THERE ARE FEW SURER WAYS TO WIN ratings than to level a city in a fictional earthquake or crash an asteroid into the planet. Mindless TV disaster epics are a sweeps staple. But toward the end of the cold war, there flourished a high-minded subgenre: the Very Special Disaster Movie--VSDM. In the '80s, such shows as The Day After, Special Bulletin, Threads and Testament told what-if stories about nuclear attacks and their aftermaths. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the networks' interest in atomic catastrophes disappeared, even if the nukes didn't.
Today, given the interest in catastrophe--man-made or natural, radiological or biological, by land or by air--it's surprising that the big networks have not revived the VSDM. Perhaps they fear bumming viewers out. Perhaps, in the age of fragmentation, they don't feel those movies can get the attention The Day After did when it drew about 100 million viewers in 1983. But now cable has begun making VSDMs, including two upcoming movies that are highly timely--one intentionally, one accidentally.
The intentionally relevant one is HBO's Dirty War (Jan. 24, 9 p.m. E.T.), about a dirty bomb (a device packed with radioactive material that renders an area uninhabitable with its fallout) set off in London. The film was co-written and directed by Daniel Percival, a one-man VSDM industry; he also created Smallpox, a chilling mockumentary that aired this month on FX. Dirty War opens on a sight familiar from the news, an attack-simulation drill. The test is a sham--the responders are badly underequipped, and the casualty numbers are fudged--but the Minister for London (Helen Schlesinger) reports success, to "protect" the people from the truth.
And that is the happy part of the movie. Things get darker as a real dirty truck bomb goes off in the city's center. There is far more devastation than the drill projected. The response is chaotic: workers are trapped in burning offices as rescue crews retreat from the radioactive zone. Panic ensues, and the heroism and derring-do that follow only remind us that the real time for lifesaving action ended long before.
If Dirty War can be didactic and self-congratulatory, it also smartly balances a thriller's plotting with an astute eye for politics and bureaucratic idiocy. Whether you consider it a gripping, worthy scare or titillating scaremongering may depend on whether you think it is a fair warning or a grim preview reel of inevitable coming attractions. For the sake of all of us, if not of the movie, let's hope it's the former.
The docudrama Pompeii: The Last Day (Discovery, Jan. 30, 9 p.m. E.T.) did not set out to be a VSDM. That changed with the Indian Ocean tsunami, when entire habitations were, like the Roman city in 79 A.D., erased by a rumbling from beneath the earth's crust. A BBC co-production (as is Dirty War), Pompeii gives a scientific blow-by-blow of Vesuvius' eruption. More interestingly--and with more resonance today--it tries to tell the disaster's human story.
In particular, it asks, Why didn't people run like hell? Some did, it turns out, and died anyway. Others stayed, out of fatalism or simply because they didn't know what a volcanic eruption was. They watch thunderstruck as pumice falls from the sky like an otherworldly snowstorm. Later, as superheated ash cascades, it is too late to flee.