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Good Disaster Movies (1990-95): Is That a Crack in the Plane’s Ceiling?
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Good Disaster Movies (1990-95): Is That a Crack in the Plane’s Ceiling?

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David Appleford itcherAfter an admitted slump in both the style and the limited choices of disaster films in the eighties, things began to turn around in the nineties. It wasn’t immediate, but something exciting was happening with new movie technology, and that made all the difference, which you can see in ‘Miracle Landing’ and ‘Alive’, amongst others. ~ David Appleford

Officially Certified Fun

Horror and sci-fi genres benefited from the new Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI), but it was in the disaster film where the difference could really be felt. Discovering that an element of realism could be achieved by a computer rather than the painstaking use of models, which, no matter how hard special effects departments tried, would often remain looking like models, CGI could make things look realistic and spectacular.

The studios began to put larger budgets back into the disaster film. The money wasn’t for the actors, it was for the CGI. As a result, there developed a lesser attempt to explore individual conflicts of a large, all-star cast, as had usually been the case with those earlier classic disaster flicks, and more on the look of the destruction itself.  

Each of the five movie suggestions below reflects that developing change. For the first half of the nineties, the television movie was still a safer haven for studios when it came to the disaster genre, but by focusing less on the human issues and more on the devastation of whatever the central problem happened to be, ratings rose. Enjoy the following. They’re all officially certified fun, and that’s exactly what you want from a disaster film.

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Explosive Disaster Movies

‘Miracle Landing’ (Garner Simmons, 1990)

Wait! We’re coming in with one engine, and a big hole in the airplane, and they’re worried about a wrong flight number!

There’s a good chance that if you look for a film called ‘Panic in the Sky,’ you’ll be directed back to ‘Miracle Landing.’ Both titles were employed, but ‘Miracle Landing’ was the original moniker, and that’s what home releases now use on the box.

Based on a true story, ‘Miracle Landing’ is all the more terrifying because it actually happened. The real story occurred in 1988 when Aloha Airlines Flight 243 was flying from one Hawaiian island to another. Cracks appeared in the ceiling. Suddenly, the entire top half section of the plane ripped apart. One flight attendant lost her life as she was sucked from the aircraft while the pilot grappled for control in the hope that the plane might land, but fearing the worst.

The main difference between the fictional account and the real story is curiously the name of the airline. The film used the fictitious ‘Paradise Airlines’ yet the plane the makers flew was an actual Aloha Airlines craft.  Other than the use of the occasional flashback and some condensing of events, most of the details are authentic. One flight expert called it one of the most technically accurate air disaster movies ever. With an endorsement like that, get the popcorn ready.

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‘Alive’ (Frank Marshall, 1993)

And what about our innocence? What’s gonna become of our innocence if we survive as cannibals?

‘Alive’ is another real life disaster story involving an airline. Unlike ‘Miracle Landing,’ the scale of ‘Alive’ is considerably larger with a much bigger budget and some big screen credits attached.  

On Friday October 13, 1972  Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 crashed into the Andes Mountains. It carried the Uruguayan rugby team. Not all survived. Those that did were devastated to hear on their radio that after nine days of huddling in the snow with little to no food, no one would be coming. The rescue search was called off. Alone, freezing and starving, the remaining passengers take a vote and decide that in order to survive they would eat the frozen flesh of their dead team members. There was no other choice.

The plane crash is masterful. It took nine days to film in order for director Marshall to get things looking right with his actors. After spending countless hours of being tossed from side to side everyday for nine consecutive days, the studio had to bring in a large amount of sickness pills.

However, the sacrifice to the digestive system paid off. When CGI, blue-screen and footage of terrified looking actors were skillfully edited together, as it was here, the scene of the crash became a powerful moment of horror and realistic looking special effects. It will leave you breathless.

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‘The Birds 2: Land’s End’ (Rick Rosenthal as Alan Smithee, 1994)

Perhaps for most people, the biggest surprise of ‘The Bird 2: Land’s End’ is that Alfred Hitchcock’s famous 1963 classic ‘The Birds’ ever had a sequel in the first place.

The plot pretty much covers what happened in ‘63 but on the East Coast. It even has a guest role from Tippi Hedren, star of the Hitchcock film. A family moves to a summer house on an island, the same house used for filming in the original. For some unaccounted reason, flocks of birds swoop down and start attacking people. As the poster states: History has a way of repeating itself.

No one’s kidding anyone here. Nothing can compare with the Hitchcock film, but this sequel does have at least one advantage over the first: the effects occasionally look a little better. But here’s what you should know about ‘The Birds 2.’ Critics savaged it, Tippi Hedren said it embarrassed her, and director Rick Rosenthal wanted his name removed, which is why the fictional name of Alan Smithee is used.

But don’t let that stop you. With all the chases, the running and the screaming and that huge flock of screeching birds preparing to attack, despite the negative publicity, this film is a lot of Saturday afternoon, unintentional, disastrous fun.

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‘The Great Los Angeles Earthquake’ (Larry Elikann, 1990)

The deaths… The deaths… If you’ve seen what I did today. This must be the worse national disaster since the Civil War. I’m sorry!

Originally broadcast as a two-part TV miniseries, the film was cut to be shown in a much shorter version and re-titled as ‘The Big One,’ but once the DVD was released, all of those edited scenes were restored, and that’s the 3 hour version you’ll find.

With a good ol’ fashioned disaster movie setup but with some better effects courtesy of the early days of computer generated imagery, several characters in California deal with their daily lives and personal conflicts, not knowing that the big one is about to strike Los Angeles.

Because of its lengthy, mini-series style construct, the buildup to the earthquake may seem to take awhile. But the film has a surprising sense of urgency about it as seismologist Clare Winslow (Joanna Kerns) runs around trying to warn everybody of an oncoming, powerful quake, making the film eminently watchable and exceedingly entertaining.  

And, frankly, even though it was made for TV, it’s actually more fun than its Charlton Heston big screen counterpart of the seventies, ‘Earthquake.’

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‘Without Warning’ (Robert Iscove, 1994)

Remember the story about Orson Welles and how his infamous 1938 radio broadcast of ‘The War of the Worlds’ frightened American listeners into thinking it was real, and people panicked? Because of the naturalistic, story-telling style of the TV movie ‘Without Warning’ where TV newsbreaks and journalists report of meteors crashing to major cities on Earth as if it was really happening, the movie-makers were concerned of their film having the same effect with viewers.

That sense of realism was made all the more effective when it was first shown in 1994 when then well-known American TV news anchor Sander Vaocur and TV reporter Bree Walker starred in the film as themselves as they interrupted broadcasts with Breaking News segments and what looked like live remote reports.  

In order to illustrate what viewers were watching was not at all real, the film occasionally presented certain events played out in minutes but reported as being an hour apart. The producers hoped these accelerated-time occurrences would alleviate any fear of reality. Still, some viewers were reported as panicked.

When you watch the film, think of the following: ‘Without Warning’ had its premiere on October 30, 1994. Of all the coincidences, that date was the anniversary of Orson Welles’ ‘The War of the Worlds.’ It played on radio and panicked listeners on October 30, 1938.

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A Recipe for Disaster

Despite the fact that during the first half of the nineties, most of the choice disaster movies were from television, the second half of the decade had the studios turning their attention and their developed cinematic technology to the big screen.

Those first five years proved that audiences still enjoyed a good disaster, particularly when the effects were looking better. Now all that the studios had to do was to get that same audience out of the home and into theatres, which during the next five years is exactly what they did. To be continued.

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