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Anatomy of a disaster movie

Disaster movies go through periods of popularity and periods of neglect. The well-structured disaster plot is a thoroughly satisfying and entertaining film, with a huge potential market, plenty of opportunity for heroism and enough set-pieces and visual elements to make a fine event movie. This is a brief description of what goes into a disaster movie and how to make it compelling.

The best disaster movie ever made

The best disaster movies I've ever seen are two exceptional examples of the genre. Actually dissecting them is largely pointless, however, because Metro has almost never been seen outside Russia and Jaws is not always considered a disaster movie. So, instead, we'll look at one of the most archetypal structures and invent our own disaster plot. In homage to the golden age of the genre we're going to call this imaginary film Airport '15.

Airport '15

Our imaginary disaster movie will cover all of the critical bases and we'll begin by looking at the critical settings and characters.

The action will mailly take place on an airliner, but the action will also be informed by events at a new airport, being built by a corproration to ease the congestion at Chicago's O'Hare airport.

Our hero is a dedicated computer programmer, Paul Programmer, our villain, a vice-president of Evilcorp, Edward Evildoer.

The first act

At LAX airport in Los Angeles there's excitement as a host of the famous and rich get on a plane to fly to Chicago. This flight will be the first flight into the brand new airport: Chicago Evilport. Also on the guest list are a few of the senior people who worked on the new airport, including Paul who designed the software for the astonishingly sophisticated landing system. You see at Evilport, as becomes clear as the LAX press interviews unfold, you don't need a pilot to land the plane, it's all done automatically. The pilot of this flight will get the plane off the ground, set the autopilot and then join the party in the cabin.

Paul is nervous about the lack of a pilot in the cockpit during landing of the very first flight, but obviously there have been test landings with empty planes. He glances at his AA chip and grimaces, wishing he could enjoy the free champagne.

Meanwhile, at Evilport, Edward is already enjoying the press attention at their destination. He, despite early setbacks, has brought the airport online on schedule, earning a bonus of millions of dollars. His father, the founder of the company is proud of him and he's managed to snag a beautiful actress to be his date for the first flight's arrival.

One of Edward's team, Chris Conscience, goes looking for him, finding him in a private office climbing aboard the actress. He is worried about the sign-off on the airport, since he thought they were well behind schedule. Angrily Edward tells him to get back to the party and resumes his boarding efforts.

The plane lifts off. We discover that Paul is a very nervous flier, he's shaking with fear. He tells one of his fellow invitees that he shouldn't have got aboard, but the woman, a fellow employee of Evilcorp, points out that it would have looked bad if the man who designed the landing program wouldn't fly on the inaugural flight.

The pilot sets the plane to autopilot, signs off and joins the party. He's handed a glass of champagne by a flight attendant and toasts his much shorter working day. Everyone cheers and laughs.

At Evilport, Chris is troubled. He walks into the control tower, which is empty, computers handling everything. He sits at a terminal and checks the code is working. No errors, everything's fine. He gets up to leave but then a thought occurs. He checks to see if the system is reporting errors as it's supposed to. He finds the computer has been told to ignore errors. Checking the log he finds that Edward turned off the error-checking several days earlier, before the sign-off was done. Nervously Chris turns on error-checking and immediately the computer screens fill with red errors and warning lights flash.

Chris stares in horror at the computer screens. Meanwhile the plane, unconcerned, flies towards Chicago.

Analysing the first act

Fairly typical first act, no? We've introduced out main characters, shown the problem they face, set the scene for the complexity and we've put someone in the unenviable position of having to do something.

In a disaster movie, our hero must overcome the situation, not the villain. For the hero the antagonist is actually the inevitable fiery death that awaits him and many others, he is not going to be involved in fighting the villain, Edward, because the die is already cast. Nothing Edward can do now will prevent some form of tragedy or threat. Instead, Chris will be responsible for battling the villain, while Paul has to deal with the consequences of the villainy.

So, and I'm not begging for compliments here, I do know how corny the plot is, does this first act set up the peril? Does it show who's good and who's evil? Is it, ultimately, a satisfying set up? I think it is, even if it would take a Goldman or a Whedon to write a script from here that was anything other than formulaic, for our purposes formulaic is our friend because this is intended to show how the formula works.

The second act

So, we have begun our motivational curve. Chris goes to find Edward again. Edward is back at the party, having slaked his lust, and is describing to a group of sycophants how big his bonus was and how he's going to leave later that day, from this very airport, for a long holiday in Brazil. He gloats that his will be the first proper flight out of the airport, just as the first flight in is arriving from LAX.

Chris takes him to one side and asks him about the errors. Edward, relaxed, explains that the errors were trivial, but their constant appearance prevented the FAA Federal Aviation Authority from signing off on the airport. The errors are nothing, just intermittent communications glitches and weather warnings, the reason they exist is because the programmers insisted on logging every little thing, no matter how minor. In such an environment, he explains, how could a man like him earn his huge bonus?

Chris isn't convinced but, passing Edward's father, he doesn't take the opportunity to tell him of the problems because the man is in the middle of a group of press.

Chris' wife, who knows him, asks why he's looking so subdued. He shrugs her off but she is worried. She thinks about earlier when Chris went off to the control tower. She knows nothing about the technical side of her husband's work, but she does know a few of the wives of senior employees. She makes a call.

On the plane a woman is taking a selfie in front of the empty cockpit. Her phone rings and she answers it. She speaks with the woman in Chicago and frowns. She goes to have a word with the nervous Paul and asks him if there's anything to worry about. Paul laughs off his fear, explaining that it's just his terror of flying. When he built the software it produces errors when anything goes wrong and the sign-off on safety showed that there were no errors at all. Not only that, his laptop shows any errors being produced and he checked it just before take-off. She asks him if he'd check again for her peace of mind. He does so, mostly to give himself something to think about other than flying. On his screen there are now hundreds of errors.

Paul and Chris rapidly exchange information. Paul now knows there's a real problem and he quietly goes to tell the pilot to turn off the automatic systems and land the plane manually. He, however, is now drunk and incoherent. Paul sits in the cockpit and tries to work out if he can fix the problems on the fly, literally. Chris is firing information at him, but there's too much to do, there's no way the plane can and safely under the automatic system and there's nobody to fly the plane.

Chris finds Edward and explains how badly wrong this is all going to go. Edward tells him he can fix it, and bustles off.

On the plane Paul is having panic attacks and one of the flight attendants is trying to reassure him that he can do this. Paul rapidly rewrites chunks of the code, all the work that should have been done. Chris tells Edward's father about the problems, the father sends for Edward, but he's already gone, his plane has left and he's taken his actress with him, along with his millions.

As the flight continues and both Paul and Chris frantically update the software, the tension builds to febrile delirium as the clock depicting how long until the plane lands ticks relentlessly towards zero.

Analysing the second act

OK, I admit it, the second act needs a lot of work, only the spreading of information to the relevant people has really taken place. I'd need to put in a whole load of additional twists and turns, more complexity, more peril. The reason I'm not doing that is because this is an illustrative example, I'm not really writing a screenplay here. There are several articles on this site that explore what needs to go in the second act, if you really want this to be a world-class description you'll have to write a better second act yourself.

Now we've got everyone in their final positions for the third act...

The third act

In this disaster movie, because I'm a sucker for a happy ending, the third act is going to be a bit upbeat. But if you imagine a far darker, less joyful conclusion that's fine, after all, the third act contains the resolution, things can still go either way.

In the nick of time, with seconds to spare, heroic computer programmer (be honest, you never thought you'd see those words in formation) Paul clicks the final compile button and the plane shifts slightly as it rights itself. He collapses in the cockpit, his work done. In the tower, Chris surveys a load of screens with green lights displayed, they've done it. He uses the radio to tell Paul what a great job he did but Paul is too busy kissing a flight attendant to answer.

The press finished their interviews with the company founder and he walks off to the tower to find out where his son is. Chris shows him on the screens, already hundreds of miles away. Then an idea occurs. Using the new software Chris takes remote control of Edward's plane and gently turns it back to Evilport. On the plane the turn is so gradual that Edward never notices, the pilot is informed that the plane has to return and will be landed automatically, he relaxes in the cockpit.

Paul, Chris, Paul's new 'friend' and Chris' wife meet at the terminal, embracing each other. As they celebrate the founder of Evilcorp comes past and tells them they'll be sharing the bonus that was going to his son.

Analysing the third act

The third act is done, heroes survived and rewarded. Villain is defeated and, this is the critical thing. Our heroes didn't defeat the villain, they defeated the situation, a situation that was a consequence of the villain's, er, villainy.

Not all disaster movies are about airliners, but disaster movies are plotted using this structure. You'll find you can match the elements of it to The Towering Inferno, Earthquake and, yes, Jaws. Trust me, I'm a screenwriter.

"We must believe in luck. For how else can we explain the success of those we don't like?"

Jean Cocteau