Just after midnight on November 14, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit the south island of New Zealand, sending severe shockwaves all the way into the north island and into the kiwi capital, Wellington. I was there and it was my first earthquake experience.
I was in New Zealand that week as part of the ACT Government’s Canberra Week in Wellington. I was invited to be a delegate representing ScreenACT, looking to build strong connections with the booming New Zealand film industry. But after I was woken in the middle of the night, when I was rolled out of bed as our hotel violently shook from left to right and up and down, the official business connection program was cancelled to give our Wellingtonian counter-parts a chance to recover. It was the strongest ever earthquake recorded in New Zealand, and it was fortunate, yet sad to hear, that only two people were tragically killed. Even in Wellington, the memories of the Christchurch earthquake that killed 150 people in 2011 are still quite raw. The ACT delegates were on the first flight home back to Canberra, leaving behind one of the most frightening experiences I have ever been through.
It’s no surprise that even in the last few days the eponymous ‘Ring of Fire’ delivered another strong earthquake off the coast of Japan, and a brand new earthquake on the north island of New Zealand. One scientist, UTS Geotechnical and Earthquake Engineering senior lecturer Behzad Fatahi believes the recent activity is because the region is long overdue. He states that, “there are some fault lines that have not released their energy for a while. There are at least 5-10 that are overdue, but we don’t know when they’re going to happen. The question is not will they be activated. The question is when.”
In fact, if you Google “films about earthquakes”, results are returned containing countless TV movies and ‘B-grade’ films, such as 10.5 Apocalypse, Megafault, and Earthquake in New York.
As I am a complete film nerd, it only seemed comforting to turn to film to help cope with the experience. I have seen a lot of films that have earthquakes as part of their stories. Perhaps one of the most notable was the recent Dwayne Johnson blockbuster, San Andreas, a film that was shot here in Australia. Other such notable films would include apocalypse epic, 2012 and Pierce Bronson volcano film, Dante’s Peak. There is also Charlton Heston’s campy 70’s disaster film Earthquake. In fact, if you Google “films about earthquakes”, results are returned containing countless TV movies and ‘B-grade’ films, such as 10.5 Apocalypse, Megafault, and Earthquake in New York.
There is a common thread that Hollywood has applied to the earthquake disaster film, which obviously comes from spectacle that goes with destruction. It makes sense that many earthquake films go for the extremes of disaster, to heighten the appeal and watch-ability. In Roland Emmerich’s 2012 epic, a stretch limousine partakes in a wild car chase against the collapsing fault line opening up across Los Angeles. In San Andreas, Dwayne Johnson pilots his helicopter over a collapsing skyscraper to rescue his wife seconds before it crumbles down. Moments like these make great marketing material, but for those who live in these earthquake-prone zones, there must be a level of insensitivity that comes from these over-the-top sequences. Hollywood, after all, exists on the San Andreas Fault line, so shouldn’t they know better?
Blockbuster cinema is focused on the idea of escapism. The audience needs to be thrilled and marvelled by the latest special effects and given a cinematic ride they have not yet seen. However, what I experienced eight stories up in my hotel that night was not even close to what any escapist film could give me. My earthquake experience more likely resembled a psychological horror film than a blockbuster action disaster film. Despite the severity felt in Wellington, the damage was largely cosmetic and hence, much more emotional. Locals I came across were just as spooked as many of the foreigners and tourists in the nearby hotels. The Wellington CBD became a ghost town, and the few littered cafes that opened after the event housed patrons quietly chatting about how they survived the night.
Perhaps if anything, I’m pitching a new paradigm of earthquake-themed movies; a type of film that deals more heavily with the psychological human impact of these disasters, instead of all the physical destruction.
I am not arguing for the end of destructive earthquake sequences in blockbuster movies, particularly now that I was so frightened by the real life experience. Many cinema watchers have never actually experienced what it’s like to be in this natural phenomenon. These movies engage in an emotional thrill that shouldn’t be oppressed. But now I realise how far off the mark earthquake movies portray this common occurrence. The extremes of disaster are rare considering how common earthquakes occur. Perhaps if anything, I’m pitching a new paradigm of earthquake-themed movies; a type of film that deals more heavily with the psychological human impact of these disasters, instead of all the physical destruction. I’d be also interested to hear if there were any movies that already exist that have taken that approach. Maybe the 2012 tsunami film, The Impossible is one to consider?
As it was in the occurrence in Christchurch in 2011, these seismic events can be devastating and heartbreaking. But all too commonly, the earth shakes, and then people get on with their lives. Hollywood may continue to deliver their loud destructive earthquake films, but for me, I’ll be off working on my own quieter earthquake film pitch.