An Angelina Jolie wildfire movie is every disasterologist’s dream, but Those Who Wish Me Dead ignores our current nightmare. Instead of leaving us with a high from an action-packed Jolie film, we were left wondering why Hollywood isn’t doing more to help us through our collective anxieties in the midst of a pandemic and a revolving door of climate-related disasters.
In this time of uncertainty, we are craving a disaster narrator, someone to tell us what is happening, why, and what to do to fix it. That is the responsibility of disaster storytellers today: To hold the mirror up to us, show us our future with inaction, and then show us the pathway out.
Those Who Wish Me Dead is billed as an action-packed thriller and, in that sense, the movie delivers with a team of hitmen in black SUVs and earpieces chasing down a forensic accountant and his son. After a skirmish on a backcountry highway ends in the father’s death, his son escapes into the forest. Enter Jolie, a seasoned wildland firefighter with PTSD who guides the boy to safety while battling assassins, bolts of lightning, and a wildfire.
Though the plot is squarely situated around an intertwining battle royale (which also includes the local sheriff and his pregnant, survivalist wife), the pervasive wildfire scenes in the movie push the film into the disaster genre. The hallmarks of a disaster movie are all there in Those Who Wish Me Dead from broken radios that prevent the characters from calling for help to an indestructible hero to the arrival of fire trucks, ambulances, and reporters as the threat subsides. Quick spreading fires, groups of trees torching, radio calls warning the fire is 0% contained are all woven into the backdrop of the film.
Those Who Wish Me Dead shows the assassins starting the wildfire for the purpose of distracting local law enforcement but then there is no other discussion about how the fire spreads. The flames become the backdrop of the film as Jolie and Senghore battle characters that unintentionally come off as little more than sophisticated iterations of Home Alone’s Harry and Marv. Oddly, the film never contextualizes the wildfire or the conditions that would allow such a fire to spread. Using graphic wildfire scenes as pure entertainment is a fraught choice after years of very real, deadly wildfires.
Perhaps the filmmakers would argue that Those Who Wish Me Dead is just an action movie, and not meant to be anything more. But who can watch a wildfire movie in 2021 without thinking of climate change and the past few years? Wildfires are not abstract to an audience that has listened to the 911 calls of the people killed by wildfires across the West in recent years or know those who survived. The world has bore witness to entire towns swallowed by flames and sunsets cast blood red by smoke travelling thousands of miles from the flames, driven by rising temperatures that have turned forests in tinderboxes. The absence of acknowledging this reality comes across as dissolute and raises the question of if filmmakers who make disaster films have a different responsibility to their audience in this era of persistent crisis. Can films employ disaster simply for spectacle or must they acknowledge something more, namely the climate crisis, the policy choices that led us here, our collective grief, and a way forward?
Disaster films of the 1970s, the heyday of the genre, were meant to be entertainment that was escapism from everyday mundane life. Audiences could experience wild spectacles like cruise ships overturned in a massive wave, a skyscraper engulfed in flames, and a plane needing a new pilot to be dropped in mid-flight on a tether from a safe distance because these plots were so far from the status quo. The disaster movies of today encounter a different audience. More frequent and severe disasters have upended our ability to view disaster flicks as escapism. The line between a fictional disaster playing out on the screen and the very real life disasters we must survive have become blurred, which is why Those Who Wish Me Dead feels as though it was made in the wrong era.
An important purpose of disaster films has always been to help audiences process real life fears and anxieties. In our current era of neoliberal governance and the climate crisis, disasters have become commonplace. Upwards of 600,000 Americans are dead following a 16-month pandemic that is still taking lives in the U.S. and spiking in other parts of the world. We’ve experienced a constant stream of record-breaking hurricanes, river floods, and wildfires. Sea levels are rising, the risk of deadly heat waves is increasing, and none of it is being addressed by political leaders as urgently and as forcefully as the science warns us it should be. As our collective reality shifts to this period of persistent crisis, our art must shift, too. Hollywood alone can’t bear the responsibility to help people make sense of our current circumstances — but it can help.
Filmmakers must learn to evolve the spectacle of disaster around their audience’s disaster rolodex. Sept. 11, the Indian Ocean Tsunami, Katrina and the levee failure, the Haiti earthquake, Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Maria, and the Camp Fire, among others all inform how an audience responds to the genre.
Certainly some disaster films in our current era pull off pure escapism as they are so absurd in their narratives and execution that we don’t expect more (though even Sharknado discusses climate change). Greenland, the other big disaster movie of the year, is full of spectacle but it also does something more. The film isn’t just explosions, mass casualties, and Gerard Butler. The characters in Greenland have to navigate complex decisions about how to ensure their family’s survival with only minimal instruction from the government. The film, released in January 2021, met an audience that had for the past year been struggling to do the same. If you’re going to make a disaster film, in the midst of disaster, you have to do something more than just use disaster for dramatic effect. That’s why Greenland succeeded where Those Who Wish Me Dead failed. Greenland pulled on the anxiety of having to make hard choices to protect your family without support, a shared pandemic experience many could relate to. Those Who Wish Me Dead left us saying, “that’s it?”
Disaster scholars have long noted that popular culture can inform the public’s understanding of disasters. When the pandemic began, the 9-year-old movie Contagion soared to the top of the charts once again. A year later, UK health secretary Matt Hancock admitted Contagion had informed his thinking on vaccine strategy. If the public and even government officials are looking to disaster films as a source of authority, then we should all expect more from these stories. That’s particularly true when, as they regularly do, those films do not match real life.
Contagion notoriously had a deep bench of science advisors, but most disaster movies do not. When scientists are brought in to consult, they tend to be seismologists, volcanologists, or other hazard scientists. While the actual earthquake or volcano may be the visually stunning part of these films, it’s how the characters react to the crisis that is the heart of these films. Those reactions aren’t about the hazard, they’re about human behaviour and how we respond in times of crisis. To this point, disaster scientists — the people who study how we react to hazards — are rarely, if ever, consulted for disaster films (ironic, to be sure).
As a result, while sometimes the hazard science in disaster films may be correct, everything from human behaviour to the actual response logistics are often portrayed inaccurately. That means disaster films can perpetuate myths of human behaviour in times of crisis and further enforce problematic disaster narratives. For example, more than 50 years of disaster research has found that people help each other in times of crisis. We do not descend into mobs of looters or panic to the point of being unable to protect ourselves. Yet, background scenes of looters and main characters instinctively grabbing their guns for protection are commonplace in disaster films, which can reinforce these disaster myths.
To the extent that Hollywood is part of the problem in how the public understands disasters and emergency management, it could also be part of the solution as a vehicle to change the narrative. In Those Who Wish Me Dead, there were any number of moments where just a brief mention of climate change could have been added to memorable and powerful effect. Certainly not every single movie needs to tackle climate change, but in the absence of other recent wildfire movies (Only The Brave was the last in 2017), the responsibility to do so grows.
Climate researchers, activists, and artists often discuss the importance of storytelling as a driver of climate action. Yet Hollywood, a major source of storytelling for the masses, is failing to meet the needs of this moment. Movie and television studios must meet this moment, though, not only because it is morally right but because it won’t connect with its audience if it doesn’t.
Dr. Samantha Montano is an assistant professor of emergency management at Massachusetts Maritime Academy. She is the author of the forthcoming book Disasterology: Dispatches From The Frontlines of The Climate Crisis.
John Carr is an instructor of emergency and disaster management at Northwest Missouri State University. His research focuses on citizen engagement in emergency management and disaster preparedness.