violence etc. Having said that, I don’t want to argue that disaster movies have become a cultural space in which patriarchy is unequivocally celebrated, because by presenting such massively over determined, even hysterical, narratives about fatherhood, these films actually reveal a deep cultural anxiety that Dads aren’t really heroes.
I am looking forward to viewing The Road because I’ll be interested to see if it’s going to be anything more than an intellectual version of 2012 which middle-class “educated” people can go and see without feeling ashamed for indulging themselves in the tale of the heroic Dad.