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Why Susan Sontag's 'The Imagination of Disaster' is still relevant

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Jun 26, 2019, 6:01 PM EDT

Earlier this year, Susan Sontag’s seminal 1964 essay, “Notes on ‘Camp,’” provided the inspiration for the 2019 Met Gala. But another Sontag essay is also proving its relevance more than 50 years after it was first published.

“The Imagination of Disaster” examines how science fiction films from between 1950 and 1965 played down potential sociopolitical crises as they “normalize what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it.” This was an incredible fraught period on an international scale, with movies such as Godzilla and The Invasion of the Body Snatchers reflecting real-world anxieties through escapist fantasies — ones that typically (but not always) end with a last-minute savior. Since then, the list of apocalyptic movies and television shows has grown exponentially, and superhero movies have also taken on characteristics presented in Sontag's essay, right down to the scale of the destruction.

Nuclear-related narratives are having a bit of a comeback, including the surprise early hit of the summer, HBO's Chernobyl. This is, of course, a historical depiction of a cataclysmic event that no doubt inspired science fiction storylines, including Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and the episode of The X-Files that gave my entire 13th birthday party sleepover nightmares, "The Host," in which the episode's monster, the Flukeman, is traced back to a Russian freighter. Nuclear weapons and reactors also show up in Good Omens and Years and Years, two recent miniseries debuts that chart very different depictions of a potential Armageddon.

Global turmoil is a television staple, with longer-running dystopian series such as The Handmaid’s Tale, The Walking Dead, and The 100 all depicting different catastrophic events. The summer is crammed with reboots, remakes, and sequels, with Godzilla: King of the Monsters hitting many of the beats Sontag describes in her essay. End-of-the-world narratives did not go out of style at the end of the Cold War, and neither did collective worldwide anxiety.

Godzilla King of the Monsters

Credit: Legendary Pictures/Warner Bros. Pictures

Sontag opens “The Imagination of Disaster” stating that “ours is indeed an age of extremity,” which still applies in 2019 given that “unremitting banality and inconceivable terror” are still on the menu. With this framework in mind, I wanted to look back at Sontag’s examination of this genre to see how relevant her essay is 50-plus years later.

At no point is Sontag culturally dismissive about this genre; she isn’t looking down on science fiction movies as less significant. She isn't trying to rebrand them as "social science fiction." Westerns, horror, and biblical epics are all referenced as sharing similar characteristics when discussing plotting and how much an audience loves to see "expensive sets come tumbling down." Scale is an important factor in creating “the aesthetics of destruction," as a filmmaker can only achieve so much with a smaller budget. Size matters, and part of the appeal of these movies is getting to see mass annihilation of recognizable locations.

Day after Tomorrow.jpg

Credit: 20th Century Fox 

Basically, a lot of the science fiction disaster film tropes Sontag discusses in relation to the ‘50s and ‘60s can also be applied to a lot of Roland Emmerich’s back catalog, most notably Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012. She lays out various scenarios depicting the events that are the hallmark of this genre. The first model she presents consists of five parts, the first being “the arrival of the thing. (Emergence of the monsters, landing of the alien space-ship, etc.) This is usually witnessed, or suspected, by just one person, who is a young scientist on a field trip. Nobody, neither his neighbors nor his colleagues, will believe him for some time. The hero is not married, but has a sympathetic though also incredulous girlfriend.”

By the time certain agencies are convinced the threat is real their efforts are not enough; both law enforcement and governments will suffer serious losses before the hero scientist figures out the weakness of the hostile force. “The final strategy, upon which all hopes depend, is drawn up; the ultimate weapon — often a super-powerful, as yet untested, nuclear device — is mounted. Countdown. Final repulse of the monster or invaders. Mutual congratulations, while the hero and girlfriend embrace cheek to cheek and scan the skies sturdily. But have we seen the last of them?” Sound familiar?

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Credit: MGM/UA

A last-minute happy ending offers up a semblance of hope, but this only sanitizes a real-life potential global disaster. It’s great that the hero of these movies can find a solution dangerously close to the point of no return, but it is naive to contemplate this as bearing any relation on how authorities would respond to an actual threat.

Three years prior to Sontag's essay, the Cuban Missile Crisis took place. A decade before, the United States dropped two atom bombs on Japan. H-bombs had been tested in the Pacific Ocean and tensions remained high. In 1947, the Doomsday Clock was born. Conceived by Martyl Langsdorf, the first Doomsday Clock was an illustration on the inaugural Bulletin of Atomic Scientists cover. The clock is a metaphor for how close humanity is to creating its own end, whether nuclear or environmental. In 1947, when the image was first drawn, the clock read as seven minutes to midnight. In 2019 the hands are perilously close at two minutes to midnight — now referred to as a "new abnormal." The only other year it has been this close to catastrophe is 1953. As per the clock, the world was at its most stable in 1991, when it was 17 minutes away from the hypothetical global disaster.

The Doomsday Clock perfectly illustrates our obsession with our role in “the end,” including our ability to stop time from ticking away. It isn't an actual countdown; instead, it acts as a warning to try and save us from ourselves. We won’t see the hand hit the fatal hour, because midnight spells the end of it all. This also applies to disaster movies (a ticking clock never hits zero because the hero is always triumphant). The image of the Doomsday Clock will also come into play later this year when Damon Lindelof's adaptation of Watchmen comes to HBO.

Collective incineration is not an abstract idea, but something that has been witnessed by many. Sontag refers to “the trauma suffered by everyone in the middle of the 20th century,” as well as the idea that a permanent end “could come any time, virtually without warning.” The appeal of science fiction movies, other than to escape the "unremitting banality" of life while watching huge swaths of the population perish, is so “one can participate in the fantasy of living through one’s own death and more, the death of cities, the destruction of humanity itself.” It is escapism doubling as a way to negate fear — or at least accustom audiences to end-of-the-world scenarios.

The image of a city we recognize in ruins is a staple of many summer blockbusters. How many times have New York, London, Paris, and Tokyo been reduced to a mass of rubble? The bodies are never seen, so again this is a clean version of annihilation, which again downplays the severity. We are observers in this destruction, Sontag points out. The spectacle doesn’t leave much room for emotion or introspection.

Christopher Reeve as Superman

Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Global and cultural trends shift; the word blockbuster did not exist in 1965. Jaws kicked off what we now view as a traditional summer blockbuster in 1975, though it would be another three years before Christopher Reeve would wear Superman's cape. Prior to this, Superman existed on TV in the 1950s and in comic books. Sontag does reference this character in her essay, but the comic book adaptations of the 21st century are an entirely new beast to what Sontag was discussing.

The “decided grimness” she ascribes to recent science fiction films of this period could apply to superhero movies from the Christopher Nolan era of Batman onward. Sontag writes about the impact global actions have had on newer sci-fi movies, stating that “Modern historical reality has greatly enlarged the imagination of disaster, and the protagonists — perhaps by the very nature of what is visited upon them — no longer seem wholly innocent.” Considering the political and environmental concerns that now exist, contemporary superhero movies maybe can't be blamed for going down a less cheery path.

Another aspect that stands out as still being relevant is this notion of "the hunger for a 'good war,'" which unites previously warring or at least antagonistic relations. It's impossible not to think of Independence Day and the moment when Bill Pullman's president of the United States speaks for all mankind: “We're fighting for our right to live, to exist. And should we win the day, the Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day when the world declared in one voice: 'We will not go quietly into the night!'" Or when the weather became the destroyer of worlds in The Day After Tomorrow and Mexico opened its arms to U.S. citizens as fake Dick Cheney spoke on TV. A united world also helps sell movies to international audiences when all nations combine to stop an invading force.

This moral simplification is another case of making the end of the world something that can be stopped before it is too late, but while these movies are very good at setting up a disaster, Sontag points out they are less ambitious and satisfactory in delivering a conclusion that isn’t incredibly naive.

Santa Clarita Diet

Credit: Netflix

Humanity as a whole isn't the only thing at stake. Death can be the dehumanizing act of invaders who are intent on taking over human bodies and banishing emotion in movies like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Here the fear isn't nuclear annihilation, but a loss of the self. This is still prevalent in stories today, though it has shifted more toward zombie narratives, which themselves have fought back against this concept. The trend of zombies who can still feel can be seen in Warm BodiesiZombie, and Santa Clarita Diet. Sontag talks about the "taken over" subgenre as reflecting how we are "perilously close to insanity and unreason." In iZombie, Liv Moore (Rose McIver) has retained who she is but also loses part of herself whenever she eats a brain, gaining that person's personality traits and flashes of memory. Sheila (Drew Barrymore) finds it hard at first to control her id in Santa Clarita Diet, resulting in carnage. The death of the self is just as scary as the death of the collective.

Often it feels like movies and TV are just recycling ideas; however, the same can be said for the shaky global political landscape. Reading Susan Sontag's 1965 essay in 2019 reveals that even though technology has evolved, CGI cities get just as destroyed in movies as physical sets once did. "The most profound dilemmas of the contemporary situation" still exist, and the response in these movies as the hero ponders whether the threat is truly over feels like yet another case of history repeating.

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