America: Worst Case Scenario

Movies that remind us of America’s duty to save the planet from certain annihilation, in addition to its duty to blow everything up.

Every year I try to recommend a list of movies that will make you stop and think hard about the good aspects of being an American.* That’s partly because it is demanded of me by editors and partly because I really do feel strongly that America is greater than the sum of our last few questionable decades. Sure, we have embarrassing wingnuts who give us a bad name around the world, but our Constitution has long been a template for other countries who want to explode class hierarchy.

But when a global emergency threatens to wipe out mankind as we know it, will our ironclad Constitution protect us from lasers and/or large, speeding molten rock? Nope, that’s when we’ll send in an elite team (one that almost certainly includes Will Smith) and show the world just why they’re keeping us around. Or at least, that’s what summer blockbusters year after year would have you believe.

The following are movies in which regular men (ahem) save America (and, we assume, the rest of the world, although we don’t waste valuable filmmaking time dwelling on that part) to the delight of a terrified Commander In Chief, grateful public, and usually a girl back home. Watch these patriotic classics again for a boost of explosiony pride. Bombs! We got ‘em!

Deep Impact

Mimi Leder, 1998

  • Disaster: Enormous asteroid, ensuing tsunamis, panic
  • Enduring American trait: Family values
  • President: Morgan Freeman
  • Solution: Explosions
  • Statue of Liberty: Toast!

What if an asteroid was about to destroy the world? (Or at least our part of it). What if emergency tunnels were your only hope to survive but you couldn’t get in unless you were young and special? What if you watched this movie in high school and wept uncontrollably, causing one of the most embarrassing moments of your life? Elijah Wood, Tia Leone, Robert Duvall, and a host of others star in this film about making peace with your family before we all die horrible deaths. Luckily, a team of American astronauts sacrifices themselves to blow the asteroid into bits that will just kill off parts of the world while leaving the U.S. Capitol largely intact (phew!). We know this because a calm President Morgan Freeman reassures the survivors in front of the famously American building that, no matter what, we SHALL rebuild!


Michael Bay, 1998

  • Disaster: Enormous asteroid, panic
  • Enduring American trait: Grizzliness
  • President: Stanley Anderson
  • Solution: Explosions
  • Statue of Liberty: Busted! (Assumed, it’s never explicitly shown, but the Empire State Building does get its ass kicked)

What if an asteroid was about to destroy the world? What if your movie was the same plot as Deep Impact?? Disney won this round by casting Bruce Willis as the tough, deep-sea oil driller who runs a team of guys with THE EXACT SKILLS NECESSARY to go blow up an asteroid. To keep things emotional, his teammate, Ben Affleck, has the hots for his daughter! So you see, they must succeed! They do, with some sad casualties, and the President is relieved and grateful. It was only 13 years later that we learned that deep-sea oil drilling is actually a lot more likely to cause an extinction event. But don’t think about that, think about how a bunch of blue collar, slow-motion-walking American dudes saved our valiant nation and some other countries.

Independence Day

Roland Emmerich, 1996

  • Disaster: Alien invaders
  • Enduring American trait: Saying “Aw, HELL no!” in the face of danger
  • President: Bill Pullman
  • Solution: Explosions
  • Statue of Liberty: Lasered!

The only thing worse than asteroids is aliens, because those bug-eyed bastards are determined to destroy you! Why? Who knows! Everyone has to be as militaristic as we are, I suppose. In the 90s classic Independence Day, President Bill Pullman is wigging out during Earth’s Latest Catastrophe. Fortunately for him, Will Smith has a lot of cinematic experience with this kind of thing, and he’s not afraid to figure out the alien game before beating them at it. Cue fireworks, and…you’re welcome, rest of the world.


J.J. Abrams, 2008

  • Disaster: Alien monster lashes out
  • Enduring American trait: The overwhelming necessity to effing film everything
  • President: Not sure!
  • Solution: Abandoning all hope
  • Statue of Liberty: Decapitated!

OK, so Cloverfield’s America doesn’t exactly save the world, but Lady Liberty’s dramatic death was just too good not to include. Abrams’s much-hyped nod to about a thousand earlier movies can be characterized as having even fewer layers than Independence Day, which is as traumatic a thing as I can think of. In addition, it adds an uncute vertigo aspect, which caused this moviegoer to have to leave the theater early. Wikipedia caught me up on the very few scenes I missed and gave me the information necessary to conclude that this film is one of the few that is a product of an actual genius…and by that I mean whoever was in charge of its mysterious marketing campaign.

Mars Attacks!

Tim Burton, 1998

  • Disaster: Super cute aliens
  • Enduring American trait: Exploiting weaknesses
  • President: Jack Nicholson
  • Solution: Making fun of other movies
  • Statue of Liberty: I can’t remember, but I know Congress is pwned mercilessly.

Wash it all down with your reward, Tim Burton’s hilarious Mars Attacks! Lukas Haas, Natalie Portman, and Jack Nicholson all delight in this quirkfest about average Americans saving the day. Playing off all of the above ideas (even if they had yet to be released), Burton makes it ridiculous and keeps it ridiculous. Because there’s no need to get all serious about aliens. They just look so…un-American.

* Well, last year I wrote my own, but you get the drift.

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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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