In 2013, I wrote down some notes on the formula for modern disaster movies. My wife loves these, so I made the notes as we watched way too many of them.
This is what Hollywood does in developing a script from either a story or book they acquired. Often, the resulting script has little resemblance to the original work.
A formula isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if it works and draws the audience. You’ve heard of so many formula or tropes. Boy-meets-girl. Girl-meets-badboy (romance). Girl saves community with bow (Hunger Games). Love triangles. The cavalry rides to the rescue.
We, as readers, can get jaded by the formulae over time. So, it is always a good thing to analyze the formula to come up with creative and new approaches.
So, let’s take a look at the modern disaster movie formula.
1 – world destroying cataclysm based on junk science.
The problem with this is the junk science. Using junk science is just a lazy way to set things up. A little research and creativity can use real science, rational thought, and real danger to a disaster plot. Keep in mind that fiction requires a “suspension of disbelief” on the part of the reader. Junk science pushes that envelope just a little too far.
Give the reader something more real, more immediate, more possible.
2 – direct hits on iconic monuments and panicked crowd scene.
The tropes here include destruction of the Hollywood letters on the hill, the Space Needle in Seattle, the White House in Washington, D.C., the Washington Monument, the Capitol Building, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Fransisco, and just about anything in New York City.
If those items are reasonable targets for aimed, purposeful destruction, go for it. Otherwise, it is statistically unrealistic that a specific meteor would take out the Hollywood sign. Or that aliens would find the Washington Monument an appropriate target for their rage.
For example, Earth’s oceans cover 71 percent of the surface of the planet. If a meteor of significant size were to strike the planet, chances are it would hit somewhere in the ocean and cause a tremendous amount of damage through coastal waves, steam and water thrown into the atmosphere, and loss of aquatic wildlife.
Granted, there have been some recorded meteorites over land masses, but none have hit the White House. They have all been on or over relatively unpopulated area of the world.
3 – clips of dire news reports and on-site reporters.
Okay, this might be somewhat realistic, based on what we see on news channels today. Depending on the scenario, the type of disaster, and the impact on the local infrastructure, your characters may or may not have access to power, working TVs, or any channel other than the Emergency Alert System (EAS).
Even the EAS may fail at some point, so public broadcasts would cease. But ham radio operators (Amateur Radio), would likely still be functional across the country, depending on how widespread a disaster you have.
4 – people standing around room looking at monitors trying to figure out what’s going on.
This is my personal pet peeve in movies. You’ve seen it, I’m sure. A room full of people are staring at a video screen showing an image of some thing heading toward Earth. Somehow, they managed to get a camera on the meteor or starship as it approaches.
Nothing useful ever gets done by people staring at a screen. This is just an opportunity to show actors emoting and does nothing to progress the story.
6 – scientist pounds keyboard and stares at monitors.
You have someone at a computer bashing away at the keyboard (hacking), with someone else looking intently over their shoulder. Somehow, they have cracked into the alien mainframe and are rewriting the code. Yeah.
See above. If you have some real scientific concept, create graphics or a narrative that explains it in a way the reader can digest. As writers, that’s our job.
5 – disaffected or disgraced scientist brought in to solve problem.
Granted, this can actually happen. The scientific community can be harsh and the requirement to publish or perish is real. But, even rogue scientists are still scientists and use the standards of the scientific method to test and advance ideas.
7 – world is going to end, but no expense spared to save/reunite one family.
This is one trope that seems to be in every one of these movies. Yes, you meet the characters early in the story and you can predict that some separation will occur. They are probably the wife/children of the above scientist. Some general, admiral, or highly place politician, insures that by the end of the film the scientist re-unites with the family.
Even though the event destroys the entire rest of the world and everyone else dies.
Yes, this adds drama and action and you get to see or read about children barely escaping death.
8 – scientist risks life to save world using completely improbable method.
Now, the above scientist gathers a team to help solve the crisis, coming up with an unrealistic, improbable method. Often, something so simple everyone else missed it. Right.
At the last possible minute (visual of a countdown clock, usually)–and all alone because he/she got separated from the team–the scientist implements the solution at the risk of his/her life.
9 – everyone else on team dies, but scientist survives and saves the world.
This is the ending scene. The scientist saves the world, even though mostly destroyed. The scientist crawls out of a crater or leaves a destroyed building. Everyone thought he bought it, but no.
This scene shows where the scientist reunites with the family from #7.
So, what now?
The point is that this formula is overdone, especially by Hollywood. I don’t know specifically where the original stories came from, but what ended up in the scripts is what we see above. I feel the formula is a lazy approach to the SF/Action film or book and could be better accomplished with a little research and creativity.