Disaster films have wowed audiences since the early part of the 20th century. Films such as Metropolis (1927) and King Kong (1933) displayed major catastrophes affecting hundreds of people. In Metropolis it was a flood, in King Kong it was a rampaging giant ape. A catastrophe of epic proportions creates the centre of these films and that can take the form of anything from alien invasion, natural disaster such as earthquake or hurricane to accidents like plane crashes or terrorist attacks.
In the 1970s the genre became very popular thanks to increased budgets facilitating better special-effects and the opportunity to utilise ensemble casts that included more than one big star. Producer/Director Irwin Allen became known as the master of the disaster thanks to his films Airport, The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. Airport, in particular, kick-started the genre’s renaissance in the 1970s with a string of disaster films such as three Airport sequels, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, The Omega Man, Jaws, Black Sunday, and Meteor.
The genre appeared to lose its appeal in the 1980s until it was revived again in the 1990s and 2000s with such films as Jurassic Park, Apollo 13, Independence Day, Godzilla, and more recently, Cloverfield and The Omega Man remake I Am Legend.
Here are our ten disaster film favourites – tell us yours…
10. 2012 (Roland Emmerich, 2009)
Roland Emmerich’s most recent world-destroying epic is actually pretty epic, even if it does bog down with a ponderous final act – the fate of the main human characters pales into insignificance with the virtual destruction of civilization as we know it. A special effects bonanza, 2012 plays on the fear many people hold over the impending end of the Mayan calender in December of that year. Watch in awe as LA slides into the Pacific, or as Yellowstone National Park becomes the world largest super-volcano, killing of Woody Harrelson at the same time. It’s gargantuan, apocalyptic fun.
9. The Towering Inferno (John Guillermin & Irwin Allen, 1974)
An all-star cast, led by Paul Newman and Steve McQueen, take to the worlds largest skyscraper to douse a massive blaze inside it. While it may appear dated by modern standards, the enormous ensemble cast – including Fred Astaire, no less! – bumbles about in smoke-filled corridors and staircases which lead nowhere. Shades of 9/11 now overshadow this film, but as it stands, is a quaint, still-cool disaster film from the 70’s. Made without CGI, this is the old-school way of making audiences thrill with fear.
8. Earthquake (Mark Robson, 1974)
1974 must have been one hell of a year in cinemas across the globe, as the Charlton Heston-led ensemble cast of Mark Robson’s Earthquake stumbled through the ravaged city of Los Angeles, which, according to the film’s title, suffers a massive tremor and almost pushes the city into the sea. More intimate than Towering Inferno, Earthquake also starred Ava Gardner, George Kennedy, and Victoria Principal, among many others. This was also the first film to utilize the audio process known as “Sensuround”, by which a cinema rigged up large bass-producing woofers to produce truly bowel-trembling sonic frequencies – so much so that several cinemas reported structural damage as a result. For balls of steel to try killing folks watching their film, Earthquake comes it at number 8.
7. Dante’s Peak (Roger Donaldson, 1997)
James Bond & Sarah Connor vs a massive volcano in the American countryside – Pierce Brosnan teamed with Linda Hamilton to take on not an unkillable robot or the global shenanigans of SPECTRE, but mother natures most awesome natural destructive force – the once dormant volcano of Dante’s Peak has started rumbling, and the townsfolk who live at the base of the mountain seem unwilling to move out considering their main tourist season is upon them. I have to say, if a scientist ever comes to my door and starts telling me I should get out of town because of some giant destructive threat, I’m gonna listen to him.
6. The Day After Tomorrow (Roland Emmerich, 2004)
My God, those people who think global warming are right – except that in this film, it’s global cooling. Apparently the polar caps have melted to the point where it’s affected the salinity of the sea or something, and everythings going really cold, really fast. Another Roland Emmerich apocalypse film featuring, as the main villain of the peace….. the cold. Not a cold, the cold. Ice and sleet are the weapons Emmerich throws at us, and while this film might be based loosely in a potential reality, I think we’re a long way from it. Harmless entertainment.
5. Deep Impact (Mimi Leder, 1997)
The first of two asteroids-hitting-the-Earth films to come out in 1997, Deep Impact featured more character development in a single scene than Armageddon did in a whole film. Featuring Morgan Freeman as The US President, Tea Leoni as an annoying reporter, and Elijah Wood as a precocious young astronomer who discovers the meteor destined to strike the Earth. Considerably more nuanced than Michael Bay’s epic, Deep Impact seems less interested in the effects and devotes a large percentage of time to its characters. Still, as far as destroying the Earth goes, Deep Impact still makes a… well, deep impact.
4. Outbreak (Wolfgang Petersen, 1995)
There’s probably a very good argument in saying that Outbreak is less a “disaster” film and more a “thriller”, but I contend it’s actually a little of both. I say that with respect to the fact that should an event like the one depicted in this film, in which a lethal virus spreads from monkeys to humans, actually occur, it would become a disaster. The scary thing is, of all the disasters in this list, from the end of the world to the impact of an asteroid, the spread of the deadly Ebola virus represents an actual possibility not outside the realms of occurrance. Dustin Hoffman and a much younger Rene Russo, again with Morgan Freeman, go into battle against an enemy we can neither see nor smell, an invisible enemy which will kill us inside a day or so, and an enemy for which there is no known cure.
3. The Core (John Amiel, 2003)
Perfectly idiotic end-of-the-world scenario plays out with large-scale cheese-factor, as science discovers that the core of the Earth has stopped spinning. In a reverse-Armageddon, a group of scientists must journey into the center of the Earth, via a massive drill-slash-rocket thing, and drop a bunch of nukes to kick-start things again. Watch Oscar winner Hilary Swank whore out her acting talent in this drivel, and Aaron Eckhart, Stanley Tucci, Delroy Lindo and Bruce Greenwood right beside her every step of the way. Utterly unbelievable, yet strangely entertaining in a popcorn guzzling kinda way, The Core is one of the most fun disaster films in recent years.
2. Armageddon (Michael Bay, 1997)
Michael Bay’s testosterone laden asteroid film, featuring a square jawed Bruce Willis and an even squarer jawed Ben Affleck, has style and cliche to burn. Bill Bob Thornton aquits himself well as the NASA controller charged with handling the mission to send a bunch of oil-riggers into space to blow up an oncoming asteroid, set to a pulsing score from Trevor Rabin and a few pop-rock tunes from Aerosmith. Bay directs the hell out of this film, with rockets driving through space like NASCAR entrants, laws of physics not only bending but collapsing under their own weight, and a seemingly indestructible Willis just getting the job done – man, it makes me proud to be an American. If I was an American, I’d be even prouder.
1. Independence Day (Roland Emmerich, 1996)
The granddaddy of all disaster films, Roland Emmerich’s alien invasion follow-up to Stargate has everything Hollywood could want in a genre film like this. Will Smith bitch-slapping an alien after a dogfight, Bill Paxton doing his best yee-haw US President, and Jeff Goldblum managing to upload a virus to the Aliens mothership using a Mac. Worldwide destruction never looked so awesome, even if it was smothered in a heavy layer of US patriotism and schmaltz. Quite simply the most rousing, crowd pleasing disaster film ever made.
Written and compiled by Rodney Twelftree
Discover More on Top10Films.co.uk:
Search our collection of Top 10 lists sorted by type:
THEME | ACTOR | DIRECTOR | TIME PERIOD | GENRE | COUNTRY | SPECIAL INTEREST | FUNNY
See the A – Z of films featured on Top 10 Films / Check out our film review database