WARNING: This article contains Spoilers for ‘The Big Short’.
A messianic, out of touch figure receives a chilling premonition. A rag-tag team of experts attempt to prevent a world changing catastrophe. Only a select few manage to escape the chaos that ensues.
No, I’m not talking about one of Hollywood’s recent big-budget disaster movies, or even about any one particular disaster movie in general. Rather, I am describing Adam McKay’s ‘The Big Short’, a well received comedy/drama, released in November 2015, starring Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling.
The film, which is set in 2008, follows a group of eccentric financial experts who begin to realise that the seemingly “rock steady” American housing market is about to explode. It wouldn’t be too much of a spoiler to say that the housing market does explode, and to disastrous results. This isn’t really a spoiler, due to the fact that The Big Short is based on the lead-up to the very real financial crisis of 2008, which saw many millions of Americans evicted from their homes.
An Unlikely Disaster
In the film, hedge-fund banker Michael Burry, (played by Christian Bale) is the first to notice that the seemingly ‘concrete’ housing market may not be all that it seems. Upon learning of a potential (and impending) global collapse, Burry immediately decides to inform his boss, who is skeptical – and ultimately dismissive – of his predictions.
Michael, a prophetic figure with the ability to see what no-one else can, is similar in nature to Charlie Frost (played by Woody Harrelson) from Roland Emmerich’s slightly less critically appreciated ‘2012’, released in 2009. Frost is an eccentric figure, who is played up for laughs to both the audience and the film’s main protagonist, Jackson Curtis. (John Cusack)
However, both characters’ predictions turn out to be devastatingly correct.
The eccentric environmental expert/conspiracy theorist/average-office-Joe with-predictions-that-eventually-prove-fruitful is practically a convention of the Genre by itself, by this point. More to the point however, most disaster films usually try to contain a moral message of some kind in order for its audience to witness the effects of ignoring a particular problem before the effects have actually happened in reality.
‘2012‘, ‘San Andreas‘, ‘I Am Legend’ and ‘The Day After Tomorrow‘ are all films which feature some kind of (if bare bones) moral message about how it is extremely valuable to – one – protect the environment and – two – to not to mess with nature. The message at the heart of ‘The Big Short’ hits closer to home, and challenges the flaws of our own nature, exploring themes of ignorance and greed.
Ignorance & Greed
Director McKay takes full advantage of the fact that the film is based off of a true story in order to make the stakes ever the more devastating.
Unlike similar big budget disaster films which present scenarios in which the audience cannot possibly imagine themselves within, ‘The Big Short’ offers a more realistic apocalypse, and one that a number of its audience had actually experienced. In discussion threads for the film that have I seen over on Reddit, more than a few commenters describe the ways in which the film had managed to hit home.
One wrote: “I don’t think I’ve ever left a theatre so angry. I was practically shaking with rage realizing how those Wall Street f***s got away with it. Great movie, but f***g hell was I mad.”
Another noted that the film: “hurt to watch, because our family lost our home during the recession too. Still can’t believe we’re not breaking up big banks.”
I absolutely believe that this was director McKay’s intention.
Had the higher-uppers in the film paid more attention to the warnings of Burry, then perhaps the entire catastrophe that was the 2008 Housing Crisis could have been totally avoided. Something simple, something avoidable – that led to terrible, real, wide-spread consequences.
What can we learn from The Big Short?
The Big Short’s core message, when boiled down, isn’t necessarily ground-breaking. (That negative traits such as greed and ignorance are bad, basically.)
Yet – for all of its simplicity, this is a message that is very often ignored. As the film’s pessimistic – and ultimately depressing – conclusion shows, we may not actually be able to do anything about that – a point that is doubly driven home by the fact that only one banker was eventually jailed for the entire fiasco, despite many hundreds being responsible for the crash, shown at the climax of the film.
The Big Short is one of the few ‘disaster’ films with a realistic ending. In Roland Emmerich’s seminal disaster masterpiece ‘2012’ – the ending is unusually optimistic. Humanity has been given a second chance, and while a great many have died, all of the main players, aside from that disposable billionaire Russian guy – had managed to survive.
As 2012’s climax is unusually hopeful, the film’s barebones message of the dangers of climate change manages to fall to the wayside. Who cares if the ice caps are melting! There’s a chance that we might survive anyway! In contrast, ‘The Big Short’ simply had to end badly in order for its message to hit home. There was no happy ending in reality.