[Think Tank] Greatest Escape in a Disaster Movie

[Think Tank] Greatest Escape in a Disaster Movie

Get out of the way! There’s no time! Go on without me! No – we’re not leaving you behind!

I Am Legend – Lee

My pick is the New York City evacuation/escape scene:


Here’s why I like this scene. The “disaster” of the movie essentially plays in reverse. Because of the flashback-based nature of the storytelling, we already know what happens to everyone desperately trying to get out of New York (they either die or turn into bad CGI vampire/zombies). They’re all doomed, yet they’re all trying to make their escape.

But despite the sense of defeatism, we still care about the escape and the people involved. We feel the unfairness that a select, chosen few are allowed to evacuate while the unfortunate masses cluster hopelessly outside the evacuation point. We feel the fear–and subsequent relief–that Dr. Neville feels when his wife fails, then passes, the infection screening. They’re going to make it! They’re getting into the helicopter!

And then, this happens:


An “escape” from a “disaster” turns into an unpredictable, chaotic end for Dr. Neville’s family. This is I Am Legend at its best (and at the other extreme of the schlocky “Will saves the day” ending): a story of the arbitrary and cruel nature of life and survival.

19 Comments on “[Think Tank] Greatest Escape in a Disaster Movie”

  1. Jon Eric #

    Twister? Was that really an “escape?” I mean, the tornado hits them. It catches up to them and passes them over. I guess the fact that they survive (and thus the tornado has failed to wreak the full brunt of its destructive force upon them) overshadows the fact that Bill and Helen lost the race?

    I suppose that argument works for Twister, but certainly not for I Am Legend, in which tons of people die (or rather, become the undead… “un-die?”). Unless you mean specifically from the point of view of Will Smith.., but what good is escaping if you fail to save the lives of all the other escapees?

    And the flood myth… Can it really be considered “Escaping” if God/the gods/The Powers That Be have already decided that you’re worthy, and have provided you with all the information and tools you need to survive?

    I never thought I’d say this, but I’m voting for the Roland Emmerich movie.

    However, I wish there were a write-in. I can’t believe nobody nominated Jurassic Park.


  2. fenzel #

    I ain’t gonna lie — was pretty disappointed in the representation for this one from the Think Tankers.

    I mean, the Noah thing is cool — I love it when you go outside the box.

    But yeah, I Am Legend is not a disaster movie. I’m going to hew to my tradition of disagreeing with Mark for the sake of creating an audience and say that it was a poor choice for the topic. Not different enough from a disaster movie to be funny, not similar enough to the topic at hand to present an interesting choice. FIGHT ME ABOUT IT!

    But mostly I’m disappointed in the guys who didn’t weigh in. There were so many other great ones! I should have just written more myself.

    As for @Jon Eric concerning _Twister_, it’s a bit nontraditional, sure, but it’s actually similar to the _Day After Tomorrow_ escape — they’re running away from the tornado, yes, but mostly they’re running _toward_ shelter. They’re looking for a place to hide, and they eventually find the shed. Yeah, the shed doesn’t hold up, but the pipe does. So it’s an escape insofar as much as they managed to flee to a refuge before the disaster passed over them.

    This is actually what a lot of escapes in disaster movies are — the thing is going to get you regardless; you’re not generally trying to get away from it, you’re trying to find a safe place where the disaster can’t get to you. You’re trying to get inside the barrier, you’re trying to get back to the building, you’re trying to get to the one spot on the planet the aliens or sharks or whatever can’t get to. It’s pretty common.

    It’s just in this case that the actual roof over their head isn’t the useful part of the place they escape to.


  3. Mads Ejstrup #

    I was so hoping you had not thought of the “escaping from the cold” scene from The Day After Tomorrow, because then I would have pointed it out. The scene i brilliant in it’s conception and execution and also probably the most stupid scene you can think of. That’s is the stuff a classic disaster movie escape is made of.

    But what about the greatest not-escape in a Disaster movie? Think about Volcano. The Lava flows so slowly that it is a wonder that anybody died. Why didn’t they just, I don’t know, RUN!


  4. Jon Eric #


    @Jon Eric concerning _Twister_, it’s a bit nontraditional, sure, but it’s actually similar to the _Day After Tomorrow_ escape — they’re running away from the tornado, yes, but mostly they’re running _toward_ shelter. They’re looking for a place to hide, and they eventually find the shed. Yeah, the shed doesn’t hold up, but the pipe does. So it’s an escape insofar as much as they managed to flee to a refuge before the disaster passed over them. …

    Fair enough. I still think it’s a really tenuous choice, though. When the Day After Tomorrow crew slam the door, ridiculous though it may be, they’ve officially escaped the cold. It can’t get to them anymore. When Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt tie themselves to the pipe, they haven’t escaped the tornado – they’ve merely hunkered themselves down for when it hits them.

    I know, I know… suspension of disbelief. I’m not supposed to be thinking these things, and yet, it occurs to me that any poorly-places medium-to-large object could still have clobbered one or both of them to death as the tornado passed through them. At no point were they “safe”; at no point did they “escape” until after the tornado had actually already hit them. Not just a building or vehicle they were in, but the actual people. I can’t help but think that that’s the very definition of “not escaping.” At least it’s an interesting subversion of the trope.

    And hey, your analysis of the film has certainly given it a second lease on life in my eyes.

    Slightly off-topic, but Twister has also got to have the absolute craziest MPAA rating ever assigned. Check the box, because I am not making this up:

    “Rated PG-13 for realistic depictions of very bad weather.”


  5. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @ Jon Eric – Actually, the Twister escape and The Day After Tomorrow Escape have more in common than you think. AFTER the guys in Day After Tomorrow slam that door, they are NOT safe. The cold still encases the entire door in solid ice, and begins to creep into the room. They start frantically throwing books onto the fire, as the temperature drops and drops, threatening to put the flames out. So once again, they haven’t ESCAPED the tornado, “they’ve merely hunkered themselves down for when it hits them” (your words).

    But you know what other escape fits this template? The ur-escape, which is Vivica A. Fox fleeing a giant fireball in ID4. She doesn’t ESCAPE it, in your sense of the term. She finds a broom closet or something, kicks her way in, calls her dog, and hunkers down for dear life.

    So I’m with Pete. When we talk about “disaster movie escapes,” it’s not just avoiding something entirely – it’s finding a way to survive the unsurvivable.


  6. lee OTI Staff #

    @Fenzel: “But yeah, I Am Legend is not a disaster movie. I’m going to hew to my tradition of disagreeing with Mark for the sake of creating an audience and say that it was a poor choice for the topic. Not different enough from a disaster movie to be funny, not similar enough to the topic at hand to present an interesting choice. FIGHT ME ABOUT IT!”

    I know better than to take on Fenzel in a Think-Off, but here goes:

    Is IAL a disaster movie? Not in the same way that 2012 or Day After Tomorrow, clearly. But the sum total of the flashback scenes are very disaster-movie esque. Disease outbreak, panicking populations, desperate evacuation. Beyond the flashbacks, the whole post-apocalyptic landscape setting of NYC is straight out of the disaster movie playbook. Clearly, it’s mostly a “fight the monsters” movie, but to me, it had enough disaster movie components to warrant inclusion in this TT.

    The disaster movie components are to me what creates a great back-story for Dr. Neville. He’s the only survivor of the ultimate disaster. The fact that this all took place in flashback doesn’t diminish its effectiveness to me.


  7. lee OTI Staff #

    Re: the Independence Day scene, well, we left out “Livin’ on a Prayer” from the key change discussion, and “November Rain” from the monster ballad roundup.

    It seems like we avoid the obvious genre-leaders because they’re so obvious. So perhaps this TT should have been titled “Greatest Escape in a Disaster Movie AFTER the Dog and Vivica Fox in ID4 (Because That Is Clearly the Best).”


  8. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @Pete – You want a fight? I’m your huckleberry.

    I Am Legend is ABSOLUTELY a disaster movie (among other things). It depicts the end of the world and the complete collapse of civilization. If you’re basing your definition on destruction of property, I’ll point you to the moment when the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges are destroyed, plunging dramatically into the East River. The flashback scenes that Mark writes about are exactly like the panicked scenes of people trying to get on the ferry from War of the Worlds, or any of the many clogged highway scenes of other disaster movies. And he’s right – it inverts the trope beautifully.

    And you know what? I’m gonna argue that you’re DOUBLY wrong, because Twister is NOT a disaster movie. Yeah, that’s right. The tornadoes mostly destroy cornfields. There is ONE scene where a tornado destroys a town, that’s it. Certainly, the scene YOU talk about isn’t much of a disaster, except for Carey Elwes.

    I’m going to say that a “disaster” movie has to depict the destruction of a major urban area. In Tremors, that town is completely trashed. And that’s not a disaster movie, right?

    And consider this: if Twister is a disaster movie, than BACKDRAFT must be a disaster movie. It’s about lots of fires, right? How is that different than tornadoes? But nobody is gonna say that Backdraft is a “disaster” movie. ERGO, Twister is ALSO not a disaster movie.


  9. Gab #

    Oh boy, them’s some fightin’ words up in thar.

    I’m going to stir the pot and say I don’t think IAL or ID4 are disaster movies. For me, “disaster movie” has an implied “natural” before it, and neither of those movies has a disaster of natural causes. Sure, the bridge falling may itself be a disaster, but it’s unnatural; and the fire Vivica A. Fox runs from my in itself be natural, but it was started by an explosion from a huge laser. If destruction of property and end of civilazation (or threat of it) are all you need for a disaster movie, zombie-pocalypse movies would count, and that doesn’t sit well in my stomach. They may share tropes and situations, but these tropes have divergent origins. For me, disaster movies are man v. nature. So The Great Flood wouldn’t really work, either, if it came from God or a god, unless we consider God and nature to be one.* So I in fact *do* consider Twister a disaster movie, and Backdraft an investigative drama. As for ID4 and IAL, they are us-v.-them movies, while disaster movies like DAT and Twister are us-v.-it. And even if the virus in a zombie movie was somehow a natural one that went nuts (like Zombieland- doesn’t he say something about a known disease- which I shall not divulge- going overboard?), I’d still say it isn’t a disaster movie because the virus itself isn’t what does the killing of survivors or destruction of buildings, but the human vessels it infects; so that still makes an us-v.-them stand in the end: the people hold out and fight off ZOMBIES, not the virus.

    Oh, and Belinkie, it may have been cornfields taking the brunt of the assault by the tornadoes in Twister, but agrarian society was the foundation for civilized society as we know it. Farming is the livelihood of the people that own those corn fields, so *their* source for civilization was obliterated as the tornadoes went through their fields. A tornado is, thus, a very, VERY bad disaster for them. The fundamental difference between the fires in Backdraft and the tornadoes in Twister is where they came from: Backdraft’s backdrafts involved an arsonist; Twister’s twisters were 100% natural. This is what I was saying about the fire from ID4.

    Some other examples of disaster movies: Armageddon, Deep Impact, Outbreak.

    NOT disaster movies that have disasters in them: Any war movie, Die Hard 3, Twin Towers.

    I’d agree with Mads’s suggestion of Volcano, but for different reasons. I’d say it’s best because of the symbolism of human triumph over unspeakable odds and man’s conquering of nature. (See, this totally goes with my own personal definition of “disaster movie.”) Sure, the “lava tubes” may have exacerbated the problem, making it mankind’s fault, but guess what? We blew a hospital up and channeled that lava away from us into a different system of channels and tubes, thereby solving it with the same elements that caused it in the first place. That part where Tommy Lee Jones runs to rescue Gaby Hoffman from the building’s collapse whilst simultaneously avoiding the eruption is pretty epic- he is rescuing her (and the little boy) from both the evils of society and the danger it creates (the building) and the harshness and arbitrary and unpredictable nature of, well, nature (the lava). And the whole movie is chock-full of symbolism of the inherent good in mankind, even if we do mess up or make mistakes sometimes; and how we’re all part of the same tapestry of ingenuity and decency; and, ultimately, how that togetherness is what makes mankind different from the rest of nature and why we are able to conquer it at all.

    It’s either that or Dante’s Peak, if only because James Bond’s elbow *sticks out* and he still manages to survive.

    *In which case, I’d say the first half of the Book of Exodus counts, too. A plague killing certain people in their sleep? A huge body of water opening up to let one group through and then closing around another? Badass.


  10. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @Gab – You have a point. Perhaps for a movie to be a disaster movie, it HAS to be “man vs. nature.” “Man vs. alien” doesn’t count. Although of course, “man vs. dangerous animal” doesn’t count either, right? Like, Jaws is “man vs. nature,” but clearly not a disaster movie.

    But even after agreeing with that definitely, I’m not sure we agree on I Am Legend. If you say Outbreak IS a disaster movie, then I Am Legend must be too. Keep in mind, the virus itself kills 90% of the human race. The zombies are in addition to that. So I’d say that while I Am Legend is a zombie movie, it is ALSO a disaster movie. I still say Mark’s choice is great, because (SPOILER ALERT) it is a cool and unexpected twist when the attempted escape ends in total disaster.


  11. Lara #

    “Disaster” to me means any disaster, not just natural disasters. Wikipedia agrees with me: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disaster_movie and Twister and I Am Legend are both on the list: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_disaster_films

    Time to copy and paste a definition?? (From Chambers.co.uk)

    “disaster – noun 1 an event causing great damage, injury or loss of life. 2 a total failure. 3 extremely bad luck • Disaster struck. disastrous adj. disastrously adverb.
    ETYMOLOGY: 16c: originally meaning ‘bad influence of the stars’, from French desastre, from astre star.”

    Of course if you go with “extremely bad luck” you’re going to include an awful lot of movies…

    Having recently seen Independence Day again, that escape is definitely the best. It’s completely ridiculous. I love it.


  12. Gab #

    No, I wouldn’t count Jaws, either, because the shark is one specific entity, not a *force* of nature. So we’re good there. Another awesome man v. animal movie that wouldn’t count: The Ghost and the Darkness. Eff yeah. ;) Really, I don’t think man v. animal/monster movies count. So no Tremors for me, even though those movies are awesome.

    The reason I count Outbreak is they are fighting off the VIRUS, which serves as a force similar to a hurricane or something and still making the movie an us-v.-it situation. The virus in Outbreak may have been covered up by the military at first, but it was discovered *naturally* before said cover up. In I Am Legend, there was a time where mankind was, indeed, fighting off the virus, but two things make it not count for me: first, the virus came from experiments with measles gone awry, meaning it was man-made; and secondly, while humans were fleeing the virus at certain points in the movie, those were flashbacks- by the time we get to the current situation, it has become an us-v.-them scenario. Outbreak is never an us-v.-them movie*.

    (And I’m basing my conclusions about I Am Legend on the movie alone- I still haven’t read the book. HOWEVER, I think the book is probably even less of an us-v.-it situation because, from what I have seen online, the “zombies” in it are a lot more conscious and calculating, to the point where they have their own society or something going on. That’s a clash of civilizations, not a man-v.-nature or man-v.-it in the slightest.)

    But yeah, my main reason for counting Outbreak is because that virus is natural and remains the main foe, while I Am Legend has a lab-grown virus and becomes a secondary source of conflict to the zombies.

    @Lara- I understand the definition of “disaster” and realize a lot of movies I wouldn’t consider disaster movies have them in them, but like I said, I always tack “natural” on in my head. So I’m just a stubborn ox. ;p

    *One could make the argument that it becomes scientists v. military or something, but I’d still say that’s secondary to the ultimate goal of “FIND THE CURE!!!” It’s the source of the climax, but not the driving force of the movie.


  13. stokes #

    This is a great discussion, because the genre is actually SO poorly defined. Everyone has really good points. But if you’ll allow me to go all internet-bastard for a moment, ALL OF YOU ARE DELUDED! :)

    If you go through the pantheon of disaster movies, you’re going to start with The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, and Airport. And if you’re going to talk about the most important disaster movie of the past twenty years, start with the last reel of Titanic. No definition that excludes these movies is going to be satisfactory.


  14. Gab #


    Okay, I haven’t seen The Towering Inferno or Airport (sorry- I suppose this means I fail at life?), but I can tell you why I don’t think The Poseidon Adventure or Titanic are disaster movies. See, they may be about survival (and both on boats, interestingly enough), but they aren’t man-v.-nature. What causes the most disastrous disaster in both is natural, yes, BUT, that event isn’t the main force being fought against in either case. The survivors in The Poseidon Adventure aren’t running from the wave the whole time, and the survivors in Titanic aren’t running from the iceburg. I guess you could say they’re all running from water, but what they’re actually doing is trying to stay alive on a sinking ship. But no, I’m sorry Stokes, I’m certain *you’re* the one with delusions, at least about those two. ;p

    And after looking at Wiki and IMDB, I’d say Towering Inferno is a no and Airport is a mostly-no-ish. I have already said unnaturally made fire doesn’t count for me, so that should explain Towering Inferno. And as for Airport- that one would depend on how much of a factor the blizzard plays, but I’m leaning toward no because it seems like the overall plot is driven forward more by the hijacked plane and other person/character/human interaction plotlines, not the blizzard one.


  15. Jim #

    Far worse than the ‘escaping the cold’ scene in Day After Tomorrow surely has to be the one where Dennis Quaid staves off an Ice Age by turning on a kitchen stove. At least the kids in the library had a raging fire.


  16. Mads Ejstrup #

    Towering Inferno is surely a disaster movie, so is The Poseidon Adventure. I would like to put down some rules that I think defines a disaster movie. First of all, the antagonist has to be a force of nature, an non- sentient force of nature. So no aliens, animals or terrorists. But the cause of it can still be mans. Second, the threat has to be so great that overcoming it is “a true testament to the spirit of man”. And third the hero can not be a specialist in survival, because that underlines the second rule. So no super soldiers, no navy seals no boy scouts. Fourth the survivers has to be a family or form an ad hoc family, so again no soldiers, no friends unless they become an ad hoc family. So there has to a farther, a mother and children in some sense only they do not actualy have to be children or parents.


  17. Lola #

    I’m surprised that 28 Days Later wasn’t nominated… It’s got disaster written all over it. Virus that is still active, psuedo-zombies creeping about trying to eat your living flesh, and, of course, your fellow man who has been driven mad and corrupted due to the original disaster.


  18. josh #

    The only thing more nonsensical than running from the cold in TDAT was running from the wind in The Happening.

    a) the line “Run from the wind!” was actually uttered in a film

    b) in an attempt to visually illustrate something invisible we were exposed to a crane shot of wind rippling through long grass. Least. menacing. disaster. ever.

    c) since there’s no way to insulate yourself from “the wind”, but the characters lives must be spared, Shayamalan just has the wind stop for no apparent reason. Spirit of man doesn’t triumph, the bad just stops.

    I will take the metaphorical value of a fire in a library over the hollowness of a sweater-vested Marky Mark standing in a field of grass any day.


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