As a captive to the vision of the director, you, the audience of a disaster movie, are presented with a character or set of characters with which to sympathize. Of course, they are likable, or at least have some redeeming trait to connect them emotionally with the audience; having small children, or something like that. You, the audience, are tuned into their circumstances.
After an EMP emitted by the invading alien tripods disables all electrical systems in the 2005 remake of The War of the Worlds, the main character steals the only working car in the entire city, intending to drive himself and his two children to safety in Boston. He drives along deserted backroads and in the middle of nowhere, safe from city mobs, warns his kids that somebody might want to try and take their car – to evacuate themselves and their own families.
Their car being later taken from them as predicted, the characters try to get on a ferry to cross the river and escape the aliens. As the ferry attempts to cast off (without our characters on board), the military sets up a blockade to stop panicked evacuatees left on the shore from rushing onto the boat. The situation is tense, but ultimately, you, the theatre-goer, hope that the characters the writer chose for you will disobey the blockade; that they will shove others away the hardest and push their way through.
After our characters had hijacked someone else’s car (the only working one in the city), hidden away with it, and passed children slowly walking alone down the street, a stranger graciously offers the father and daughter (the son having been separated from them earlier) shelter in his basement. He tells them that he has enough food and water to last for weeks, and he says they may stay as long as they like. When the aliens discover them, however, the man expresses interest in fighting back, and will not be quiet when the aliens are above them. Our character, the father, fears that this man will compromise their survival, and subsequently takes him into the other room and kills him with his bare hands.
In a disaster movie, we want our characters to survive despite all the odds. But our characters are only a few of thousands fleeing the same fate. There is nothing about our characters that makes them more deserving of survival than all people they pushed out of the way to get to the ferry, or denied a ride in their car. We cheer when our character steals the only working car to escape the aliens. Possibly, we are also expected to cheer him on when he kills his generous host, who may compromise the survival of himself and his daughter (I did not cheer). We hope that our character loots that last package of food, at the expense of others equally deserving.
Disaster movies give us one cast to sympathize with, and they are held by us, at least temporarily, to have more importance than any other human being that might impede their survival.
This is simply feeding our base instinct. As a humanist, I have to believe that there is potential to surpass that. Not only potential, but obligation. We mature as a species and as individual people when we force ourselves to overcome selfish urges and reach for something beyond the feral. Disaster movies should not be about the characters that shove the hardest or kill their hosts to survive, although I’m sure they would lose a lot of revenue with that suggestion. A disaster movie for a century of reasonable human beings should be about the characters that cooperate with total strangers, that are willing to take risks and make sacrifices to help others, even strangers, survive.
But I guess that doesn’t sell movies, now does it?