Watching the footage from last week's devastating tsunamis in South Asia, it's been hard not to think about disaster movies. Two recent films especially stand out: The Day After Tomorrow and Deep Impact. Both featured tsunamis in their money shots, both destroyed New York with waves that toppled buildings and swamped streets, both wiped out millions of poor souls in a spectacular blow. These scenes, which relied heavily on every toy Industrial Light & Magic could provide, were used to sell the films. The tsunamis were set pieces, and if we never stopped to think about the real-life consequences of that sort of disaster--the massive loss of lives, the economic devastation, and the second wave of disease that would surely follow--it was because we were too busy saying "wow."

Both The Day After Tomorrow and Deep Impact were absurdly expensive ventures. The Day After Tomorrow cost a reported $200 million, $185 million more than the United States originally pledged to disaster relief. Deep Impact cost close to $100 million, which means the combined total cost for making both films is just $50 million less than the $350 million the United States was shamed into pledging. But despite the money and care that went into creating the fictional tsunamis, no single image or sequence in either film inspires as much fear as the footage of the real-life tsunamis that saturated cable-news programs last week. That footage is devastating--and not just because of the numbers of lives lost. No, there is a terrifying artfulness to it. Watching the footage, you realize that no amount of light and magic can ever match the fear, panic, and, in the end, ghastly thrill that these images instill. Much of this has to do with the obvious divide between reality and art, but there's something more at play: The way the real-life tsunami has been shot offers a far more visceral experience than any filmmaker would dare to attempt.

While directors frequently treat us to spectacular images of destruction, they almost always provide an easy emotional disconnect, something that helps to separate the audience from the image. We may gape in awe at what we're witnessing, but we are not truly affected by what we're watching. As viewers we often float above the images, seeing them from multiple angles; we're dropped in close to see cars and people being washed away in Manhattan, but then we're quickly, and dishonestly, pulled back out again. Movies are voyeurism, and there is no safer peeping perch than in the audience watching a disaster movie--we get the thrill without getting wet.

In contrast, the footage of the South Asia tsunamis are shockingly intimate, and therefore, far more terrifying. There are no long shots. The video is shot with shaky camcorders, the sound is muddled and often indecipherable. They're incomplete. And these images accomplish the goal of every great horror movie: They allow our imaginations to do most of the heavy lifting.

In the days immediately following the disaster, we scrambled to see what we could of the "giant wave," searching for was a single defining image--a shot like the Statue of Liberty being submerged in The Day After Tomorrow, or buildings being toppled as they were in Deep Impact, or the second plane hitting the World Trade Center. But a single, defining image of this disaster doesn't exist. Instead, we've only been able to see tiny slices of chaos: A couple being washed off a hotel terrace, a restaurant once perfectly in order suddenly swept away during the course of a single shot, the huffing and puffing of a cameraman stumbling away from the shore. Each of these images is brought to us from a single, panicked point of view, never interrupted--and because of this constraint our imaginations are forced to fill in the rest, all the other thousands of people caught up in this tragedy, all the other deaths.

Hollywood works hard, and spends an obscene amount of money, trying to scare us with faked images of imaginary tragedies--but only a sunburned tourist with a cheap video camera can scare us to death.

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