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.)


Man of Steel

Man of Steel | 2013 | Screenplay by David S. Goyer | Story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer | Directed by Zack Snyder 

Let me just say that I’m not a fanboy, so I’m not going to talk about how this reboot fits into the whole Superman canon.

Man of Steel begins at the beginning.

Krypton is on the verge of destruction. Good guy scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer) feel obliged to protect the race. After much ado and a rather tepid face-off with bad guy General Zod (Michael Shannon), Jor-El and Lara manage to plant genetic data into their newborn son Kal-El and launch him towards Earth.

Kal-El, of course grows up to be Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), a wanderer-type who seems to have escaped from Herman Hesse’s depressed imagination. It takes him a fair amount of time to ‘become Superman,’ and it is in this that Man of Steel will test your patience.

We know that this is a reboot, so they’ll want to build (or rather, rebuild) Superman’s character. But I’m not entirely sure Snyder, Goyer and Nolan take the best route:

The film has a lengthy character introduction that continues for nearly an hour. You get to see Clark Kent struggle awkwardly with his powers. You get to see his foster parents Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) struggle even more awkwardly with his awkward struggles. Flashbacks are piled upon each other until you’re screaming for them to stop.

For the amount of time Snyder-Nolan-Goyer spend building him up, we feel shortchanged. They don’t go deep enough, and Superman doesn’t get dark enough. We know there’s more to Clark Kent, but what is it?

One positive outcome of this onslaught of memory and exposition is that when the action begins, we breathe a sigh of relief. This is where Man of Steel earns its two starsIt unravels with unleashed, unrelenting fury. If we spent the first hour watching Boy become Man, we spend the second hour watching Metropolis – and basically any solid object in sight – reduced to rubble. It’s a visual treat. We’re given the explosions we’re promised. As Susan Sontag said, ‘there is nothing like the thrill of watching all those expensive sets come tumbling down.’

That said, originality isn’t a part of the deal. There are glimpses of The Matrix, Independence Day and War of the Worlds in MOS’ visual style. Nothing that’s going to make you walk out, but it’s there. We see it.

Logic, too, seems to be the last thing on anyone’s mind. It’s obvious that they want to make Lois Lane (Amy Adams) kick ass, but they bend the plot in order to do get her to do so: there is absolutely no reason for General Zod to have asked her aboard his ship at the time of Superman’s surrender. It appeared to be an afterthought both within the narrative and in its construction. If Lois hadn’t been on that ship, the movie might have ended there and then, and this makes the plot feel contrived.

It’s like they want to pile on the pressure and watch Lois buckle.

Henry Cavill makes a gorgeous Superman to look at, but the lack of depth in the story means not much is asked of its actors. Perhaps this is why Amy Adams and Michael Shannon are underutilized. These are not actors easily miscast. Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner and Diane Lane do their bits and go home.

While it’s already been announced that both Snyder and Goyer will return for the sequel, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone new is brought on board in terms of story development. The scale at which Man of Steel is played out – planet versus planet – is going to be hard to beat. How would you make it ‘larger’ than this? One way would be to make it implode. Devise a character-driven story that is ‘larger internally’, but that means…character. Work.

Are Snyder and Goyer up to the challenge?

‘I have such doubts.’