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6 - Disaster Cinema. A Historical Overview

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 November 2020

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Summary

Abstract

The aim is to give a historical account of the disaster movie genre in chronological order, in continuation of the cultural and technological history of sublime disasters. The films in question employ the receptive and general aesthetic characteristics of the sublime for their depictions of catastrophic events. My discussion also includes the specific media technological environments in which the films were performed, insofar as cinema's potential to function as a medium of the sublime represents the receptive foundation of the films. What is excluded from this historical account is the interpretations of the films’ disasters as allegories of specific contemporary political and socio-cultural events. In opposition to these (often premature) readings, one must take the immediate sensuality and the receptive tactics of disaster films seriously and elucidate the genre's transformations by reference to the mechanisms of economic profit and technological innovation and application.

Keywords: Cultural History of Natural Disasters, Film History, Film Genre, Media History, Aesthetics

Let me revisit the most defining feature of disaster cinema, as outlined above: in opposition to attempts that focus on the films’ narrative structures and hidden ideological messages, I claim that disaster films, first and foremost, present destructive (natural) forces, which are threatening humankind with its far inferior existence, as sublime cinematic attractions. Following this attempt of a definition, I will give a historical account of the disaster movie genre in chronological order, a task that, so far, has been addressed rather superficially within film studies. However, it is understood that even the most thorough and encompassing account can never claim to provide a definite and fully complete trajectory.

The majority of films to be named on the following pages were decisive contributors to the development of the genre and its changing sensory, thematic, and general aesthetic appearance. They were also significant blockbusters in the sense that were ‘designed to make a big impact on the box office […and] capable of generating exceptionally large revenues partly by virtue of exceptional production values’.

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Disaster Cinema in Historical Perspective
Mediations of the Sublime
, pp. 173 - 206
Publisher: Amsterdam University Press
Print publication year: 2020

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