With the Earth’s surface 71% water, it’s no wonder movie makers like to tap into the public’s subconscious fear of tidal waves. Mark Fraser looks at 10 cinematic moments when the ocean turns nasty.
10. The Last Wave (Peter Weir, 1977)
The tsunami about to wipe out Sydney only appears briefly at the very end of the movie after lawyer David Burton (Richard Chamberlain) discovers far too late that the bad weather and Australian Aboriginal spiritual nonsense messing with his head are somehow intertwined. Director Peter Weir’s third feature film – and the second, after 1975’s over-rated Picnic at Hanging Rock, in which he flirted with the supernatural to help justify his penchant for bogus ambiguity.
9. When Time Ran Out… (James Goldstone, 1980)
Easily one of the dumbest Hollywood big budget disaster pictures ever made, the cheesy tidal wave in this one plays second fiddle to a volcano, which erupts and destroys a star studded island resort somewhere in the Pacific. While the cast’s A-list (including Paul Newman, Jacqueline Bisset and William Holden) have to escape the lava, those in the B and below-list (such as Alex Karras and Shelia Allen) get wiped out immediately when the tsunami hits. The last of the theatrical turkeys from the house of one-time disaster movie king Irwin Allen, this came out hot on the heels of his 1978 opus The Swarm and 1979’s unbelievably worse Beyond the Poseidon Adventure.
8. The Abyss (James Cameron, 1989)
Some underwater sea creatures decide to send nuclear war-hungry mankind a message in the form of a few massive tsunamis – including some off the east and west coasts of the US. Luckily oil driller Virgil Brigman (Ed Harris) manages to convince them not to let their protests reach land. These giant waves didn’t appear in the original version – only in James Cameron’s special edition, which came out circa 1993. Despite their presence in the director’s cut, the appearance of these massive walls of water still can’t hide the fact that the (eventual) last 40 or so minutes of this movie simply can’t match the thrills and intensity of its first two hours.
7. Meteor (Ronald Neame, 1979)
When a fragment from a giant meteor lands somewhere in the Pacific, it sends a powerful tidal wave hurtling towards Hong Kong. Needless to say, not too many people in the bay area get out alive.
6. Poseidon (Wolfgang Petersen, 2006)
In Ronald Neame’s 1972 The Poseidon Adventure, the wave that capsizes the ocean liner SS Poseidon (the result of an earthquake) is 90 feet high. With the help of CGI 34 some years later, it is 150 foot high. In the original, the ship looks very much like a low rent model as it rolls over in the surf. The vessel in the updated version, however, is far more sophisticated and properly lit to boot – one can actually see some of the passengers being washed into the ocean from the pool deck when the catastrophe hits. Both disasters occur on New Year’s Eve. Other than that Poseidon is more of the same – except Kurt Russell isn’t as good as Gene Hackman and the exposition in this remake doesn’t seem to be as drawn out or melodramatic.
5. Krakatoa, East of Java (Bernard Kowalski, 1969)
A series of tidal waves – caused by the massive 1883 volcanic eruptions on the island of Krakatoa (which is actually west of Java) – wipe out a fishing village while the captain of a cargo ship (Maximilian Schell) defiantly stands up to the coming deluge as he tries to navigate his passengers and crew to safety. Despite the fact the special effects have aged somewhat over the past 45 years, it’s still quite fun to watch.
4. Deep Impact (Mimi Leder, 1998)
New York City cops it after a comet fragment plunges into the Atlantic and creates a giant tsunami which wipes out not only the Big Apple, but also Washington DC and a whole lot more of the US eastern seaboard. As Jason Lerner, Maximilian Schell is unable to conquer this one; instead he stands defiantly on the beach looking out to sea holding his daughter Jenny (Tea Leoni) as they humbly await their fate.
3. 2012 (Roland Emmerich, 2009)
In many ways this is the grand-daddy of all tidal wave movies given they appear just about everywhere – from Washington DC and Tibet to inland China, where humankind has constructed a bunch of arcs in large mountainous caverns to help save the privileged few after the Earth’s core heats up and causes the tectonic plates to go completely haywire. Things look particularly bad for the Americans (and a bunch of international refugees) at one point when a giant wall of water smashes a parked Air Force One into their escape vessel. Luckily author Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) and plastic surgeon Gordon Silberman (Thomas McCarthy) are there to save the day. Problem for poor old Gordon is that everyone (including his wife and step-kiddies) more or less completely forgets about him the minute he sacrifices himself for the greater good. Put in context, it’s an appropriate response given it is how the people in the arcs view the rest of humanity.
2. Hereafter (Clint Eastwood, 2010)
French television journalist Marie (Cécile de France) is shopping in what looks like downtown Patong Beach when the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 hits. While she almost drowns after being pulled under by the deluge, the near-death experience galvanises her into writing a book about the cover-up regarding life after death. As her story is just one of three disparate narratives running through Hereafter, the disaster – which opens proceedings – doesn’t take up a lot of the film’s 129 minute running time. When the wave does hit, however, it’s arguably the best depiction of a tsunami so far in cinema history.
1. Lo Imposible (The Impossible) (Juan Antonio Bayona, 2012)
During a holiday in Thailand, Henry Bennett (Ewan McGregor), his wife Maria (Naomi Watts) and their three sons Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and Simon (Oakley Pendergrast) get separated when the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 hits their island resort (again, it might be Patong Beach). The story is based on the experiences of Maria Belon and her family, who were there on the day and somehow all miraculously survived the ordeal. Although the moment of impact is stunningly shot, Lo Imposible is more about what happens in its wake than the event itself. Four countries – Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand respectively – had the highest body counts after this mind boggling disaster. All up, an estimated 280,000 people lost their lives on the day.
Written and compiled by Mark Fraser
Top 10 Films asks: what are your favourite disaster movies featuring terrors from the seas?
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