Top 10 Films Featuring Tsunamis

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)

lastwave_peter-weir_top10films, top 10 filmsThe 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)

whentimeranout_top10films, top 10 filmsEasily 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)

the-abyss_james-cameron_top10films, top 10 filmsSome 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)

meteor_film_top10films, top 10 filmsWhen 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)

posiedon_2006_film_top10films, top 10 filmsIn 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)

krakatoa-east-of-java_top10films, top 10 filmsA 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)

deep-impact_top10films, top 10 filmsNew 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)

2012 - film - disaster movies, top 10 filmsIn 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)

hereafter_clint-eastwood_top10films, top 10 filmsFrench 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)

naomi-watts-en-lo-imposible-top10films, top 10 filmsDuring 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?


joker-nurse-the-dark-knight_batmanHeading for disaster – read more from Mark Fraser about movies where catastrophic situations see characters’ lives and events spiral out of control. For instance, there’s the bus and train rides to avoid featuring Speed and Runaway Train, while the Top 10 Hospital Crime Scenes sees health services everywhere become the victim of foul play. Top 10 Films involving Terrorism that were made before 9/11 takes the horror global, while Top 10 Films that share an Apocalyptic View of New York City brings the destruction home. Top 10 Films where Submarines get a Starring Role submerges itself below the surface of the ocean to find its drama, while 10 Movies Afflicted with Space Madness heads into the farther reaches of the galaxy.

About the Author
Mark is a film journalist, screenwriter and former production assistant from Western Australia.

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  1. Avatar
    ruth Reply

    Interesting idea for a list! Being from Indonesia where one of the biggest tsunamis hit one of the islands, these films are sometimes too harrowing to watch for me. That’s why I still can’t muster up the courage to see The Impossible. I do love The Abyss though, that’s one of my faves. Very curious about Krakatoa, East of Java too since I was born not too far from that mountain!

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      Some real-life disaster movies are too much for me to handle too Ruth – I haven’t been able to summon the strength of mind to watch United 93. I also struggled my way through Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center but that might be because it just isn’t very good.

  2. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    A subversively amusing appreciation of cinema’s various interpretations of the tidal wave, Mark! Love the line about Peter Weir’s film flirting with supernatural themes to justify his “penchant for bogus ambiguity”!

    It’s a shame that some of my least favoured disaster movies appear here though. Maybe it’s the tidal wave I have a problem with – give me a “towering inferno” or Airport 1975 over Deep Impact every day of the week.

    That said, I can’t deny my love of The Abyss. Although I did first witness the film without its extended tsunami ending, I prefer the longer version (it’s a more satisfying conclusion although I’d agree that the film is at its best earlier in proceedings).

  3. Avatar
    Chris Reply

    Glad to see Deep Impact make the list, it’s what I immediately first thought of. I also still really need to see The Impossible. Interesting list here. 🙂

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      The Impossible is definitely worth checking out Chris. It’s far better than Deep Impact in my opinion.

  4. Avatar
    Rory Fish Reply

    Great choice for number one. I felt The Impossible was technically very strong which is something I saw in the film-makers previous work The Orphanage. It is a hard-hitting drama that doesn’t let go – emotionally heart wrenching and driven by top performances (McGregor is doing some of his best work lately – for example, Beginners and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen). And, most notably, the tsunami is incredibly recreated; a devastatingly effective piece of cinema rivalled only by Eastwood’s Hereafter for technical proficiency.

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      Dan Reply

      …glad you mentioned The Orphanage. A skillfully crafted horror. Bayona’s a talented director.

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    Rodney Reply

    I can see how picks #1 and #2 made it there – they’re easily the most identifiable of the bunch considering it’s based on events we’ve all seen.

    I’m still waiting for somebody to dramatize the Japan Earthquake and Tsunami from a few years back, and were that to occur, I’ve no hesitation in putting that one higher up the list too.

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      …I watched a TV drama-documentary about the Boston bombing last night. It was a workmanlike reconstruction of the terrible events that took place but I felt, while watching, that this was primed for a Hollywood adaptation (there’s definitely either a Zero Dark Thirty angle depicting the FBI’s search and battle with the media, or a hero-cop story celebrating the work of the Boston Police.)

      • Avatar
        Nancy Rodriguez Reply

        Do you have foresight…lmfao

        • Avatar
          Dan Reply

          Ha… I hadn’t realised I’d said this back in 2014 but Patriots Day comes as no surprise.

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    Chrissy Reply

    It’s strange that cinema, particularly Hollywood, trawls through real life human tragedy and calls it entertainment. I’ve seen The Impossible but found it to be heartbreaking for the wrong reasons. Others such as 2012 and Deep Impact are just plain disappointing.

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    Amy Reply

    …well, that’s depressing as hell.

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    Dave Martins Reply

    If I remember rightly Deep Impact and Armageddon were released quite closely together…well, the same summer anyway (in 1998). The general consensus at the time appeared to favour the Bruce Willis vehicle and all that oil-drilling-one-liner-spouting-look-at-my-muscles-posturing stuff that to me was one long bore. While I thought both films had their faults, Deep Impact was definitely the more appealing, dropping the hero stuff for a bit of understandable introspection. And given the plausible depiction of its world-ending tidal wave I’m not surprised to see it here.

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      I can’t say I’m a huge fan of either – in fact, I hate Armageddon but I do remember the year they both came out. As a teenager at the time I was overjoyed by the loud explosions and silly one-liners of Bay’s film that I kind of ignored Deep Impact. Now, the only film I’d happily re-watch is the film featured in this top 10 list.

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    JB Reply

    Great to see the sheer craziness of When Time Ran Out make the top 10!

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    fiddler Reply

    2012! On a top 10 list! I’ve seen it all.

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    Psychodelia Reply

    Absolute bollocks for you to say ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ is overrated. A gem of a movie, you could take any scene and frame it on your wall, magical, moody, magnificent!

  12. Avatar
    Mark Fraser Reply

    @Psychodelia – you probably summed up my main beef with PAHR; it would make a better painting than a movie, and sitting through it is as exciting as watching paint dry.

    I do believe, though, that had it not fallen apart in the second half it might have been OK.

    Thank you for the feedback (and for reading at least the tenth entry on this list).

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