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Thursday, May 28, 1998 Published at 10:38 GMT 11:38 UK


Have disaster movies had their day?

Godzilla 's solution for New York's traffic troubles

The next few months are not going to be easy for poor old planet Earth.

Floods, comets and a giant atomic lizard with an attitude problem are just some of the hazards it is having to cope with. Fortunately, the threats are merely cinematic. Yet there is an even greater danger to civilisation as we know it: is the disaster movie genre itself now on its last legs?

Godzilla producer Dean Devlin: size does matter (0'08")
Godzilla did his stuff before 13,000 people at the premiere of the latest film about him at New York's Madison Square Garden on Monday, heralding open season on cinema-goers.

[ image: This is what viewers of Deep Impact paid to see]
This is what viewers of Deep Impact paid to see
And Britain's summer blockbuster season kicked off with the opening of the film Deep Impact. Subtlety is not, one presumes, the film's main plot device: it is about a meteorite smashing into the earth, causing global devastation.

The $75m film is the first science fiction spectacular from Steven Spielberg's new Dreamworks studio. It stars Robert Duvall and Téa Leoni, but its real draw will be the computer-generated destruction.

A second film, Armageddon, shortly to be released, starring Bruce Willis, has the same theme. Audiences at the Cannes Film Festival seemed to be unimpressed by a section of the movie - laughing at a supposed moment of high drama.

Despite being anticipated as a straightforward action film, Bruce Willis told the Cannes audience that when they saw the whole thing they would realise it had a very sophisticated message.

[ image: Godzilla - will he out-sell falling rocks?]
Godzilla - will he out-sell falling rocks?
Godzilla's revival in the new $100m film, starring Matthew Broderick and Jean Reno, sees the return of one of cinema's favourite monsters, first brought to life on screen in 1954. It is to be shown in UK cinemas from the middle of July.

In this remake from the makers of Independence Day, Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, the 100-metre tall fire-breathing atomic lizard devastates New York City and threatens the world.

We've been here before

The future of the earth has been threatened by collision on celluloid many times before.

In 1979 Sean Connery starred in Meteor and teamed up with the Russians to deflect a killer asteroid, but probably the best-known earlier treatment is the 1951 classic, When Worlds Collide.

The "golden age" of the disaster film was the 1970s - the success of Airport spawned three sequels: the Poseidon Adventure (1972) and Towering Inferno (1974) inspired a host of imitators.

Interest declined in the 1980s, but as advancing computer technology allowed new levels of realism in the 1990s, a second disaster film boom thrilled a new generation of moviegoers.

The success of Jurassic Park in 1993 revived film-makers' interest. More recently Twister in 1996, and Independence Day in 1997 were hugely successful, and Titanic, which launched at the end of last year, was the most successful film ever.

Is disaster doomed?

Sudden Impact made $41.2m when it opened in more than 3,000 cinemas across America earlier this month - over half of its viewers saw it in its first weekend - and according to Variety magazine it "looks to be a big money-maker".

Nonetheless some critics say it may be one of the last films in the late 1990s disaster movie revival.

Hard Rain, which recently opened in Britain's cinemas, was known before its release as The Flood. According to Cameron Winstanley, of Total Film magazine, it began its life as a disaster film, but after poor audience reaction it was re-cut as a heist movie set against the background of a flood.

[ image: Tanks fire on Godzilla. Recent Godzillas have been friendly, but not this one.]
Tanks fire on Godzilla. Recent Godzillas have been friendly, but not this one.
He also reported that Sony has been running into difficulties in negotiating distribution for Godzilla - distributors reportedly feared that word of mouth would kill the film.

As Mr Winstanley sees it, the public will go to see any film in the first two weeks if it is hyped enough. But if it is not interesting, audiences quickly fall off.

"Special effects alone are no longer enough to carry a movie - it has to have interesting characters or an interesting situation," he said.

"There is not much difference in the story lines of disaster movies these days - people want more than that. They are becoming used to computer graphics."

After the latest crop of summer disaster movies, says Cameron Winstanley, the threat of annihilation recedes. "I think this marks the end of the cycle."

He might have a point. After all, once you have filmed the end of the world, what do you do for an encore?

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