Filmmakers love to play “what if?,” from small scale inquiries (“What if a mismatched couple falls in love?”) to large scale questions (“What if aliens invaded the Earth?”). It’s a basic building block for emotion, or in most cases, eye candy. Indeed, the disaster film, based around the idea that out world could be wiped out by any number of natural or man-made tragedies has fired the imagination of moviegoers since the medium was invented. With Hollywood hoping to score significant box office results with the upcoming earthquake epic, San Andreas (starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) we look back on ten titles which define the disaster film. As example of Tinseltown tendency toward “what if?,” they’re guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat.
Universal, sick and tired of seeing Irwin Allen dominate the box office with his action adventure disaster pics, decided to try their hand at the genre, delivering both a surreal selection of A-list actors and some decent pre-CG special effects. And just to make matters more inviting to the general public, they also introduced a new technology — Sensurround — to make the experience that must more “realistic” (it was nothing more than a giant subwoofer in a wooden box). Cheesy but still effective.
#9 – Into the Storm
Many consider Twister to be the ultimate tornado title, but we actually prefer this recent lo-fi version of a similar scenario. During the last days of school in an Oklahoma suburb, a group of teens capture random acts of devastation brought on by Mother Nature’s innate fury. Even with its indie budget and no-name cast, this film gets the horrifying reality of these storms 100% correct. This is especially true of the new science that has come about since that Helen Hunt/Bill Paxton hit.
Irwin Allen had the disaster film down to a science. He knew that audiences wanted to see big name stars battling the elements in a race to the death — and said ingredient (in this case, a skyscraper fire) had to be rendered in the best eye candy the era could offer. In this case, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman try to save the residents of the world’s largest building when faulty wiring sets off the title terror. Quite compelling and crazy, if not completely successful.
This is an unusual choice, but it deserves inclusion. Not all disasters are natural. Sometimes, manmade horrors can have a secret meaning. In this case, a series of horrific events (plane crash, wildfires) signal an impending end to the world, and an alien attempt to stop/help it. Nicolas Cage is the scientist who discovers the extraterrestrial’s intent and wants to let everyone else know. Naturally, they don’t believe him. Eventually, a massive solar flare comes barreling toward our planet. What happens next? Watch and find out.
#6 – World War Z
While it’s hard to call a zombie horror film part of the disaster genre, the pandemic aspect of this storyline suggests its inclusion. When the entire planet is suddenly engulfed in an undead uprising, Brad Pitt’s UN representative is sent into the (killing) field to find out how it happened. He traces elements of the plague to a military base and on to Israel. As the hordes of cannibalistic corpses overrun the world, he must find a way to stop it. The fate of mankind rests on it.
#5 – The Impossible
Based on the true story of María Belón and her family in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, this incredible film puts us right in the middle of a terrifying tidal wave. At first, the featured family (Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts, and their onscreen children) are simply enjoying an idyllic vacation. Even with career trouble brewing for dad, everything is magical — that is, until a tremor turns the water into a massive wall of death. While the tsunami is horrific, how they try and survive it is even more so.
It’s strange that there haven’t been more films about one of the scariest and most devastating disasters that could ever hit our planet: nuclear war. In this somber 1983 family drama, a mother (Jane Alexander) and her children send dad off to work in nearby San Francisco. Suddenly, without warning, a bomb is dropped over the city, sparing most of the suburbs. Now, they all must wait to see what’s happened to their patriarch as radiation slowly starts affecting their neighborhood. Powerful stuff.
This is better than Michael Bay’s bravura machismo Armageddon, which spent more time testing the manliness mantle of Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, and the mostly male cast than actually dealing with the impending meteor strike on Earth. Sure, the effects look a bit cheaper here and we’re treated to more melodrama than thrills, but the end result is still an eye-opening look at what might happen should a space rock bulldoze its way through the galaxy and land in our backyard (or in this case, ocean).
Irwin Allen’s blockbuster was less about a capsized cruise ship in the middle of nowhere and much more about the resolve of those people trapped inside. Running the gamut from preacher (Gene Hackman) to policeman (Ernest Borgnine), smart-alecky kid (Eric Shea) to aging battleaxe (Shelley Winters), we watch, spellbound, as they try and make their way from the top of the vessel “up” to the bottom. With each carefully considered step, with each flooded compartment and fiery blockage, we bite our nails over who will live and who will die.
This is it — the Mt. Everest of all disaster films. Sure, it’s dopey and dumb, with dialogue guaranteed to make you gag on its groan-inducing goofiness. But the special effects? OMG! We get the entire West Coast of California sinking into the Pacific (thanks to an earthquake), the destruction of a national park via volcano, Las Vegas falling into a hell-like abyss, and the White House overwhelmed by a tidal wave. As Hawaii dies in a pool of lava and the Himalayas are flooded with even more tsunamis, the whole thing becomes one big apocalypse-apolooza.