Thanks to fire alarms, we never see fire or explosions except for the Fourth of July. High tech fire sensors have taken the fear out of fire. However, if you're in a Hollywood film (especially if it's directed by Michael Bay, of Armageddon and Pearl Harbor fame), you're likely to see more than your fair share. Is this due to a tragic shortage of fire alarms in the world of cinema? Or is it driven by the audience's desire to watch things blow up? Here's why the answer skews toward the latter.
Bearing witness to destruction provides affirmation of life
It's a well-known fact that a near-death experience -- or even the death of a loved one -- can give an individual a newfound respect for the miracle of existence. Watching imaginary wide-scale destruction from the safety of a movie theater makes people feel more alive. This is particularly true when the destruction involves structures that are widely familiar, as in Bay's The Rock (1996) and its demolition of Alcatraz.
Audiences identify with the survivors, not with the victims
In his review of 2003's The Sum of All Fears, film critic Roger Ebert wrote cynically about the film's happy ending, in which the heroes find themselves contemplating their future on a lawn blanket after Baltimore has been destroyed by a bomb. His words: "Human nature is a wonderful thing. The reason the ending is happy is because we assume that we'll be the two on the blanket, not the countless who've been vaporized." If we're around for the ending, we feel empowered simply by virtue of having "survived" when such danger exists in the world.
Special effects are just plain cool
We know, intellectually, that we're not watching the White House being transmuted into a heap of rubble in Independence Day — but at the time, was anyone less than convinced? In the century-plus since the dawn of cinema, the limits of the medium have been pushed steadily higher, so that now such amazing sleight of hand seems commonplace. It's human nature to want to push against these limits, to seek out the next highest peak. Explosions provide a pulse-pounding way to achieve this end.
Whatever our reasons, audiences just can't seem to get enough of watching things get blown to smithereens. Come next Memorial Day, there's sure to be yet another round of nuclear eye-candy to go along with the popcorn.