It has been nearly half a century since the appearance of Susan Sontag’s landmark essay “The Imagination of Disaster.” The critic wrote of the public fascination with science fiction disaster films, claiming that, on the one hand “from a psychological point of view, the imagination of disaster does not greatly differ from one period in history to another [but, on the other hand] from a political and moral point of view, it does” (224). Even if Sontag is right about aspects of the imagination of disaster not changing, the types, frequency, and magnitude of disasters and their representation in media and popular culture suggest that dynamic conditions prevail on both counts. Disaster has become a significantly urban phenomenon, and highly publicised “worst case” scenarios such as Hurricane Katrina and the Haiti earthquake highlight multiple demographic, cultural, and environmental contexts for visualising cataclysm. The 1950s and 60s science fiction films that Sontag wrote about were filled with marauding aliens and freaks of disabused science. Since then, their visual and dramatic effects have been much enlarged by all kinds of disaster scenarios. Partly imagined, these scenarios have real-life counterparts with threats from terrorism and the war on terror, pan-epidemics, and global climate change.
Sontag’s essay—like most, if not all of the films she mentions—overlooked the aftermath; that is, the rebuilding, following extra-terrestrial invasion. It ignored what was likely to happen when the monsters were gone. In contrast, the psychological as well as the practical, social, and economic aspects of reconstruction are integral to disaster discourse today. Writing about how architecture might creatively contribute to post-conflict (including war) and disaster recovery, for instance, Boano elaborates the psychological background for rebuilding, where the material destruction of dwellings and cities “carries a powerful symbolic erosion of security, social wellbeing and place attachment” (38); these are depicted as attributes of selfhood and identity that must be restored. Similarly, Hutchison and Bleiker (385) adopt a view evident in disaster studies, that disaster-struck communities experience “trauma” and require inspired responses that facilitate “healing and reconciliation” as well as material aid such as food, housing, and renewed infrastructure.
This paper revisits Sontag’s “The Imagination of Disaster,” fifty years on in view of the changing face of disasters and their representation in film media, including more recent films. The paper then considers disaster recovery and outlines the difficult path that “creative industries” like architecture and urban planning must tread when promising a vision of rebuilding that provides for such intangible outcomes as “healing and reconciliation.” We find that hopes for the seemingly positive psychologically- and socially-recuperative outcomes accompanying the prospect of rebuilding risk a variety of generalisation akin to wish-fulfilment that Sontag finds in disaster films.
The Psychology of Science Fiction and Disaster Films
In “The Imagination of Disaster,” written at or close to the height of the Cold War, Sontag ruminates on what America’s interest in, if not preoccupation with, science fiction films tell us about ourselves. Their popularity cannot be explained in terms of their entertainment value alone; or if it can, then why audiences found (and still find) such films entertaining is something that itself needs explanation.
Depicted in media like photography and film, utopian and dystopian thought have at least one thing in common. Their visions of either perfected or socially alienated worlds are commonly prompted by criticism of the social/political status quo and point to its reform. For Sontag, science fiction films portrayed both people’s worst nightmares concerning disaster and catastrophe (e.g. the end of the world; chaos; enslavement; mutation), as well as their facile victories over the kinds of moral, political, and social dissolution the films imaginatively depicted. Sontag does not explicitly attribute such “happy endings” to wish-fulfilling phantasy and ego-protection. (“Phantasy” is to be distinguished from fantasy. It is a psychoanalytic term for states of mind, often symbolic in form, resulting from infantile wish-fulfilment, desires and instincts.) She does, however, describe the kinds of fears, existential concerns (like annihilation), and crises of meaning they are designed (purpose built) to allay. The fears are a product of the time—the down and dark side of technology (e.g. depersonalisation; ambivalence towards science, scientists, and technology) and changes wrought in our working and personal lives by urbanisation. In short, then as now, science fictions films were both expressions of deep and genuine worries and of the pressing need to inventively set them to rest.
When Sontag claims that “the imagination of disaster does not greatly differ” (224) from one period to another, this is because, psychologically speaking, neither the precipitating concerns and fears (death, loss of love, meaninglessness, etc.), nor the ways in which people’s minds endeavour to assuage them, substantively differ. What is different is the way they are depicted. This is unsurprisingly a function of the political, social, and moral situations and milieus that provide the context in which the imagination of disaster unfolds. In contemporary society, the extent to which the media informs and constructs the context in which the imagination operates is unprecedented.
Sontag claims that there is little if any criticism of the real social and political conditions that bring about the fears the films depict (223). Instead, fantasy operates so as to displace and project the actual causes away from their all too human origins into outer space and onto aliens. In a sense, this is the core and raison d’etre for such films. By their very nature, science fiction films of the kind Sontag is discussing cannot concern themselves with genuine social or political criticism (even though the films are necessarily expressive of such criticism). Any serious questioning of the moral and political status quo—conditions that are responsible for the disasters befalling people—would hamper the operation of fantasy and its production of temporarily satisfying “solutions” to whatever catastrophe is being depicted.
Sontag goes on to discuss various strategies science fiction employs to deal with such fears. For example, through positing a bifurcation between good and evil, and grossly oversimplifying the moral complexity of situations, it allows one to “give outlet to cruel or at least amoral feelings” (215) and to exercise feelings of superiority—moral and otherwise. Ambiguous feelings towards science and technology are repressed. Quick and psychologically satisfying fixes are sought for these by means of phantasy and the imaginative construction of invulnerable heroes.
Much of what Sontag says can straightforwardly be applied to catastrophe in general. “Alongside the hopeful fantasy of moral simplification and international unity embodied in the science fiction films lurk the deepest anxieties about contemporary existence” (220). Sontag writes:
In the films it is by means of images and sounds […] that one can participate in the fantasy of living through one’s own death and more, the death of cities, the destruction of humanity itself. Science fiction films are not about science. They are about disaster, which is one of the oldest subjects in art. In science fiction films disaster is rarely viewed intensively; it is always extensive. It is a matter of quality and ingenuity […] the science fiction film […] is concerned with the aesthetics of disaster […] and it is in the imagery of destruction that the core of a good science fiction film lies. (212–13)
In science fiction films, disaster, though widespread, is viewed intensively as well as extensively. The disturbances constitutive of the disaster are moral and emotional as well as material. People are left without the mental or physical abilities they need to cope. Government is absent or useless. We find ourselves in what amounts to what Naomi Zack (“Philosophy and Disaster”; Ethics for Disaster) describes as a Hobbesian second state of nature—where government is inoperative and chaos (moral, social, political, personal) reigns. Science fiction’s way out is to imaginatively construct scenarios emotionally satisfying enough to temporarily assuage the distress (anomie or chaos) experienced in the film.
There is, however, a tremendous difference in the way in which people who face catastrophic occurrences in their lives, as opposed to science fiction, address the problems. For one thing, they must be far closer to complex and quickly changing realities and uncertain truths than are the phantastic, temporarily gratifying, and morally unproblematic resolutions to the catastrophic scenarios that science fiction envisions. Genuine catastrophe, for example war, undermines and dismantles the structures—material structures to be sure but also those of justice, human kindness, and affectivity—that give us the wherewithal to function and that are shown to be inimical to catastrophe as such. Disaster dispenses with civilization while catastrophe displaces it.
Special Effects and Changing Storylines
Science fiction and disaster film genres have been shaped by developments in visual simulation technologies providing opportunities for imaginatively mixing fact and fiction. Developments in filmmaking include computer or digital techniques for reproducing on the screen what can otherwise only be imagined as causal sequences of events and spectacles accompanying the wholesale destruction of buildings and cities—even entire planets. Indeed films are routinely promoted on the basis of how cinematographers and technicians have advanced the state of the art. The revival of 3-D movies with films such as Avatar (2009) and Prometheus (2012) is one of a number of developments augmenting the panoramas of 1950s classics featuring “melting tanks, flying bodies, crashing walls, awesome craters and fissures in the earth, plummeting spacecraft [and] colourful deadly rays” (Sontag 213). An emphasis on the scale of destruction and the wholesale obliteration of recognisable sites emblematic of “the city” (mega-structures like the industrial plant in Aliens (1986) and vast space ships like the “Death Star” in two Star Wars sequels) connect older films with new ones and impress the viewer with ever more extraordinary spectacle.
Films that have been remade make for useful comparison. On the whole, these reinforce the continuation and predictability of some storylines (for instance, threats of extra-terrestrial invasion), but also the attenuation or disappearance of other narrative elements such as the monsters and anxieties released by mid-twentieth century atomic tests (Broderick). Remakes also highlight emerging themes requiring novel or updated critical frameworks. For example, environmental anxieties, largely absent in 1950s science fiction films (except for narratives involving colliding worlds or alien contacts) have appeared en masse in recent years, providing an updated view on the ethical issues posed by the fall of cities and communities (Taylor, “Urban”).
In The Invasion of the Bodysnatchers and its remakes (1956, 1978, 1993), for example, the organic and vegetal nature of the aliens draws the viewer’s attention to an environment formed by combative species, allowing for threats of infestation, growth and decay of the self and individuality—a longstanding theme. In the most recent version, The Invasion (2007), special effects and directorial spirit render the orifice-seeking tendrils of the pod creatures threateningly vigorous and disturbing (Lim). More sanctimonious than physically invasive, the aliens in the 1951 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still are fed up with humankind’s fixation with atomic self-destruction, and threaten global obliteration on the earth (Cox). In the 2008 remake, the suave alien ambassador, Keanu Reeves, targets the environmental negligence of humanity.
Science, including science as fiction, enters into disaster narratives in a variety of ways. Some are less obvious but provocative nonetheless; for example, movies dramatising the arrival of aliens such as War of the Worlds (1953 and 2005) or Alien (1979). These more subtle approaches can be personally confronting even without the mutation of victims into vegetables or zombies. Special effects technologies have made it possible to illustrate the course of catastrophic floods and earthquakes in considerable scientific and visual detail and to represent the interaction of natural disasters, the built environment, and people, from the scale of buildings, homes, and domestic lives to entire cities and urban populations.
For instance, the blockbuster film The Day After Tomorrow (2004) runs 118 minutes, but has an uncertain fictional time frame of either a few weeks or 72 hours (if the film’s title is to taken literally). The movie shows the world as we know it being mostly destroyed. Tokyo is shattered by hailstones and Los Angeles is twisted by cyclones the likes of which Dorothy would never have seen. New York disappears beneath a mountainous tsunami. All of these events result from global climate change, though whether this is due to human (in) action or other causes is uncertain.
Like their predecessors, the new wave of disaster movies like The Day After Tomorrow makes for questionable “art” (Annan). Nevertheless, their reception opens a window onto broader political and moral contexts for present anxieties. Some critics have condemned The Day After Tomorrow for its scientific inaccuracies—questioning the scale or pace of climate change. Others acknowledge errors while commending efforts to raise environmental awareness (Monbiot). Coincident with the film and criticisms in both the scientific and political arena is a new class of environmental heretic—the climate change denier. This is a shadowy character commonly associated with the presidency of George W. Bush and the oil lobby that uses minor inconsistencies of science to claim that climate change does not exist.
One thing underlying both twisting facts for the purposes of making science fiction films and ignoring evidence of climate change is an infantile orientation towards the unknown. In this regard, recent films do what science fiction disaster films have always done. While freely mixing truths and half-truths for the purpose of heightened dramatic effect, they fulfil psychological tasks such as orchestrating nightmare scenarios and all too easy victories on the screen. Uncertainty regarding the precise cause, scale, or duration of cataclysmic natural phenomena is mirrored by suspension of disbelief in the viability of some human responses to portrayals of urban disaster. Science fiction, in other words, invites us to accept as possible the flight of Americans and their values to Mexico (The Day After Tomorrow), the voyage into earth’s molten core (The Core 2003), or the disposal of lava in LA’s drainage system (Volcano 1997).
Reinforcing Sontag’s point, here too there is a lack of criticism of the real social and political conditions that bring about the fears depicted in the films (223). Moreover, much like news coverage, images in recent natural disaster films (like their predecessors) typically finish at the point where survivors are obliged to pick up the pieces and start all over again—the latter is not regarded as newsworthy. Allowing for developments in science fiction films and the disaster genre, Sontag’s observation remains accurate. The films are primarily concerned “with the aesthetics of destruction, with the peculiar beauties to be found in wreaking havoc, in making a mess” (213) rather than rebuilding.
The Imagination of Disaster Recovery
Sontag’s essay contributes to an important critical perspective on science fiction film. Variations on her “psychological point of view” have been explored. (The two discourses—psychology and cinema—have parallel and in some cases intertwined histories). Moreover, in the intervening years, psychological or psychoanalytical terms and narratives have themselves become even more a part of popular culture. They feature in recent disaster films and disaster recovery discourse in the “real” world.
Today, with greater frequency than in the 1950s and 60s films arguably, representations of alien invasion or catastrophic global warming serve to background conflict resolutions of a more quotidian and personal nature. Hence, viewers are led to suspect that Tom Cruise will be more likely to survive the rapacious monsters in the latest The War of the Worlds if he can become less narcissistic and a better father. Similarly, Dennis Quaid’s character will be much better prepared to serve a newly glaciated America for having rescued his son (and marriage) from the watery deep-freezer that New York City becomes in The Day After Tomorrow. In these films the domestic and familial comprise a domain of inter-personal and communal relations from which victims and heroes appear.
Currents of thought from the broad literature of disaster studies and Western media also call upon this domain. The imagination of disaster recovery has come to partly resemble a set of problems organised around the needs of traumatised communities. These serve as an object of urban governance, planning, and design conceived in different ways, but largely envisioned as an organic unity that connects urban populations, their pasts, and settings in a meaningful, psychologically significant manner (Furedi; Hutchison and Bleiker; Boano). Terms like “place” or concepts like Boano’s “place-attachment" (38) feature in this discourse to describe this unity and its subjective dimensions. Consider one example.
In August 2006, one year after Katrina, the highly respected Journal of Architectural Education dedicated a special issue to New Orleans and its reconstruction. Opening comments by editorialist Barbara Allen include claims presupposing enduring links between the New Orleans community conceived as an organic whole, its architectural heritage imagined as a mnemonic vehicle, and the city’s unique setting. Though largely unsupported (and arguably unsupportable) the following proposition would find agreement across a number of disaster studies and resonates in commonplace reasoning:
The culture of New Orleans is unique. It is a mix of ancient heritage with layers and adaptations added by successive generations, resulting in a singularly beautiful cultural mosaic of elements. Hurricane Katrina destroyed buildings—though not in the city’s historic core—and displaced hundreds of thousands of people, but it cannot wipe out the memories and spirit of the citizens. (4)
What is intriguing about the claim is an underlying intellectual project that subsumes psychological and sociological domains of reasoning within a distinctive experience of community, place, and memory. In other words, the common belief that memory is an intrinsic part of the human condition of shock and loss gives form to a theory of how urban communities experience disaster and how they might re-build—and justify rebuilding—themselves. This is problematic and invites anachronistic thinking. While communities are believed to be formed partly by memories of a place, “memory” is neither a collective faculty nor is it geographically bounded. Whose memories are included and which ones are not? Are these truly memories of one place or do they also draw on other real or imagined places?
Moreover—and this is where additional circumspection is inspired by our reading of Sontag’s essay—does Allen’s editorial contribute to an aestheticised image of place, rather than criticism of the social and political conditions required for reconstruction to proceed with justice, compassionately and affectively? Allowing for civil liberties to enter the picture, Allen adds “it is necessary to enable every citizen to come back to this exceptional city if they so desire” (4). However, given that memories of places and desires for their recovery are not univocal, and often contain competing visions of what was and should be, it is not surprising they should result in competing expectations for reconstruction efforts. This has clearly proven the case for New Orleans (Vederber; Taylor, “Typologies”)
The comparison of films invites an extension of Sontag’s analysis of the imagination of disaster to include the psychology, politics, and morality of rebuilding. Can a “psychological point of view” help us to understand not only the motives behind capturing so many scenes of destruction on screen and television, but also something of the creative impulses driving reconstruction? This invites a second question. How do some impulses, particularly those caricatured as the essence of an “enterprise culture” (Heap and Ross) associated with America’s “can-do” or others valorised as positive outcomes of catastrophe in The Upside of Down (Homer-Dixon), highlight or possibly obscure criticism of the conditions which made cities like New Orleans vulnerable in the first place?
The broad outline of an answer to the second question begins to appear only when consideration of the ethics of disaster and rebuilding are taken on board. If “the upside” of “the down” wrought by Hurricane Katrina, for example, is rebuilding of any kind, at any price, and for any person, then the equation works (i.e., there is a silver lining for every cloud). If, however, the range of positives is broadened to include issues of social justice, then the figures require more complex arithmetic.
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Alien. Dir. Ridley Scott. Brandywine Productions, 1979.
Aliens. Dir. James Cameron. Brandywine Productions, 1986.
Avatar. Dir. James Cameron. Lightstorm Entertainment et al., 2009.
The Core. Dir. Jon Amiel. Paramount Pictures, 2003.
The Day after Tomorrow. Dir. Roland Emmerich. 20th Century Fox, 2004.
The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Dir. Don Siegel. Allied Artists, 1956; also 1978 and 1993.
The Invasion. Dirs. Oliver Hirschbiegel and Jame McTeigue. Village Roadshow et al, 2007.
Prometheus. Dir. Ridley Scott. Scott Free and Brandywine Productions, 2012
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Dir. George Lucas. Lucasfilm, 1977.
Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. Dir. George Lucas. Lucasfilm, 1983.
Volcano. Dir. Mick Jackson. 20th Century Fox, 1997.
War of the Worlds. Dir. George Pal. Paramount, 1953; also Steven Spielberg. Paramount, 2005.
The authors are grateful to Oenone Rooksby and Joely-Kym Sobott for their assistance and advice when preparing this article. It was also made possible in part by a grant from the Australian Research Council.