x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A bad year makes disaster movies look dull by comparison

Hollywood disaster movies can hardly compete with this year's list of real disasters. And now we're being warned of little green men.

The images of the deserted city invoked scenes from a disaster movie. I Am Legend, 28 Days or, if you're an old timer, Day of the Triffids. Save for the odd neon sign, street lights and Times Square's big screen, Manhattan had finally gone to bed.

In the end, Hurricane Irene spared New York City but killed at least 40 people and brought flooding and power cuts to other areas as it caused havoc across the north-east United States.

Residents of the Big Apple, lugging suitcases and cradling pets, headed for temporary shelters after a mass evacuation was ordered. Others, in Vermont for example, were not so lucky.

What was undeniable was the morbid fascination of the worldwide audience. And in the end it was nowhere near as catastrophic as it could have been.

This year, international news has often read like a B-action movie. Birds falling from the sky across the world; floods in Australia and Pakistan; an earthquake and tsunami devastating Japan; and Hurricane Irene.

And thanks to the 24-hour networks, we've all had front row seats.

For years, apocalyptic films were deemed the perfect escapist fun. Vacuous "end of days" fare like Armageddon and The Day After Tomorrow now seem embarrassing. The barely watchable 2012, meanwhile, pales in comparison to the real thing.

Perhaps CGI images of mayhem cannot do justice to the real-life tragedies we are bombarded with daily. Or audiences may, at long last, have realised how awful these popcorn blockbusters are. Or just maybe we find the idea of millions of people perishing for entertainment just a bit tasteless, a little too close to home.

"One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic," Stalin famously said. He would know. Hollywood movies do too, focusing on the trials of a few sympathetic protagonists while millions around them meet gruesome ends.

In real life, the plight of a few often captivates us more than the misery of the faceless thousands or even millions. For many, it was easier to identify with 33 trapped Chilean miners, or even mourn Amy Winehouse, than it was to be moved - genuinely moved - by the catastrophe unfolding in Somalia. We are incapable of processing the sheer volume of human misery and, quite simply, we just do not have enough empathy to go around.

Natural disasters, wars and acts of terrorism kill indiscriminately. Hundreds of thousands die and are made homeless so, just like the heroic family that miraculously survives the entire movie, we seek scraps of good news: the 28-year-old Evans Muncie, found alive beneath the rubble 28 days after Haiti's earthquake last year; even the dog that survived the aftermath of the Japanese tsunami by clinging to the floating debris of a house for three weeks.

Film studios have for years exploited the fear formula. Airplane crashes, infernos, earthquakes and deadly meteorites are all more or less possible. But surely fiction has a monopoly on aliens, who to my knowledge have had the good sense to avoid us so far. Think again.

Last week, in a report that sounded suspiciously like a hoax, a scientist at Nasa's Planetary Science Division and colleagues at Pennsylvania State University announced that they feared that extraterrestrial beings, having watched humanity turn our beautiful planet into a rubbish skip, might decide to strike pre-emptively to stop us from becoming a threat to the universe. The little men from distant galaxies are green after all.

The planet has taken a battering this year; fiction, as ever, is no match for reality. As we celebrate Eid, let's hope that the worst is over at least for a few months.

And, whatever you do, makes sure you recycle. You wouldn't want to upset ET if he comes calling.

 

akhaled@thenational.ae