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.