How to Write a Hollywood Disaster Film: Featuring San Andreas, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012

I recently went to see San Andreas in theaters, and I discovered something…

San Andreas is identical to every other disaster movie ever made. And then it hit me: there’s a formula to all of this! Was it cheesy? Yes. Did it lack any scientific accuracy? Of course! Will Hollywood undoubtedly make another movie just like it next year? You bet!

Once you learn to accept that there’s only a finite number of plotlines that Hollywood will draft for a film, you’ll learn to enjoy movies like San Andreas and even write one of your own!

To prove my point that all Hollywood disaster movies are the same, I’ll use two other disaster movies that I watch more often than I care to admit as examples: The Day After Tomorrow and 2012.

This Disaster Will Change the Face of the Earth

From The Day After Tomorrow, distributed by 20th Century Fox

Have you noticed that these movies always have to go to the extreme? In The Day After Tomorrow, it can’t just be some freak snowstorm in New York. No, the entire Northern Hemisphere has to go into another ice age—people freezing to death in seconds, preserved like the bodies in Pompeii. In 2012, not only does an earthquake completely level the entire state of California, but Hawaii’s on fire, the super volcano in Yellowstone erupts (I’ll talk about the ridiculousness of that scene later), D.C. is covered in a foot of ash, Kennedy kills the president, the Sistine Chapel collapses on top of the Pope and Italian prime minister (after a very dramatic severance between God and Adam on the ceiling), and the entire globe is washed out by six tsunamis. But I guess in 2012’s case, it is the end of the world, so it’s necessary that all hell breaks loose (though they forgot about that little part in the Bible, you know, when God said he wouldn’t destroy the earth with water again, but I digress). Following tradition, San Andreas gives us the largest earthquake recorded in history at 9.6 (having seen the miniseries 10.5 some years back, I was actually expecting something much bigger), brings the Hoover Dam to its knees, reduces LA to rubble, and drowns out San Fransisco with a scientifically inaccurate tsunami, altering the geography of Southern California. Oh, Hollywood, you and your unnecessary destruction.

The Genius Scientist Knows Exactly What Will Happen, but the Jerks in Power Ignore Him

From 2012, distributed by Sony Pictures

There’s always that one scientist who knows everything! He has all the gadgets, all the tools. He can predict exactly what will happen and where. He ominously tells the world that “shit’s about to go down,” but does anyone listen to him? No. In The Day After Tomorrow, the scientist is Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid), and the jerk is the Vice President. In 2012, the scientist is Dr. Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and the jerk is Carl Anheuser, the White House Chief of Staff. In both movies, the jerk ignores the smart scientist, caring more about money than human lives. These jerks don’t die, instead they become de facto heads of state because everybody else dies. Man, we can’t catch a break! San Andreas doesn’t have a jerk antagonist for Mr. Genius Scientist, but you get the idea that no one gave him the time of day. At one point (when the ground isn’t shaking) he vents that he has been warning about the San Andres fault for years. Now that shit has hit the fan, people need to listen if they want to survive.

The Genius Scientist’s Partner and Best Friend Dies for the Cause

From San Andreas, distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures

Do you remember Frank’s sacrificial suicide into the frozen shopping mall; Satnam telling Dr. Helmsley on the phone, as people around him run for higher ground ahead of the looming tsunami, that a chopper never came for him; Dr. Kim Park going down with the Hoover Dam after tossing a little girl (who for some reason was not with her mother) into the arms of safety? Yep, the sidekick always dies.

Daddy Saves the Day

From 2012, distributed by Sony Pictures

The dad goes through hell and high water to save his family. Whether that means driving a boat over a tsunami and dodging shipping containers falling from a cargo ship, or speeding in a limo over top of the crumbling ground and then in a RV as a freaking super volcano erupts, or trekking through the snow in subzero conditions (and decreasing) from Philly to Manhattan. Gotta love dear ol’ Dad. But the kids aren’t helpless. At least not in The Day After Tomorrow and San Andreas. Thanks to Daddy, they know how to survive, but they still have full confidence that Daddy’s going to make it.

The Estranged Family Always Comes Back Together

From San Andreas, distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures

I should add “and the new boyfriend conveniently dies.” In 2012, Jackson (John Cusack), the father, gets his family out of danger in a limo, while plastic surgeon boyfriend is crushed to death trying to get inside the ark. In San Andreas, Scumbag boyfriend, Daniel, avoids death on several occasions after leaving Blake for dead in the back of a limo in the parking garage, but is eventually killed by a shipping container after a cargo ship crashes into the Golden Gate Bridge. Have you noticed that these boyfriends are also rich and die crushingly painful deaths? The Day After Tomorrow doesn’t specifically say that the parents are divorced, but you get the feeling that Jack’s job has put a strain on the family. The parents may have been separated, though, as Jack has a separate apartment in D.C.

Disregard Science for the Sake of Some Badass Action

Although there’s always a genius scientist who knows everything, certain things happen that just don’t make sense scientifically, for example, the eruption at Yellowstone in 2012. While trying to escape Yellowstone, our hero’s plane momentarily gets caught in the pyroclastic flow. Now, I have watched enough National Geographic to know that nothing can survive a pyroclastic flow. What’s a pyroclastic flow? This bad boy:

From 2012, distributed by Sony Pictures

These things travel at around 500 mph and can reach up to 1,000 degrees or higher, so somebody please explain to me how the hell they made it out and why that plane didn’t disintegrate. When I saw this at the theater, I immediately said out loud, “That’s not possible!”

There was a similar inaccuracy in San Andreas involving the tsunami. I’m no geologist, but I did take a geology class in college, and I know for a fact that San Andreas is not the type of fault that would cause a tsunami. Why not? Well, a) it’s not under water, and b) the two plates shift alongside each other. In order to create a tsunami, one plate has to go under the other, causing a displacement of water. Not only does the incorrect fault cause a tsunami in this movie, but then the giant wave comes back to the epicenter! That’s not supposed to happen; that’s not how waves work. Hey Hollywood, ever heard of the ripple effect? You guys never cease to amaze me.

But alas, this is just a disaster movie. Don’t ask questions; it’s not supposed to make sense.

Tsunamis! Tsunamis! Tsunamis Everywhere!

All of these movies feature a tsunami. Why? Is water the ultimate tool of destruction? Well, every religion and culture does have a story about a great flood that nearly wiped all life from the planet, so there must be some truth in it, right?

So have I convinced you yet? Once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Are there any other disaster movies that fit this outline? Write it down in the comments and let me know if this post inspires you to write your own Hollywood disaster film. I promise I’ll watch it. Trust me, it can’t be any worse than what’s already available. 😉

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