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SYFY WIRE Tropebusters

Tropebusters: Disaster Therapy

By Stephanie Williams

Two things are sure to happen in movies that center natural disasters and cataclysmic events. First, there will be absolute destruction. Second, strained familial relationships will be healed, or at the very least, some personal breakthroughs happen. One of my favorite genre tropes involves characters resolving their issues through what I like to call therapeutic disasters. It's a disaster that's almost like a therapist or counselor giving their clients homework to help put into practice what was discussed in the session. The assignments bring both healing and survival for most involved. Therapeutic disasters have helped strained marriages and parent/child relationships and allowed people to unpack decades of baggage. Millions might die, but as long as the main characters have worked through their issues and come back stronger than ever, it's all worth it in the end. Right?

Saving marriages is a favorite among the mother nature certified therapists of the total destruction crew. The tornadoes of Twister are worthy of their own morning talk show endorsed by Oprah Winfrey. The moment Bill decided to show up with his fiancée to get divorce paperwork squared away with his estranged wife, Jo, the weather in Oklahoma knew precisely what to do. With each tornado they encounter, Bill and Jo realize the love between them is still there. They just needed a few close calls and a flying cow to show them that their bond was as strong as a St. John's Bay belt wrapped around some deeply rooted pipes. Thankfully Bill's fiancée loved herself enough to remove herself from the budding love triangle and out of harm's way. Other partners in these sessions aren't so lucky.


It's far more entertaining to watch broken marriages come back together at the expense of the new relationships. Both 2012 and San Andreas feature separated husbands and wives with children and new partners. Group therapy typically would mean you need a bigger room or additional seating but not in disaster therapy. Instead, you just need a more significant event — the closer to cataclysmic, the better. The movie 2012 follows a family that somehow manages to make it from California to China thanks to convenience and happenstance. They all definitely could have gone to ordinary marriage and family therapists or counselors, but Mother Nature had other plans for them. She sent in tectonic plates, told them to rearrange everything to bring this family back together, the fiance is damned. It takes most of California sinking into the Pacific Ocean and a supervolcano for the husband and wife to finally talk about why their relationship hit a major snag. Or for Jackson, the dad, to finally have a talk with his son about how he really feels about his mom's fiance Gordon. That poor fiance. He was just a mere chaperone to their familial healing. Gordon dies horrifically, but at least the Curtis family are back together again and have worked through their issues with one another.


Now the boyfriend to the mom in San Andreas deserved to go out terribly for the way he left her daughter to die. Mother Nature might have sent the tectonic plates, but just leave it to Ms. San Andreas Fault, licensed marriage-family therapist (LMFT), to start a session that would finally get the Gaines family talking about the untimely death of one of their children and what that did to their surviving members. Again, something that could surely have been addressed had they perhaps gone to some kind of family grief counseling. At least the mom and dad's passion for one another gets reignited thanks to all the near-death experiences and the dad being Dwayne "I can do it all" Johnson.


Sometimes it's not the entire family but just a strained parent/child relationship. Those are fun because they usually involve the parents, mainly the dads, having to go through Iyanla: Fix My Life-level counseling sessions. The Day After Tomorrow is all about how Global Warming Ph.D. LMFT helped repair the strained father/son relationship between a paleoclimatologist and his wunderkind decathlon son, who was too scared to tell a girl he liked her. There isn't a ton of backstory given about these characters, but it's clear after an argument about getting a ride to or from the airport that the son, Sam, can only trust his dad as far as he can throw him. Jack's a busy paleoclimatologist who might have allowed his job to impede his relationship with his son. Still, if he weren't so dedicated, then he wouldn't have discovered global warming was going to lead to a new ice age. Which means there wouldn't have been an extremely cold and dangerous opportunity for Jack to prove to his son that he is indeed reliable by trekking from D.C. to New York City. That's a task that is far easier than picking anyone up from LaGuardia Airport and far more entertaining than paying someone by the hour.


Thankfully the ultimate trust fall exercise works out for Jack and Sam, or they could have ended up like the father and son in Ad Astra. There was so much baggage created by their broken relationship, the main character, Roy McBride, had to leave Earth to sort it all out. His relationship with his wife was also Not Great, thanks to his strained relationship with his father. This time mysterious and threatening energy pulses were sent in to make a long-awaited conversation finally happen. Plenty of people and a couple of baboons die, but Roy finally hears the truth from his dad when he reaches Neptune. Nothing like learning that intelligent life outside of Earth does not exist and that your dad, who is obsessed with finding that life, never actually loved you. Roy got to think about that and had a personal breakthrough as he traveled light-years back home to work on the relationship with the person who actually wanted to love him, his wife.

Ad Astra

Maybe there is something to be said about it taking such extreme situations to get people to open up to one another and frequency of this trope. With how broken the United States' medical system remains and how neglected mental health has been, it's just far cheaper and more accessible to work things out with Mother Nature and her band of chaotic therapists and counselors. No judgment here.