Depicting Disaster in Film

It is no secret that popular culture often depicts societal values in works of fiction. I think that it is interesting, in the context of Monday’s lecture topic, to compare how popular culture and academia differ in terms of their attitudes towards infrastructure terrorism, as well as look at where they converge.

I think that a good place to start is to assess how film depicts what Graham discusses as the Urban Achilles.  The networked nature of infrastructure in society makes it very susceptible to attack, since it has the ability to affect a great number of people with one targeted strike.  Graham uses examples like 9/11, and the London Subway attacks to demonstrate how multiple different elements of an infrastructure can be implicated one one node of the network has been compromised.  This is one of the differences between pop culture and academia that I would like to point out.  Using the example of an attack on a city’s water system; where the academic interpretation stresses how many aspects of the infrastructure are impacted, such as stock markets, financial costs to repair the damaged system, emergency personnel, hospital overload to deal with the affected people… the list goes on.  Hollywood on the otherhand, focuses on the effects endured by citizens, implicating them as victims and enlisting emergency personnel as the heroes. For example, Batman Begins (2005) features an impending attack on Gotham’s water system, and despite one of the major themes of the movie being that Gotham’s police force is corrupt – the criminal is intercepted by Batman and ultimately arrested by the one honest cop Gotham has to offer.  Even movies that depict natural disaster rather than infrastructure terrorism often display governmental organizations as heroes.  For example, in Day After Tomorrow (2004), the film culminates with the government sending out search and rescue teams for civilians impacted by the weather.  I think these film tropes appeal to the individualistic nature of North American culture, while simultaneously instilling in us a ‘faith’ in the infrastructure – demonstrating that even though it is under attack, there are systems in place that will not fail to protect it’s citizens.

These examples depict present day infrastructure disasters, but Hollywood films depicting futuristic infrastructure disaster present an entirely different message.  I am thinking specifically of I, Robot (2004).  In this film, the society is very much an interpretation of the Smart City discussed in class, where everything is connected via a cyber-technical-infrastructure.  When disaster strikes in this film, it is the infrastructure that turns agains the citizen.  The root cause of the problem is malfunctioning technology, where the AI of the system that controls the city has become too aware and plans to enslave humanity (to protect it).  I think it is very fascinating that Hollywood has maintained “civilians as victims” in this film, but has framed technology as the enemy, meaning that in the progressive city the infrastructure can’t save you as it would in a traditional society.

It is interesting to me that popular film is almost always a dystopic interpretation of technology, and a utopic interpretation of government systems.  While it is not a mystery why that is, it is noteworthy that so many successful films follow these plot lines.

It seems that audiences are being reassured that in the event of disaster “good will prevail,” as long as technology is not involved, and that it’s in everyone’s best interest to not let technology get involved in the first place.



  1. I agree that the glorification of government institutions as heroes is a strange but easily understandable phenomenon; of course, power is clear here. These themes are especially evident in war films which show all the members of the US or Canadian military as heroes who have never made an unethical decision.
    However, what I think is possibly more interesting and challenging to address is the moral panic which is common in both academia and popular culture. The amount of films which predict a dystopic future based on advances in technology are prevalent, and articles like Graham’s demonstrate that the same panic exists in scholarly literature. Of course, this all falls into a technological determinist trap which likely ignores the contexts in which technologies are developed. I guess the question is, why are we so panicked? And what are the larger structures at work that are responsible for introducing new technologies when it seems like society in general is so hesitant to accept them?


  2. This was really interesting, Nicole, thanks for sharing. It’s interesting how films are often reflective of contemporary issues/concerns, which in this case, is infrastructural terrorism and the impact on civilians. A film I thought also is reflective of this is the 2013 sci-fi film Elysium. The plot centres on Earth in the year 2154 and how humans on Earth are living in poverty with illness and disease, where the wealthy have retreated to a habitat on a space station orbiting the planet, where they live in luxury and with advanced medical technology that is capable of curing all diseases and even able to restore limbs. One of the major plot points I wanted to point out was how humans on Earth who illegally flee to Elysium attempt to hack the Elysium system in order to register themselves as ‘citizens’. Otherwise, the medical technology capable of restoring diseases will not register them and therefore not perform treatment. Just like you pointed out, Graham’s concept of the Urban Achilles is applicable here as well because the nature of the film illustrates interfering with a technology susceptible to attack. I think the biggest difference here is that the hacking of Elysium’s system in the film is not a result of wanting to cause harm to them or damage their infrastructure for a cause. Instead, the people of Earth want access to Elysium’s medical technology to improve their health conditions.


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