Disaster Movies and the Gremlins Who Love Them

Header depicting a traffic sign in a flood; reads 'Disaster movies! the three key elements that make them work!'

I have a guilty secret; I love disaster movies. Disaster movies in any iteration are my bread and butter. Natural disasters and manmade disasters, you name it, I love it. From earthquake to terrorist attacks to avalanches to nuclear reactors failing, I want it all.

Ultimately it’s about normal people thrust into completely wild situations. Bring it on! Most movies fall into that basic arc but disaster movies are something really special. Usually, there’s an element of dumbness to them (let me tell you about all the stupid-dark movies on Netflix I love); the same kind of “don’t go in there!’ vibes you get from watching a horror movie, but with the bonus of not having serial killers or demons. The character you like is easy to like. The character you hate is easy to watch die dramatically. Disaster movies are easy watching, even as buildings collapse, and people are impaled.

With all that in mind, I loathe one disaster movie above all others.

‘The Perfect Storm’

Ugh

The problem is that it is actually a perfect disaster movie, it has all the right elements and timing and writing. It’s on a bunch of lists of ‘great disaster movies’. But I just can’t stand it.

Ultimately there are a few things a great disaster movie needs. A great story, with great action, and great characters. And finally some sort of X-Factor. I’m not above arguing that The Perfect Storm meets the three criteria points, but jeepers, it seems like it barely makes the grade and there isn’t much there that wow’s me. So, if you’ll pardon the pun, let’s dive in.

Great Story

Yikes!

There’s no doubt that the Perfect Storm is a great story. Not only in following the crew of the Andrea Gail but the various subplots really add depth to the whole film. Those subplots actually draw my attention way more than the main story. I liked the other stories more, plain and simple.

The scariest part of the movie was not the Andrea Gail and that massive wave, but rather the rescue chopper trying to get the three people in that dinky sailboat. The dropping of the rescue basket, the wind whipping around? It’s phenomenal and gut-wrenching. (Also I have a massive fear of swing-sets and extreme wind, so that might be a factor… I wish I were joking). Why not focus on the coast guard rescuers or even the three sailboat characters? These are great storylines to follow.

And then there’s the weatherman; sure following a weatherman is probably not going to be a really great thread for an action movie, but all of the scenes where he realizes that the three weather systems are combining are so vital to the story. You need the visualization from the satellite imagery and his exposition to really understand how high the stakes are. He’s never going to be a protagonist, but I kind of wanted to see more of him.

Finally, the female fishing boat captain! Sure she doesn’t die in the end because she has her head screwed on tight enough to not go into the massive storm system, but I imagine she’d be interesting to follow. What’s her story? She essentially hears the guy she likes end up losing radio contact knowing he’s dying would have been really interesting.

I just genuinely feel that the story of the Perfect Storm followed the wrong group of people. The rising action is about these guys having bad luck fishing, going further out, having good luck, losing their ice machine, and then dying because they didn’t want to turn around when the storm got too wild. It’s okay, but it’s not the story for me.

Great Action

The action in The Perfect Storm is outstanding. That final big wave that’s on every poster for the movie? Ooh, mama. That’s wild and cool and intense and ACTION-y.

And all the events leading up to the storm are pretty great too, I’ve already talked about how terrifying the rescue of the sailboat passengers was for me, but there are also a few key moments of pure fisherman action that really make it fun. I’m talking specifically about the shark attack, and John C. Riley’s character going overboard because he got a hook in his hand and it pulled him into the water. They’re fun scenes, and pretty intense. Later on, those scenes are evidence of bad luck, (ho ho, just wait and see what happens next, fellas!)

So, why not just make a movie about how scary and dangerous fishing in the Atlantic is? Like, obviously the massive storm system element is great, but the act of fishing itself seems pretty intense as well.

Great Characters

Everything about the characters in the Perfect Storm on the page should have been fine, but for some reason, I just loathe almost every one of them (at least in the main story arc).

Honestly, I felt like the creators were trying to make us love each of the characters a little too much. The overabundance of character actors was rough. The sympathy gleaned felt unearned. The crew members of the Andrea Gail are as follows;

  • The rugged captain with his monologue about the satisfaction of being a sword-boat captain. I get that.
  • The husky divorcee who still gives his ex money and loves his adorable blond kid.
  • The squirrelly weirdo who manages to enchant the overweight single mom of two.
  • The slick repairman who has weird drama with John C. Riley.
  • The token black guy with a great Jamaican accent.

And of course, there’s Mark Wahlberg and his mother and girlfriend. They’re kind of the worst? I wish I could put a pin on it. Again I just feel like any sympathy we’re supposed to have for them is just pushed too hard. I resent the number of lines and actions written to make me like these people. Wahlberg and his girlfriend mention having divorce lawyer debt and trying to get the girlfriend’s kids back. That’s supposed to make me root for them? Maybe if I don’t think about it that much, but how bad does a woman have to be in the ’90s to lose custody of her children? Like, hope she’s happy, but there’s a lot to unpack there. 

And every line they have is “well it ain’t much, but it’s ours, and we’re gonna make it with the power of love, and we’re fixer-uppers and our weird little house will be a fixer-upper and we’re in a low-income bracket and that’s okay because we love to fish, and my mom is a weathered old barmaid but she has a solid Gloucester accent so she’s likable.” Like, we get it. You like each other and times are hard both situationally and financially.

Sorry. It just doesn’t fly for me. The ensemble just teams with characters who are a little too clichéd. The men these characters are based on were real, why don’t the characters feel real? (Answer; because they’re overworked and pigeonholed into these tropes that are okay on paper, but are pushed too hard on the screen.)

The X Factor

Some movies have it, some don’t. That one little thing that makes a good movie a great movie. Or even that combination of every little thing working out to make the movie click. It’s hard to describe, and it’s harder to write. The Perfect Storm just does not have it. It’s close. But it was missing something. It was like a screen print where the colors don’t quite line up with each other.

A disaster movie that has it? Jurassic Park. It meets all of the criteria above; a great story, great action, great characters. It’s a phenomenal feat of early CGI and animatronics. Even better, the writer’s packed it with great, insightful dialogue. 

I even have a favorite line (out of all the perfect, on-point lines). It’s so simple. Timmy says, “I threw up.” You know, after surviving a T-Rex attack and getting thrown off of a sheer wall in a smashed car into a tree to hang vertically in the air fifty feet off the ground?

It’s one of those moments in the film that is so perfectly understandable, and also perfectly in-character for a ten-year-old boy. Being scared enough that you throw up, and being embarrassed that you threw up. It’s really an incredible line. Short and sweet and packs a punch. That’s a kid who is real.

You could argue that the X-factor in Jurassic Park is the dialogue (and I do!), but you also have one important element that really makes it a success.

‘Jurassic Park’ is fun.

This seems like such a foreign concept, especially in more recent films. Sure, not all disaster movies have to be fun adventures, but it helps. The things that are engaging about The Perfect Storm are the B and C plots, which leaves you scratching your head over the main event. On the flip side, every single plot element in Jurassic Park works and keeps you intrigued. And it doesn’t take itself too seriously, which adds to the fun. You never forget you’re in a movie where genetically modified DNA is used to make freaking dinosaurs! (Highly unrealistic in the ’90s, but maybe a little too close for comfort in 2020…)


I’m not above admitting that it’s extremely easy to hate a finished movie. Hell, the act of making a movie at all is miraculous half the time, so I’m really not one to talk. The Perfect Storm is a fine movie and a good disaster movie. Doing some armchair quarterbacking neither makes a difference nor helps anyone in the long run. Maybe I just don’t like Wahlberg or Clooney. Or maybe I’m just jaded and can’t appreciate the cast and writers trying to make lower-income fisherman relatable.

Disaster movies are a real boon for me when times are hard (though decidedly less hard now that a certain person didn’t win reelection). They’re dumb and weird and funny and scary and action-y, and completely diverting. In many ways they really hit me a lot deeper than most ‘serious’ dramas do.

When a disaster movie is done right, it’s a real achievement in writing. They get a lot of flack for being just dumb action flicks, but they can take you out of the world for a little bit. They’re a perfect balance of character, action and story all in just about 90 minutes. That’s pretty neat, huh?

So what’s your favorite disaster movie? Does it meet ‘the criteria’? Does it have that X-factor that makes you love it? 


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