Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France


A number of people (even myself) have put forward the idea that movies perform more or less the same function when we are awake that dreams do when we are asleep.

In other words, they are both ways of working out some of our worst primal fears—subconsciously in the case of dreams, somewhat consciously in the case of movies.

But sometimes major events occur which are as bad as anything that we come up with in our dreams or that filmmakers come up with for the big screen. One such event, especially for Americans, was the attacks on September 11, 2001. Another one, much fresher in our minds, was the earthquake and resulting tsunami in Japan three weeks ago.

In such cases, for those of us who are spectators of these horrific events, movies can become a strange sort of mirror that helps us try to process mentally what we are seeing. A striking number of people who watched the chaos in New York City as the World Trade Center fell said that it reminded them of the movie Independence Day, which had burst onto movie screens five years earlier. It was nearly as if the Roland Emmerich blockbuster, with its scenes of destruction of famous landmarks, including the streets of Manhattan, had eerily foretold the atrocity of 9/11.

Many of us had that same sickening sense in the days following March 11, as we saw more and more footage of the disaster in Japan. And I’m sure that I’m not the only one whose mind flashed back to another Emmerich movie: 2012. For all kinds of reasons, that movie wasn’t as good as Independence Day, but that didn’t mean that its computer-generated images didn’t have power nonetheless. Sure, the very fact that the movie screen destruction is so immaculate, in only the way that a computer can produce, but in the back of your mind there is always the gnawing fear that this could really happen someday. Those of us who have lived in earthquake zones and have actually felt the earth move beneath us know those few seconds that seem to last forever in which you are wondering when, or if, it will stop—this time. Watching buildings crumble and streets split into crevasses on the big screen only gives form to the fears that we try to keep out of our conscious mind.

As silly as 2012 was, in the tradition of all the best horror movies, it insidiously planted a doubt in our mind. By purporting to be based on (take your pick) either an amazingly prescient prophecy or an extremely wise mathematical calculation by ancient Mayans, it planted that seed of credulousness as to whether the old wives tale might actually be true. We know that we are far more modern and educated and intelligent than primitive people who lived centuries ago, but what if they actually did know the score and we don’t? What if there is something big going to happen? Reality has been obligingly following the movie, with the news media bringing us story after story about a petulant Mother Nature. The earthquake and tsunami in Southeast Asia in December 2004 was like an early warning sign. More recently, there was chaos in the skies over Europe because of an Icelandic volcano last summer, to be followed by major earthquakes in Chile and New Zealand. Now the cataclysm in Japan. That’s three corners of the Rim of Fire accounted for. What’s left? It has to make people on the west coast of North America even more nervous than they might already be.

The disaster in Japan added another element of fear that haunts our nightmares. As if the death and destruction caused by the quake and, especially, the tidal wave weren’t horrible enough on their own, there was the partial meltdown and threat of complete meltdown in a complex of nuclear reactors. This brings up a whole other confluence of moviemaking and mass paranoia. The 1979 James Bridges movie The China Syndrome was followed amazingly quickly by a partial meltdown at a the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station, near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The movie and the actual event became so entangled in the public mind that, to this day, people may not be sure which they are actually remembering. (And to this day, a good way to win a bar bet is to ask someone exactly how many people died at Three Mile Island. Most people, even those who are old enough to remember it, tend to guess wrong. The answer is zero.) The China Syndrome is merely one of a long line of movies that play on our fears of science and technology gone awry. And, in this case anyway, those film-fanned fears seem to have resulted in long-lasting policy consequences, at least in the United States. While the country gets fully 20 percent of its power from nuclear, it has been ages since a new generator has actually been built—something that doesn’t seem likely to change in the wake of the Japan disaster.

If you’re a fan of nuclear power, then you probably regret the impact that The China Syndrome had. In fact, you do hear such people blame the movie for its effect on public opinion. But that is probably giving Hollywood too much credit. In the end, that movie, like pretty much all movies, is really just a mirror of what is going on in our culture anyway. People wouldn’t have been scared by The China Syndrome if they hadn’t been scared already. After all, does anybody think that if someone made a movie about a nuclear reactor working flawlessly that it would change anything? Can any movie affect public opinion when the comparative documented safety records of oil drilling, coal mining and nuclear don’t?

Sometimes we’re just afraid because we’re afraid. And all the logic in the world won’t change that. Just because the earth hasn’t destroyed itself in our lifetime or even in recorded history, it doesn’t mean that it won’t. So we go to the movies and watch our worst fears made into some kind of safe detached reality up on the big screen. And then we walk out into the light and go home, having purged our demons. For a while.

-S.L., 31 March 2011

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