This article was originally published in 2015 and has been updated to include newer releases.
What makes cinematic depictions of disaster so compelling — when they’re done right, that is — is the uneasy dance between plausibility and fantasy. We watch from the safety of our seats as horrible things happen to these characters, and we feel both the spine-tingling excitement of thinking, Yeah, this could totally happen, and the reassuring comfort of knowing that we ourselves are safe. So what happens when an actual, bona fide, honest-to-goodness disaster is unfolding in real life instead? For some of us, the onscreen versions will become unbearable. For others — especially those who’ve been watching Contagion and Outbreak the past few weeks, and you know who you are — such disasters will become even more thrilling and intensely voyeuristic.
Of course, 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. (One of the very first narrative short films was Edwin Porter’s Life of an American Fireman, from 1903.) 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 here’s a 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 The Dark Knight Rises) 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 the list is still pretty thorough and wide-ranging.
30. 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.
29. The Swarm (1978)
Anyone with murder hornets on the brain should check out this much-reviled thriller about an invasion of Texas by swarms of deadly African bees, directed by the king of 1970s disaster flicks, Irwin Allen. It feels at times like a dumber variation on Hitchcock’s The Birds, albeit with a more science-y sheen. Michael Caine plays a heroic, stone-faced entomologist, Richard Chamberlain is his environmental scientist rival, and Henry Fonda is the world-weary, wheelchair-bound source of wisdom desperately trying to develop an antidote. Meanwhile, Richard Widmark is at peak grizzled hard-ass as a general mortified at the thought of being the first American officer to lose a war to a bunch of insects. The film is not quite as schlocky as it might first seem, however: Its tensest moments are also its quietest, such as when Fonda’s character tests an antidote by injecting himself with bee venom and letting his body slowly become paralyzed.
28 and 27. Deep Impact and Armageddon (1998)
I have to make an admission: I really don’t like Deep Impact at all, and I genuinely like Armageddon. (Most viewers these days might reverse that statement.) 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 a sensitive, emotional attempt to look at the tragedy of a giant asteroid strike, 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 sentimentality (as I did), Armageddon felt like a bracing, but no less overbaked, rebuke to that; and if you thought Armageddon was a dumb, jacked testosterone flick that couldn’t even keep its own characters straight, then chances are Deep Impact felt like an intelligent corrective. These two are the yin and yang of giant-asteroid movies.
26. 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 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.
25. The Wandering Earth (2019)
One of the biggest box-office hits in Chinese history, this deranged, mesmerizing hodgepodge of every disaster movie and sci-fi trope imaginable feels at times like a shot across Hollywood’s bow in its over-the-top-ness. Here’s the premise: Fears of the sun’s demise prompt the earthlings of the future to set aside their differences and launch our planet (using giant earth engines as thrusters) into the cosmos in search of a new solar system. But along the way, the Earth starts getting pulled by Jupiter’s gravitational force. So the earthlings now have to try and ignite Jupiter’s atmosphere to launch Earth back into space. Needless to say, there are complications. It’s 2012 meets Geostorm meets Snowpiercer meets The Day After Tomorrow meets The Mortal Engines meets Interstellar meets Pacific Rim meets any number of other movies, and then a bunch of other new crazy shit for good measure. And it all kind of works. I think I cried at least four times.
24. 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.
23 and 22. Dante’s Peak and 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.
21. The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)
Leave it to the British to make one of the more sober disaster movies of all time. Nuclear tests have sent the Earth off its axis, and the planet is now being pulled into the sun, and there are riots in the streets, and everything is getting absurdly hot … but this is as much a zippy, witty journalism film as it is anything else. The effects have dated (as have some of the, uh, romantic attitudes on display, seeing as how our hero here is an ogling newspaperman eager to get together with a comely switchboard assistant while the planet burns) but the glimpses of bustling newspaper offices and the attention to journalistic detail are thoroughly engaging.
20. 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.
19. 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.
18. Crawl (2019)
Kaya Scodelario plays a college student and championship swimmer who tries to check in on her headstrong father (Barry Pepper) as a massive hurricane hits Florida — only to wind up stuck with him in the dark, flooded basement of their old family home, trapped by two giant alligators. It’s a family psychodrama and a killer gator flick and a disaster movie all rolled into one. Director Alexandre Aja, an expert at tight, austere horror films, builds tension with the ruthless efficiency of a sadistic engineer, but Crawl never feels cheap or opportunistic. We become unusually attached to the survival of this young woman and her dad. Practically dumped into theaters last year, this deserves greater acclaim.
17. 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.
16. Pompeii (2014)
Not everybody liked Paul W.S. Anderson’s Roman romance-disaster picture when it came out. 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.
15. Only the Brave (2017)
While most disaster movies follow a few days or hours in the lives of their characters, this devastating, fact-based account of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a group of elite firefighters from Arizona who set their own backfires to combat and contain wildfires, is an epic that encompasses several years. As a result, it is far more emotionally engaging and honest than the average disaster flick — we get a real sense of these people as human beings. This also provides an opportunity to get up close and personal with the firefighting profession. The minutiae of fighting fires — the tools involved, the procedures followed, the mind-set required — is fascinating to watch. But director Joseph Kosinski delivers real spectacle, too, depicting the raging fires in all of their visual splendor without ever skimping on tension and danger.
14. 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.
13. K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)
People get angry at me when I say I think this is Kathryn Bigelow’s masterpiece, especially because this was the film that almost killed her career (before the Oscar-winning Hurt Locker resurrected it). One does have to make one’s peace with Harrison Ford’s Russian accent, but this period epic about a 1961 catastrophe on a Soviet nuclear sub that led to radiation leaks, fires, a mutiny, and staggering, selfless heroism from the crew is not just intensely claustrophobic and terrifying, it’s also genuinely compassionate: Bigelow has always had a real feel for depicting dead-end machismo, but here it’s been crossbred with a real admiration for the sacrifices of these men.
12. The Wave (2015)
This Norwegian thriller outdoes most American disaster movies with its suspense and spectacle. The film shows what happens when an entire mountain collapses into a fjord, triggering a tsunami that promises to ravage the quiet coastal town of Geiranger in ten minutes. Our hero, the geologist who first warned of the imminent collapse, now has to save his family — including his wife and son, who are trapped underwater in a hotel. What actually happens within those ten minutes — and afterward, too — is quite far-fetched, but director Roar Uthaug will not be deterred: He depicts the events with such breathless immediacy and white-knuckle tension that we’re too busy trying not to die of a heart attack to wonder whether any of this is plausible. The film gets bonus points for not going down the usual route of following a diffuse cast of characters. By focusing on this one family, The Wave manages to be unusually tender for a disaster flick; we feel genuinely invested in these people. The wave here also looks amazing — almost as impressive as the one in The Perfect Storm. Several years later, these characters returned for a similarly effective sequel, called The Quake, in which our traumatized geologist now had to save his fractured family while an apocalyptic earthquake hit Oslo. Some of the story beats were the same – Norway ignored our hero’s warnings, again – but the devastation was even more complete.
11. 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 …
10. 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.
9. 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.
8. Contagion (2011)
A thinking-man’s disaster movie, Steven Soderbergh’s look at a worldwide epidemic that affects all strata of society — how quaint! — 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.
7. 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.
6. Melancholia (2011)
Lars von Trier’s metaphysical, apocalyptic drama features Kirsten Dunst in one of her greatest roles, as a depressed, troubled woman who ironically becomes the one person who can keep it all together when it is revealed that a rogue planet is headed toward Earth and will soon destroy our planet. Does this really count as a disaster movie? Much of it follows the hubbub around, and the minute emotional dramas of, Dunst’s wedding. But as the end begins to loom, von Trier astutely captures the rising desperation and the folly of humans scrambling when faced with the inevitable. The film certainly steers clear of Emmerichian overdrive, but it is suffused with hopelessness — on both an intimate and an epic scale. In that sense, one might say it is the ultimate disaster movie.
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 complete mayhem, the two young lovers try to reconnect. The unnerving way that director De Jarnatt follows how one phone call can escalate 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.