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Book Review: "Disaster Movies"

Unless you live under a rock or have no interest in film or media phenomena (which means you live under a rock, in my book), then you've undoubtedly heard about this week's release of "Snakes on a Plane" starring Samuel L. Jackson. It stands as the next "great" installment in a long line of disaster films.

But, how will "Snakes" measure up against other classic films featuring airplanes and/or creepy, crawly critters such as "Airport," "Turbulence," "Kingdom of the Spiders" (a favorite of mine) and "The Bees"? Well, it'll take some careful study of these previous entries to truly know.

Disaster MoviesTo help us with our homework, authors Glenn Kay and Michael Rose have published "Disaster Movies," an irreverent look at the best and the worst of more than 150 disaster films. If the title isn't self-explanatory enough, the subtitle will help. It reads "A Loud, Long, Explosive, Star-Studded Guide to Avalanches, Earthquakes, Floods, Meteors, Sinking Ships, Twisters, Viruses, Killer Bees, Nuclear Fallout, and Alien Attacks in the Cinema!!!" Got it yet?

As a long-time fan of bad movies... ahem... I mean "classic" or "cult" films, what first jumped out at me about this book (as it should) was the Foreword, written by "Mystery Science Theater 3000" (MST3K) host Mike Nelson. (Oh Mike, how we miss you and the bots so.) Nelson sets a great tone, giving his own account of the first disaster film he ever saw - "Earthquake" in Sensurround. He also recounts how the image of Victoria Principal in that film, wearing a fright wig and a tight leather jumpsuit ("She looked like Sexxo the Clown") still stays with him. I can believe that.

EarthquakeAfter an amusing introduction by each author, there's a brief and informative history of disaster movies, and then we jump into the action. Thankfully, the book is organized by subject, cutting down on the frustrated thumbing through the text searching for that "I-don't-remember-what-it-was-called" film about an asteroid crashing into the Midwest. Chapter titles include "I'll Never Fly with This Airline Again!," "Shake, Rattle, and Roll," "Fun with Snow," "Sinking Ships," "Big Space Rocks," and a catch-all "Mad Bombers, Killer Bees, and Wild Animals."

While most of the categories work well for the films they include, the only confusion I had was with "Just a Little Radiation" which the authors themselves admit is more about "Films That Take Themselves Much Too Seriously" or "Films That Involved Gradual, Painful Deaths." This chapter includes films dealing with nuclear threats, killer viruses and bacteria-induced plagues - obviously making the section not limited to just radiation issues. It's a minor thing, though. There's just far too many random films out there to pigeonhole them all in a convenient way. The effort is appreciated.

Each movie review or listing is divided into three types - long reviews, brief reviews and "rare, obscure, and less important titles." The long reviews give in-depth plot analyses with big-time spoilers, as they describe the elaborate and "often hilarious" ends to major characters. The brief reviews are for films the authors didn't have much to say about or they felt weren't as important. The "rare, obscure, and less important titles" are simply listings of a few hard-to-find films that readers aren't likely to get their hands on anyway.

The films in the long and brief reviews are also given a rating: "highly recommended," "recommended," "at your own risk," "avoid at all costs," and "so bad it's good."

Kingdom of the SpidersExamples of the "highly recommended" films include "Alive," "Die Hard 2," "Earthquake," James Cameron's "Titanic," "The Towering Inferno," "Kingdom of the Spiders," and both the original and Spielberg's remake of "The War of the Worlds."

Examples of "avoid at all costs" films include "Airspeed," the 2004 TV film "10.5," "Raise the Titanic," "Asteroid," and "The Plague." (Man! I bet there were a lot of candidates for this section!)

Beyond the Poseidon AdventureMy favorite entries are some of the "so bad it's good" reviews (because that's just the kind of person I am... remember, I'm a MST3K fan). These include "The Concorde: Airport '79," "When Time Ran Out...," "Beyond the Poseidon Adventure," and "The Bees." Surprisingly, I haven't seen any of these! Based on the review, though, I just added the "Poseidon" sequel to my Netflix queue.

To break up the reviews, the authors also add a few commentary pages such as "Don't Be a Hero: The Disaster Movie's Hardest Lesson" and "The Most Ridiculous Disaster Movies of All Time." These are pretty funny. In "Don't Be a Hero," Rose states (listing a few examples) that "[i]t's one of the perverse delights of disaster movies that those people who try to be heroes generally end up seriously injured or dead. And how big a movie star you might be has absolutely no bearing on your chances of survival, especially if you're surrounded by other movies stars vying for attention."

What do we think that means for "Snakes on a Plane"? Will Jackson suffer the same fate as many other disaster film heroes before him? It's an interesting theory to test out.

Why would any of us really watch these films - especially when the majority of them are serious stinkers? Well, the authors didn't have any revelations after all of the films they subjected themselves to in writing the book, but Kay did say that "[p]erhaps their appeal is similar to what some have claimed of horror films: they're a way for audiences to deal with real-life terrors and to leave the theater feeling moved, uplifted, or simply alive."

Snakes on a PlaneI wonder how we'll feel after watching "Snakes on a Plane." It will undoubtedly be a "solid" addition to the genre. It's already packing a lethal combination - snakes and planes. Personally, I hate them both. The two together might actually give me nightmares.

Then again, with all the hype around "Snakes," it's becoming easier and easier to separate the horrifying concept from the campy execution. I mean, how scary can it get when there's already an official Sodoku book based on the film? I'm serious. "Snakes on a Sudoku" - the official "Snakes on a Plane" puzzle book. Available at fine bookstores everywhere. I bet "Beyond the Poseidon Adventure" could never have dreamed of such a thing!

After reading "Disaster Movies," I'm keenly interested to see if some of the genre's standard devices, as discussed by the authors, are present in "Snakes." I'm also more likely to rent a few of the movies they reviewed - for "research" but also for fun. The pithy and sarcastic writing styles of Kay and Rose put a humorous slant on the films - one that might even make the "avoid at all costs" films amusing to watch, or at least rip apart with a group of friends MST3K-style.

If you like disaster films, you'll probably like this book. Like me, you may not agree with all of their ratings, but you'll still have a good time reading the reviews. --Shannon Nolley

Posted by Shannon on August 16, 2006 4:40 PM
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I hope they branch into the sci-fi realm for their next book. It's just ripe for the picking!

-- Posted by: mac at August 16, 2006 5:22 PM

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