Opinion: Disaster films are starting to hit too close to home

By Farah Bassyouni Jan 28, 2022
Drawing by Liam Killian
Drawing by Liam Killian

I’m fed up with Hollywood, and like most people, I’m fed up with the state of the world. Last December, the movies Silent Night and Don’t Look Up hit box offices and despite the engaging previews and press hype, neither received a lot of positive feedback. Both films are classified as horror comedies, but are thinly veiled commentaries on modern global issues like COVID-19 and global warming – topics that viewers, like myself, are tired of hearing about. 

Don’t Look Up was originally released in theaters December 5 and began streaming on Netflix on December 24. With a star-studded cast of Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Jonah Hill and the beloved Meryl Streep, many believed it was destined to be a total hit. It was written and directed by Adam McKay, who is also behind other real-life satirical comedies like The Big Short and Vice. In data released by Netflix, Don’t Look Up was the third-most watched movie in English based on the amount of views in the first four weeks. In spite of all this, it currently has a 55 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, has been rated 7.3 out of 10 on IMDB and received a 49 percent rating on Metacritic. According to several critics, the focus of the plot is what truly tanked this movie.

Don’t Look Up focuses on two astronomers, a grad student (Lawrence) and her professor (DiCaprio), who discover a comet headed straight to earth, and will erase all life in six months. When the two scientists approach the President (Streep), she brushes off this discovery until it proves beneficial to her campaign, and even then, the media and the public refuse to accept that humanity’s end is near. If any of this feels familiar, it should. 

Streep’s character President Orlean serves as a loose analogy to Donald Trump’s presidency, even making her son (Hill) the Chief of Staff at the White House, paralleling Donald Trump Jr.’s involvement in his father’s political career. Furthermore, President Orlean refuses to address the issue of the looming comet despite knowing the dangers it brings to her nation. 

While McKay intended the script to be “an extended metaphor for the consistently obtuse response to the climate crisis […] it is difficult to ignore prescient parallels to the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic as well” (Dylan Connor of ScreenRant). Either way, both Trump and the fictional Orlean remained publicly and wilfully ignorant, twisted the words of renowned scientists and stirred mass media hysteria to their own benefits. 

Personally, I watched the movie through the COVID-19 lens rather than that of climate change, but it made the movie much more unbearable. We’re constantly surrounded by news of COVID, and with the latest trends of the Omicron strand, seeing a real-life crisis made fun of on screen was difficult and nauseating. Peter Mutuc of ScreenRant wrote that “the giant comet is a metaphor for the harsh realities and peer-reviewed scientific facts that memes, talk shows, and other forms of entertainment allow society to ignore.” 

And while shoving the pandemic (or global warming) in our face through a blockbuster hit is certainly one way to make people aware of impending crises, I’m pretty sure everyone at least has an opinion on these politicized issues.

Only a few weeks before the release of Don’t Look Up, another thoroughly depressing movie was released: Silent Night. A British drama-horror-black comedy film starring Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode and Roman Griffin Davis, this film is darker than Don’t Look Up but still retains a slight comedic element. And while it’s not a clear satire with obvious connections to reality, Silent Night takes the global fear of humanitarian crisis and projects it onto the screen in the form of a toxic cloud of gas. 

While the origins of the gas cloud are unknown in the film, two theories emerge from the children: one believes it came from the Russians as a form of biological warfare, and another believes the gas came from the Earth from global warming. Either way, on Christmas Eve, a family and their closest friends gather for a final celebration before taking government-issued suicide pills so they die quickly, rather than suffer a slow, painful and gruesome death from the gas.

With the involvement of young children in this film, several morality questions are raised: are the parents really killing their children by forcing them to take the pill? Is it a choice or a responsibility to take the pill? What if the pill fails, and you have to endure the consequences? One child in particular, Art (Davis), poses most of the ethical questions, asking about the homeless and those who are unable to access the pill, or asking what will happen if he refuses to take it. This may be a small commentary on vaccinations, but according to Concepción de León of The New York Times, it rather “emphasizes the ways in which children are vulnerable to adults’ decisions, and how the wealthy skirt responsibility and protect their own”. 

Another depressing movie about the horrors of our own lives based in reality, Silent Night was given a 64 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, a 5.7 out of 10 on IMDB and a 52 percent on Metacritic. So far, the movie barely grossed $315,000. 

It’s clear these disaster movies with roots in reality do not do well – despite great casts and the efforts to advertise and pique interests, it’s hard to give a positive review for a movie that is barely removed from our current reality. And with the upcoming movie Moonfall, which is literally about the moon falling, it’s hard to imagine that’ll garner good press as well. One thing is for certain: audiences are not impressed by disaster horror films, now that the line between reality and fiction is continuing to blur.

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