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Good Disaster Movies (1995–00): A Hard Rain Is Gonna Fall

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David Appleford itcherClearly, by the latter years of the nineties, when it came to disaster movies, Hollywood was in a quandary. The first half of the decade proved that with the advent of new movie technology, an on-screen disaster could look more realistic than ever. But most disaster-themed flicks were aimed squarely at television. The fundamental problem for the movie industry was: how to get audiences back into theatres? ~ David Appleford

Getting Viewers out of the Living Room

Taking its cue from the Horror movie formula of the sixties, several studios began their nineties Disaster movie formula with just a title. Once a poster could be created around a single, descriptive name, writers were hired to pen stories based solely on that name and how things might look on the poster. Thus, you’ll notice that the majority of late-nineties disaster films had simple though unmistakably illustrative titles like ‘Asteroid,’ ‘Virus,’ or ‘Tornado!’

The following five films are representative of what was developing within the industry during the second half of the decade. Keen to get viewers out of the living room and into an auditorium, but hesitant for fear of having more flops on their hands, the studios took baby steps. They continued with television, but slowly they started to release disaster-themed projects for the larger screen.


Realistic Disaster Movie Recommendations

‘Tornado!’ (Noel Nosseck, 1996)

If it wasn’t for the famous ’96 Michael Crichton-penned big-screen adventure ‘Twister’, most of us may never have known what a Storm Chaser was. Inspired by the huge success of that popular CGI-laden adventure, the studios repeated it but on a somewhat smaller scale. First they found a title, then they made a TV movie. They called it ‘Tornado!’

Bruce Campbell plays Jake Thorne, a man who earns a living chasing twisters in order to film and record the event for further study. Jake’s friend, Dr. Branson (Ernie Hudson) has invented a machine that may be able to detect oncoming tornados, but it needs more research, and that means more funds.

Shannon Sturges plays Samantha Callen, a government auditor sent by the authorities to investigate this new machine and to find out whether the project really works. In the meantime, while a romance develops between storm chaser Thorne and government agent Callen, tornadoes are beginning to spin.

The effects, not to mention the plot, scream small screen, and if you start finding things a little too pat, you can still have fun with some continuity snafus that result when movie production is rushed. When one character is blown over and hits her head on a rock, it’s obvious she’s missed the rock by several inches, and when Bruce Campbell quickly climbs into a truck, a moment later he’s in a different vehicle – the one he climbed into is following behind. But audiences were entertained and greeted the TV film favorably when it first aired.  

Seeing it again on DVD without commercial breaks actually helps things move at a brisk pace by increasing both tension and excitement. It’s no classic, but it is fun.

‘Hard Rain’ (Mikael Salomon, 1998)

During a massive rain storm, in a small, Indiana town, the nearby dam is about to burst and flood the streets. The town is evacuated with just a few people left, but stuck right there in the middle of the rising waters is an armored truck carrying three million dollars, and there’s an armed gang ready take whatever they can before the whole area goes underwater.

The original title to this high-budget, big screen disaster movie of ’98 was ‘The Flood,’ but something interesting happened before its release. Because of the money involved plus the prestige of having some big names in the cast, including Morgan Freeman, Minnie Driver and Christian Slater, the film-makers suddenly developed cold – or should we say – wet feet.  

The studio wanted to position the film more as a heist movie rather than a disaster, so it changed the title to ‘Hard Rain’ and marketed the film as an action/robbery flick. It backfired.  

Due to low attendances in America, the studio lost all faith and released the film as a straight-to-video movie almost everywhere else, but don’t let that stop you. Arguably, had the studio stuck with ‘The Flood’ and marketed the film as a disaster with a robbery subplot it might have stood a better chance. After all, the setup is perfectly fine, and even though Minnie Driver is said to have hated working on the film because of the never-ending days of filming in water, the action is taught and generally well done. Enjoy.

‘Airspeed’ (Robert Tinnell, 1998)

In truth, this 1998 disaster thriller from Canada offers little in the way of surprises, plus if you know anything about flying planes, you’ll probably spend most of your time picking holes in the technical aspects. But, slow down a moment; there’s still fun to be had. First: the setup.

When a bratty little rich girl of thirteen (Elisha Cuthbert) is expelled from her third school, her father (Joe Mantegna) has had enough. He flies her home on his private jet, but something happens along the way. A storm damages the plane and causes the crew to pass out due to a lack of oxygen.

Miraculously, the only person left conscious is the little bratty girl who, with the help of an air traffic controller, does what she can to regain control of the jet and hopefully land the craft.

Yes, it’s true that an airplane flying through a thunderstorm has practically no chance of suffering damage created by a lightning strike, and, yes, that unconscious co-pilot in full view really does move his hand out of the way so that the young heroine can secure her seat buckle, but with a film like ‘Airspeed’ and a setup as preposterous as this, all the inaccuracies and the continuity problems are all part of the pleasure.

‘The Day of the Roses’ (Peter Fisk, 1998)

Despite some fictional changes and a few dramatic embellishments, this is mostly a true story, and that makes things all the more interesting. In 1977, a crowded commuter train on its way to Sydney in Australia hit part of the Granville Bridge. The bridge collapsed. Eighty-three passengers died, several hundred more were injured. The film recalls the disastrous day and re-enacts the whole affair and its aftermath.

This Australian production was first shown as a two-part mini series for TV, but can be found pieced together for a DVD release. Even though some have complained that the film took liberties with the truth, almost all of the characters named are said to be real with the exception of a Dr. White who is based on several doctors working on the crash site at the time.  

The film is framed as a flashback where at an anniversary of the crash, just as the title suggests, roses are dropped on the track. The inspiration for the scene came from ‘Schindlers List.’ If you recall, this was where stones were carefully placed on Schindlers’ grave in honor of his memory. Director Peter Fisk took that moment and used it for ‘The Day of the Roses’. It’s well worth your time.

‘Chain Reaction’ (Andrew Davis, 1996)

A big screen disaster where Keanu Reeves and Rachel Weisz discover an alternate source of low cost, pollution free energy but find themselves framed for a murder and on the run, with the CIA, the FBI, the police and various other interested parties in tow.

The original title was ‘Drop Dead,’ but that soon changed once several plot elements changed during filming. In fact, so much of that original script was altered that in the end ‘Chain Reaction’ looked nothing like the original piece.  

Plus, look closely at Reeves. At the time of release, some audience members mentioned he looked a little overweight… and he was. Just before filming, the Canadian actor was playing hockey and injured both his neck and back and thus gained weight.  

‘Chain Reaction’ is technically a disaster film and positioned as one – the big explosion behind Reeves as he escapes on a motorbike is particularly good – but it’s also a chase movie, with most of the action centered on Reeves escaping the clutches of government bad guys with just fractions of a second to spare. It was directed by Andrew Davis who had scored a huge success with another chase movie, ‘The Fugitive,’ and even though this film comes nowhere near the quality of that somewhat prestigious adventure, it does have its moments and well worth a rental.


The Answer to Hollywood’s Disaster Genre Prayers

Part of the problem that Hollywood was experiencing with the disaster genre during the nineties was its inability to repeat the same kind of commercial success of earlier years.  

It had the talent and it certainly had the ability to make the effects appear more realistic than ever, but something was still keeping audiences away. Then came the new millennium, and with it, the answer to Hollywood’s disaster genre prayers: the remake.

To be continued.

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