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Disastrous Fun




Last week, I saw Moonfall on the big screen--a new disaster movie just like all the other disaster movies. This movie had it all: scientists in disbelief, situation-room showdowns, kids in peril, and glorious CGI of tidal waves ravaging shorelines, debris raining down from outer space, and mountains crumbling onto towns below. The science was dubious, and the plot was full of holes, but I left the theater admitting my $6 was well spent: an itch had been scratched.

Americans love a good disaster. Countless cult film classics, from Independence Day to Twister, reflect the something in us that wants to see the world burn. We like seeing the cities reduced to rubble and the cars hurled skyward, even before Marvel heroes save the day.

On-screen blood and gore clearly have their appeal, but these impersonal, bloodless spectacles are different. Not far down the YouTube rabbit hole, you'll find an entire subculture devoted to smashing cars with heavy machinery to entertain preschoolers. The kids love destruction, and so do we, for some reason.

Maybe the modern world overwhelms us with its gleaming complexity, and we subconsciously long to see natural simplicity restored. Maybe, in leaving the carnage to our imagination, disaster footage offers us guilt-free sadistic glee. Or maybe some of our joy in large objects that collide, explode, careen and shatter is simpler than that.

Don Delillo's 1985 novel, White Noise, features a pathetic yet insightful professor character who over-analyzes pop culture in comically niche seminars, offering takes like this:

"Watch any car crash in any American movie. It is a high-spirited moment like old-fashioned stunt flying, walking on wings. The people who stage these crashes are able to capture a lightheartedness, a carefree enjoyment that car crashes in foreign movies can never approach . . . . Look past the violence . . . . There is a wonderful brimming spirit of innocence and fun."

I'm drawn to the optimism in this explanation. I tell my students that to be human is to be curious: to wonder what would happen if we flew a little closer to the sun, and to try it out just because we can. Disaster art lets us ponder those daydream "what-ifs": what if a giant lizard stepped on this bridge, what if this building were ripped straight out of the ground, what if the moon fell?

British satirist, Terry Pratchett, jokes, "If you put a large switch in some cave somewhere, with a sign on it saying 'End-of-the-World Switch. PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH', the paint wouldn't even have time to dry.” Pulling switches can be destructive, but we know it's tempting. We all harbor inner children who long to pull switches, push buttons, and wreak innocent havoc. Our so-bad-it's-good disaster movies are playgrounds where they can finally have a little fun.

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