This week’s earthquake flick San Andreas may have the Rock as its ostensible star, but we all know that the lead role in any disaster movie is the disaster itself. Quite appropriately, trailers for the film have highlighted the urban destruction porn angle. It makes sense. The disaster movie is one of cinema’s oldest genres: There were films about Pompeii and burning buildings in the very early days of movies. Maybe that’s because film is the one art form that can do proper justice to this sort of spectacle: You can’t re-create it onstage, and who wants to read about a disaster when they can see it?
So we decided to take this opportunity to look back on our favorite disaster movies over the years. To do so, however, we had to set some ground rules: We excluded movies that were also creature features or alien-invasion movies. (For example, no Independence Day, or Godzilla, or King Kong.) We also excluded superhero movies (so, no Superman) or tales of the supernatural. And we also felt that the scale of the disaster had to be evident in the film (so no Dr. Strangelove or Fail Safe, although both are excellent examples of the Nuclear Armageddon genre). We also skipped films that were mostly about the aftermath of a disaster, instead of the disaster itself. (So, no The Grey, or Cast Away.) That may sound like a lot of caveats, but it all resulted in a pretty thorough and wide-ranging list. Here are the 22 Greatest Disaster Films of All Time.
22. 2012 (2009)
Roland Emmerich became Hollywood’s king of disaster in the 1990s — mainly by cross-breeding the genre with alien and monster pictures, like Independence Day and Godzilla. This star-studded 2009 epic, however, may have been his purest throwback to the 1970s. In it, solar flares from the sun heat up the Earth’s core, and a series of unfortunate meteorological and seismic events ensue. Nobody anywhere on the planet is safe, and the scale of the destruction and hopelessness is so awe-inspiring that you’ll overlook the sheer idiocy of the film’s plot and character interactions. That said, Chiwetel Ejiofor (as the scientist who discovers what’s happening and warns the appropriate powers) and Woody Harrelson (as a conspiracy theorist wing-nut radio host) are standouts in the cast of thousands.
21 and 20. Deep Impact/Armageddon (1998)
I have to make an admission: I really don’t like Deep Impact at all, and I genuinely like Armageddon. But I still find it hard not to think of these two asteroid-headed-for-the-Earth films, which opened within a few weeks of each other in 1998, as partners in crime on some level. Armageddon’s appeal at the time had something to do with Deep Impact: Where Mimi Leder’s film was sensitive (or “sensitive”), Michael Bay’s was a macho indulgence in action-movie theatrics. One film focused on the doomed people back here on Earth; the other focused on the space cowboys trying to blow the big space rock up real good. If you thought Deep Impact was pompous and overbaked, Armageddon felt like a bracing rebuke to that; and if you thought Armageddon was a dumb, jacked testosterone flick, then chances are Deep Impact felt like an intelligent corrective. These two are the yin and yang of asteroid movies.
19. Earthquake (1974)
Charlton Heston is the engineer who finds himself rushing through a collapsing Los Angeles to save his mistress (Geneviève Bujold) and her son. Like many disaster movies, this is a turgid soap opera that’s blown apart by chaos. But oh, what glorious chaos! The effects are a bit dated, but director Mark Robson and producer Irwin Allen (who else?) put the city through such a wringer that the breadth of the destruction is breathtaking. Even when it’s clear that what we’re watching are models — and, during one particularly deranged moment, a hand-animated spurt of blood that comes straight at the camera.
18. The Last Days of Pompeii (1959)
This 1936 production by Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper, the duo behind King Kong (another film hugely influential on the disaster genre), follows a desperate Roman blacksmith who becomes a gladiator, slaver, trader, and powerful businessman during the time of Jesus, then sees the error of his ways thanks to his exposure to Christianity on the eve of the devastation at Pompeii. The religion is heavy-handed, but also surprisingly powerful — especially once the volcano goes boom.
16 and 17. Dante's Peak/Volcano (1997)
Another SFX duo. Both these films came out in 1997, and they compare and contrast in fun ways. In Dante’s Peak, Pierce Brosnan is a haunted geologist who comes to a small town to investigate seismic activity in a long-dormant volcano, and winds up romancing mayor and single mother Linda Hamilton as they desperately flee deadly clouds of ash. In Volcano, Tommy Lee Jones is a city emergency manager and single father who winds up battling rivers of lava and romancing seismologist Anne Heche after a newly formed volcano emerges beneath L.A. Dante’s Peak focuses more on the romance, and Volcano focuses more on the insane size of the destruction. Both are supremely ridiculous, and supremely entertaining. Combined, they could make for a master list of all the best and worst things about disaster movies.
15. The High and the Mighty (1954)
This tense, tough William Wellman picture is an early example of the airplane disaster movie that would later become such a staple of 1970s filmmaking. This time, it’s haunted, tough-guy pilots John Wayne and Robert Stack struggling to land a damaged plane that’s steadily losing fuel, while a diverse, diffuse array of passengers contend with their own demons. Some of the effects may have become dated, but the suspense definitely has not.
14. The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
In Roland Emmerich’s enviro-disasterpiece, climate change sets off a series of events that send massive superstorms across the Earth, hurtling us into a new Ice Age. The plot, much of it involving Dennis Quaid trying to get to Manhattan to save his stranded son Jake Gyllenhaal, is ludicrous but touching. While the totality with which Emmerich has imagined this destruction can’t quite hold a candle to the worldwide annihilation of his later hit 2012, The Day After Tomorrow is an impressive bit of agit-prop — right down to a Dick Cheney–like, climate-change-denying U.S. vice-president who ironically has to lead an exodus into Mexico. For once, we get the sense that this director feels these issues deeply, in his own crude, bombastic way.
13. In Old Chicago (1937)
Director Henry King’s tale of two ambitious brothers on opposite sides of the law in turn-of-the-century Chicago clearly owes a lot to 1936’s big hit San Francisco. And not unlike that earlier film, this one takes its tale of debauchery and rectitude and reconciles everything with a fiery third act. This time out, however, the brothers in question are named O’Leary — and it is their (fictional) mother who owns the cow that sets fire to the great American city. The destruction at the end, with buildings loudly exploding left and right, is still impressive.
12. Pompeii (2014)
Not everybody liked Paul W.S. Anderson’s Roman romance-disaster picture when it came out last year. In fact, most people probably hated it. But while it tells a fairly obvious story — Kit Harington’s young gladiator-slave falls for Emily Browning’s aristocratic beauty, on the eve of the decadent Roman city’s obliteration from a nearby erupting volcano — Anderson’s fast-paced, colorful film offers plenty of visceral thrills. And when Mt. Vesuvius finally blows, Pompeii becomes a glorious spectacle of annihilation, as the director lays waste to his sets and characters with all the glee of a young boy melting his action figures. If you ever get a chance to catch this in 3-D, do so.
11. The Perfect Storm (2000)
Wolfgang Petersen (who directed the epic submarine thriller Das Boot) was kind of an ideal choice to helm this adaptation of Sebastian Junger’s best seller about a trio of weather events that collided in 1991 and caused horrific damage across the Northeastern U.S. Focusing mostly on the commercial fishing boat Andrea Gail and its doomed crew of working-class stiffs (including pre-megastardom George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg, not to mention John Hawkes and John C. Reilly), the film is a clinic in stomach-gnawing tension. And that giant wave at the end — holy crap.
10. Airport (1970)
In George Seaton’s star-studded adaptation of Arthur Hailey’s potboiler, the big disaster comes late in the story. Until a desperate man blows a hole in the side of a transatlantic flight (piloted by Dean Martin), the film is mostly about airport chief Burt Lancaster dealing with an epic snowfall, a plane stranded on the runway, a failing marriage, angry neighbors, and all manner of other shenanigans. It’s the kind of glossy, multi-character drama that Hollywood rarely touches nowadays. But it’s also a very, very strange movie — one that occasionally borders on comedy. Which brings us to …
9. Airplane! (1980)
It would be a glaring oversight not to include this, the Zucker-Abrams-Zucker team’s freewheeling spoof of the airplane-disaster genre, complete with a huge cast, cameos by sports heroes (this time, instead of O.J. Simpson, it’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), a romantic subplot, digressive flashbacks (à la the original Airport), and endless gags about all the technobabble in these types of movies. Of course, the film is now a comedy classic, but there was no guarantee that it would have worked; the disaster movie has always functioned as its own self-parody to a certain extent. But by upping the comic ante to such go-for-broke lengths, Airplane! really distinguishes itself, and still holds its own.
8. San Francisco (1936)
In this classic musical romantic-drama, Clark Gable is saloon owner Blackie Norton, “the most Godless, scoffing and unbelieving soul in all San Francisco,” and Jeanette MacDonald is the angelic singer for whom he falls hard, and whose voice, along with the devastation wreaked by the 1906 earthquake, forces him to change his ways. Gable’s character could be said to stand for the whole town — a place of endless sin and corruption, we’re told helpfully by Spencer Tracy’s Father Tim. The film, which builds to the quake and its aftermath, is thus a story of transformation, as we watch this cauldron of lawlessness flattened and a new city emerge in its wake.
7. Contagion (2011)
A thinking-man’s disaster movie, Steven Soderbergh’s look at a worldwide epidemic that affects all strata of society eschews the usual soap-opera histrionics of a typical disasterpiece. Instead, Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns focus on process, and on society pushed to the extremes. But the sharply observed script, and the director’s typical facility with actors, make this a real gem — a movie that, while it doesn’t seem to spend a lot of time on character development, sneaks up on you emotionally.
6. The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
Another Irwin Allen classic. This time, it’s a luxury passenger liner that capsizes in the wake of a tsunami caused by an undersea earthquake. Fallen minister Gene Hackman and no-nonsense cop Ernest Borgnine try to lead the survivors to safety, with many freak accidents and bellowing at the heavens along the way. What makes this one so special is the way the film transforms this giant boat — a modern marvel of engineering — into a terrifying, deadly obstacle course. The much-maligned 2006 remake (directed by Das Boot and Perfect Storm’s Wolfgang Petersen) is actually pretty solid, too.
5. Miracle Mile (1988)
Nuclear armageddon totally counts as a disaster, right? In Steve De Jarnatt’s colorful indie film, a man and woman have a meet-cute at the La Brea Tar Pits, then make a date for later that night. First, a power failure gets in the way. Then, our hero (played by Anthony Edwards) discovers from an errant pay-phone call that nuclear war has started. As the city around them spins into utter chaos, the two young lovers try to reconnect. The marvelous way that director De Jarnatt follows how one phone call can spiral into total citywide madness is supremely gripping. And yet, even as it depicts all this horror, the film never loses sight of its humor or playfulness. One of the great, most underrated films of the 1980s.
4. A Night to Remember (1958)
Directed by Roy Ward Baker, this 1958 adaptation of Walter Lord’s nonfiction book about the sinking of the Titanic is a great example of meticulous observation and humanism. It’s less about the spectacle of the ship sinking and more about watching individual human interactions over the course of an evening — as confidence in the wonders of technology eventually turns to sheer desperation. James Cameron would eventually come along and turn everything up to 11, but this surprisingly quiet disaster movie is marvelous in its own way.
3. The Birds (1963)
Yes, it totally is a disaster movie. In Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller, a budding romance between Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor is interrupted when the birds — all the birds — start gathering in huge groups and attacking the humans. But Hitchcock takes what could have just been a symbolic chamber piece — an existential horror film — and expands it, showing the chaos that the bird attacks wreak across the entire town, and presumably beyond.
2. The Towering Inferno (1974)
The sine qua non of disaster movies, producer Irwin Allen and director John Guillermin’s Oscar-nominated epic about a San Francisco skyscraper — the tallest in the world! — that catches fire on its maiden voya… I mean, its opening night, is a riveting soap opera of sin, ambition, and heroism. It’s also an absolute Leading Man–tasia: Paul Newman is the architect who builds a giant skyscraper for William Holden; Richard Chamberlain is the insolent son-in-law whose shoddy wiring leads to a fire; Steve McQueen is the badass fireman who has to put out the conflagration. Meanwhile, Robert Vaughn plays a senator, and O.J. Simpson saves Jennifer Jones’s cat. Amazingly evocative, and the effects are still phenomenal.
1. Titanic (1997)
James Cameron’s doomed love story/disaster epic is an ideal combination of teen romance and state-of-the-art action filmmaking. Cameron’s great talent has always been his ability to merge his engineer’s-eye approach to action with his peculiar narrative obsessions. Here, he brings together his love of the sea and his fondness for corny love stories with a great real-life tragedy, and winds up with a film for the ages. As for the litany of complaints about the hokey dialogue: The story of Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet) works if you accept them as kids — which they clearly are in the film. This is a story about two young people who find each other, fall madly in love, and are then torn apart by unimaginable disaster — one rendered by the obsessive director in minute, breathless, excruciating detail. It’s magnificent, and terrifying.