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The Top 10 Disaster Films

The ground quakes, the sky turns red with fire, animals sleep together in unholy unions…. yes, that fabulous line from Bill Murray in Ghostbusters is about to come true – it’s either an asteroid armageddon or a man made cataclysm; either way, you’re screwed. Hollywood has built an entire industry out of a single genre: the disaster film. From the Irwin Allen produced spectacles of the 60’s, to modern effects-driven escapades, directors have always found new and spectacular ways of destroying humanity. The below list represents but a small portion of those films, a representation we believe covers all from space disasters, natural events and even, dare we say it, the medical problems of a deadly virus spreading through a human population. Some are pretty cheesy, some are quite serious, and all are spectacular in their own glorious way. So strap in, prepare yourself for planetary Armageddon, as we count down the ten biggest and best disaster films of all time!

Logos below link to our review of each film, where possible.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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 everything’s 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.

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.

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 occurrence. 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.

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.

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 acquits 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.

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.

This article was originally published on Top 10 Films – you can read the original version here.

8 thoughts on “The Top 10 Disaster Films

  1. I used to be convinced (also, terrified) that 5, 6 and 7 were definitely going to happen,somewhere in between a Dahl's "TheWitches" type of discovery and a "Sliders" quandary, with Xena thrown into the mix somewhere along the way. Actually, wouldn't that be an amazing world to live in!

    Really like the list. I must watch some of these again. Nothing makes you feel more grateful than a good disaster movie!

  2. I like the concept of catastrophe movies but I'm no fan of any of those flicks because they are simply so over-the-top and unrealistic (for the most part) that they aren't as compelling to me since I'm looking for grittier, more realistic fares.

    1. I'm sorry, are saying that Armageddon was unrealistic, Castor? 😉

      But seriously, that's a fair point. Each to their own in terms of what they look for in a film. Some people don't want dreary, emotionally draining dramas, and as you mentioned, some people seek more realistic fare to watch.

  3. I think Outbreak is great. It doesn't seem to get too highly talked about but it is, as you say, one of the best disaster films and definitely one of the best killer virus films. But overall I think the disaster film is a difficult story to get right and some of the modern ones have been a real let down. As exampled by 2012's silly plane escape, they've become too artificial, relying on special-effects (or being made especially to make use of special effects). They end up losing their impact ultimately. Independence Day is great though – a lot of fun.

    1. Thanks for agreeing with me, Dan. I guess this just goes to prove that "disaster" films don't always have to be ones with buildings collapsing or nuclear bombs exploding – a sinple virus wiping folks out is just as apocalyptic, ergo the term "disaster" would be apropos. The way to make a good disaster film is to create characters we care about, and then blow them up. Don't just blow stuff up and have a few stupid imbeciles running about trying to "survive"…. Roland Emmerich has done both.

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