“I’ll never let go, Jack. I’ll never let go”. Possibly the most memorable lines ever uttered in a disaster movie. Who could forget those last minutes of James Cameron’s Titanic, watching a pallid Leo di Caprio slip away into the abyssal Atlantic? Who could forget a half-frozen Kate Winslet jerking pitifully through the water, or the shrill sound of the Acme whistle that saved her character’s life? Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt Bukater remain one of the most celebrated couples in cinematic history, in one of the most lucrative films of all time, about one of the most significant tragedies in Western history — but neither of them existed. Jack and Rose are fictional: the romantic fantasy of Hollywood’s most ambitious director. Is it right that we should be entertained by real-life disasters, especially when the characters we fall in love with never actually existed, and our favourite scenes never actually happened?
There are many reasons a director might choose to make a film about a historic event. Tragedy breeds sympathy, anticipation and most importantly, curiosity. We are drawn to tragedy in the same way bored rush-hour drivers are drawn to stop their cars and stare at a serious accident. We want to know the story behind that accident: which hearts were broken, what lives were lost. Titanic was spot-on in creating a believable imitation of 1912, and it must have been invigorating to viewers in 1997 that these strange, rigid, class-orientated people were just as afraid of death as a 90s spectator. This is the human impact of a disaster movie. It exposes the timeless fear for one’s life, and for the lives of others: a fear that all human beings instinctively understand.
But the key ingredient of the disaster movie, the true hook, is dramatic irony. We know that Titanic is going to sink, but will Jack and Rose survive? We know that the World Trade Center is going to fall, but will the firefighters survive the rescue operation? In films like United 93, the dramatic irony is physically painful: we know the plane is going to crash in Pennsylvania, but we still find ourselves screaming at the screen, pleading with the passengers to take control of the plane and live.
Yet there is something uncomfortable, even voyeuristic, about a film that glamorises real-life tragedies. Even smaller ‘disasters’, like the mysterious deaths of Tom and Eileen Lonergan in 1998, have been picked out for exposure — in this case, Open Water. Would Tom and Eileen have been comfortable with the film? True, their names don’t appear, but it is most definitely based on their story — or is it? No-one was there when they died. No-one knows what filled their final hours. Lionsgate’s take on the story showed Susan Watkins, Eileen’s fictional counterpart, removing her scuba gear and drowning before a shiver of sharks can attack her. Eileen may or may not have suffered this fate. Perhaps that’s why director Chris Kentis chose to change her name: out of respect for the ambiguity of her fate. But in the end, that means we don’t remember Eileen. We remember Susan, a fictional character. Meanwhile, somewhere, a Hollywood hotshot gets a nice big windfall from her death.
Disaster films have one very noble function: they make us remember the lives of the fallen. Still, they should not be watched as a means of fully understanding the disaster — rather as an individual, or a company’s take on that disaster. We should remember that while we’re eating our popcorn, safe in our seats in an air-conditioned room.