Susan Sontag on ‘The Imagination of Disaster’

I’m going to let Susan Sontag do the talking.

In 1965, she wrote The Imagination of Disaster, a landmark essay in American film criticism. She noted that a ‘typical science fiction film has a form as predictable as a Western, and is made up of elements which, to a practiced eye, are as classic as the saloon brawl, the blonde schoolteacher from the East, and the gun duel on the deserted main street.’ 

She then goes on to describe a number of model scenarios followed by science fiction films.

Per her analysis, the film that should be ‘in color and on a wide screen’ proceeds through five phases:

‘(1) The arrival of the thing. (Emergence of the monsters, landing of the alien spaceship, etc.) This is usually witnessed or suspected by just one person, 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 girl friend.

(2) Confirmation of the hero’s report by a host of witnesses to a great act of destruction. (If the invaders are beings from another planet, a fruitless attempt to parley with them and get them to leave peacefully.) The local police are summoned to deal with the situation and massacred.

(3) In the capital of the country, conferences between scientists and the military take place, with the hero lecturing before a chart, map, or blackboard. A national emergency is declared. Reports of further destruction. Authorities from other countries arrive in black limousines. All international tensions are suspended in view of the planetary emergency. This stage often includes a rapid montage of news broadcasts in various languages, a meeting at the UN, and more conferences between the military and the scientists. Plans are made for destroying the enemy. 

(4) Further atrocities. At some point the hero’s girl friend is in grave danger. Massive counter-attacks by international forces, with brilliant displays of rocketry, rays, and other advanced weapons, are all unsuccessful. Enormous military casualties, usually by incineration. Cities are destroyed and/or evacuated. There is an obligatory scene here of panicked crowds stampeding along a highway or a big bridge, being waved on by numerous policemen who, if the film is Japanese, are immaculately white-gloved, preternaturally calm, and call out in dubbed English, “Keep moving. There is no need to be alarmed.”

(5) More conferences, whose motif is: “They must be vulnerable to something.” Throughout the hero has been working in his lab to this end. 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 girl friend embrace cheek to cheek and scan the skies sturdily. “But have we seen the last of them?”‘


It is now 2013, and it’s incredibly unnerving how Man of Steel hits more than just a few of these notes.

(Roland Emmerich’s 2012, of course, seems to have been crafted directly out of this essay.)


2 thoughts on “Susan Sontag on ‘The Imagination of Disaster’

  1. Hello, I’m a big fan of this text of Sontag’s. Unfortunately there are 2 versions of the essay. The one published in the book Agains Interpretation excludes the 3 first paragraphs of the essay you have linked in your site. It starts by the typology. It may give the impression that she is making a typology that is to be useful for all times, but I think Sontag’s typical descriptions have to be dated if we want to use the text in a critical way. I’d like to ask you…Do you happen to know the bibliografical references to the more complete essay?

  2. Hello! Thanks for your comment. This struck me too. The version I have (in American Movie Critics, a collection of essays) also excludes the first 3 paras.

    Not sure I understood your question, though. If you meant to ask where the complete article first appeared, I think that would be the October 1965 issue (pages 42-48) of Commentary magazine.

    Does this answer your question?

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