Rachael Kelly loves a good disaster movie. To be fair, she also loves a bad disaster movie, but she’s tried to be objective here. Read on for her (not very objective) list of the 10 greatest disaster movies ever made.
If ever there was a niche “best ever” post that a member of the CinePunked team was born to write, this is… one of them at least. Given our proclivities here at CinePunked HQ, there are, to be fair, several dozen contenders for that particular prize, but for this one, folks, you’re in the hands of a film-lover who genuinely and unrepentantly enjoyed 2012 and has voluntarily rewatched it on more than one occasion. That would be Rachael, and she has an unhealthy obsession with seeing everything go to hell in SFX-heavy big-screen spectaculars. Before we begin, you should know that her criteria for “greatest” in this particular genre doesn’t usually include the worlds “plausible” or “narratively coherent,” and she has a wide boundary of tolerance for shenanigans. That said, we’d like to think that this list is free of the worst of the nonsense that she’s sat through (and generally enjoyed) – no Sharknado here, thank you very much. This is a Serious List with some Serious Films on it, some of which just happen to be absolute classics of disaster cinema as well.
Let’s do this.
1 Without Warning (dir. Robert Iscove, 1994)
Made for TV and (unjustly) little-known these days, this is the sort of movie you should approach without preconceptions or prior plot information and just let it unfold. Shot in mockumentary style, the movie interrupts your regular viewing to bring you breaking news of three meteorite impacts across the northern hemisphere, and spends its lean 100-minute run-time gradually ratcheting up the tension as a bewildered planet struggles to work out what on earth is going on. Powerful, economical and haunting.
2 The Towering Inferno (dir. John Guillermin, 1974)
Oh come on, you’re not even surprised. There’d have been strongly worded emails if this film hadn’t appeared on this list, but you know as well as we do that it has more than earned its place. Do we even need to recap the plot? Okay, fair enough: fire engulfs the newly built tallest skyscraper in the world, trapping dozens on its upper floors. Steve McQueen plays Michael O’Halloran, the fire chief tasked with bringing the fire under control and rescuing as many survivors as possible. One of the highest grossing films of the year on its theatrical release, The Towering Inferno was nominated for 8 Oscars (winning 3) and, almost 50 years later, though the special effects no longer look state-of-the-art, it continues to deliver on suspense and acrophobic terror.
3 The Day the Earth Caught Fire (dir. Val Guest, 1961)
The science may be – let’s say, “questionable”, but the major themes of Val Guest’s 1961 end-times thriller are, depressingly, as relevant today as they were 60 years ago. Massive nuclear testing has destabilised the Earth’s orbit leading to rapid global warming, and it’s up to alcoholic journalist Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) and secretary Jeannie Craig (Janet Munro) to put two and two together before it’s too late. Despite its low budget (£190,000 – approximately £3.8 million today), Guest struggled to raise production finance, succeeding only when he offered to put up his share of the profits from 1959’s Expresso Bongo as collateral; presumably the Best Screenplay BAFTA he shared with co-writer Wolf Mankowitz went some of the way towards easing the sting of his financiers’ lack of faith.
4 A Night to Remember (dir. Roy Ward Baker, 1958)
On the 110th anniversary of the deadliest peacetime maritime disaster in history, take it from four cinephiles who grew up in the city in which the Titanic was built: this is the definitive film version of that terrible night. James Cameron’s 1997 CGI-fest may have benefited from the information that the ship split in two while she was sinking (which had yet to be determined in 1958, a full 27 years before the wreckage was located on the seafloor) but, believe us, there’s no less drama in watching her disappear intact below the waves. Though the ending is never in doubt, we defy you to leave this film with a dry eye or a resting-state heart rate.
Another firm favourite at CinePunked HQ, you can listen to the Punks wax lyrical about the film’s enduring emotional impact here.
5 Twister (dir. Jan de Bont, 1996)
With a production team that includes Michael Crichton, Steven Speilberg and mega-producer Kathleen Kennedy, and directed by the guy who made Speed, “subtle” was never going to be a word you’d use for Twister. And that’s a good thing, because this is a disaster movie we’re talking about, and it’s a disaster movie about one of the most awesome, terrifying, and destructive things the weather can throw at us – so, yes please, foot off the brakes and let’s hurtle towards this at this at the speed of sound, thank you very much. Twister is, essentially, a collection of situations in which tornadoes destroy stuff in a variety of alarming ways in front of a camera. There’s a bridging narrative involving storm chasers who are getting divorced, but, despite perfectly worthy performances from Helen Hunt, Bill Paxman, Cary Ellwes, and the late, great Phillip Seymour-Hoffman, it’s honestly just padding between the setpieces that you’re really here to see, and, boy, do those setpieces deliver. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it was the second-highest grossing film of 1996.
6 The Poseidon Adventure (dir. Ronald Neame, 1972)
No, we are quite categorically not talking about the 2006 remake and if you even have to ask that question then we can’t be friends anymore. (Again, Rachael will watch just about anything that involves calamitous things besieging a bunch of plucky B-listers, and she enjoyed the remake just fine, but there is simply no comparing it to its earlier, more elegant ancestor. Did the remake win 2 Oscars, a BAFTA, and a Golden Globe? No. No, it did not. We rest our case.) Gene Hackman stars as Reverend Frank Scott, an independent-minded man of the cloth who’s on his way to Africa when the titular ship capsizes at sea and he finds himself in charge of leading a band of survivors to safety at the bottom of the ship, which has just become the top. Genuinely claustrophobic and particularly unsettling for the thalassophobics in the audience (that would be Rachael), the film earns every single one of its hard-hitting emotional beats.
7 Cloverfield (dir. Matt Reeves, 2008)
Way back in 2008, when the wounds of 9/11 were still fresh, there seemed to be an agreement in Hollywood that it was Still Too Soon to commit the horrors of that day to celluloid. But the trauma had been carved deeply into the American psyche and Matt Reeve’s found-footage creature feature is one of several films that presents a perhaps unwitting, but clear allegory of the day New York was devastated. Symbolism aside, though, Cloverfield is just a bloody good disaster movie all by itself. With the exception of Lizzy Caplan, the ensemble cast is largely comprised of unfamiliar faces, meaning there’s no clear designated survivor, and the homemade movie conceit cleverly withholds all kinds of information, meaning that we’re just as much in the dark as the band of frightened twenty-somethings that we’re following. For some reason, the film appears to have spawned a franchise, but that doesn’t detract from the original. We think.
8 War of the Worlds (dir. Steven Spielberg, 2005)
Okay, but no – just hear us out. Hear us out. There have been many dire adaptations of H.G. Wells’ seminal 1897 sci-fi classic – and some decent ones as well, and If this list weren’t dedicated solely to films, we’d be including Orson Welles’ infamous 1938 radio broadcast here, too. This 2004 outing works because it feels personal, and when Steven Spielberg pours his heart onto the screen, magic happens. Let’s skim right on past Tom Cruise in the lead role and talk about how, at the tender age of 10 years old, Dakota Fanning acts everyone else off the screen, and also about just how terrifying it is when the tripods first appear out of the ground, to the sound of precisely zero accompanying musical track, and start just disintegrating people and there’s nowhere you can possibly hide. To be fair, the ending is a bit WTF, but it follows a series of breathtaking and anxiety-provoking sequences, infused with pure Spielbergian alchemy, involving planes, trains and automobiles (and boats), and also one where Tom Cruise brutally murders Tim Robbins. So there’s that.
9 The Day After Tomorrow (dir. Roland Emmerich, 2004)
Emmerich’s climate catastrophe narrative was a few years ahead of its time, but it makes for… unsettling viewing as we stare into our increasingly likely future. Based on Art Bell and Whitley Strieber’s 1999 book The Coming Global Superstorm (and, incidentally, you can bet good money that Rachael would watch the hell out of a film with that title), The Day After Tomorrow posits a possible scenario in which climate change suddenly destabilises global temperatures, leading to the rapid freezing of the northern hemisphere. Jake Gyllenhaal was 24 when he played school-age Sam Hall, son of Dennis Quaid’s paleoclimatologist Jack, but you kind of just go with it, as the film’s relentless pace doesn’t typically let up long enough to allow for even the most cursory “Hang on – isn’t he in his mid-twenties…?” Some seriously dodgy CGI wolves aside, the special effects are believable and the premise is suitably unnerving, and, let’s just say that, in early 2022, we’re basically just hoping it doesn’t actually play out like this because we’d rather not live through a real-life disaster film, thanks.
10 Greenland (dir. Ric Roman Waugh, 2020)
We love Gerald Butler as much as the next person – how could you not? – but what you’re not expecting, when you sit down to watch one of his movies, is gritty, terrifying realism. Consider yourself warned: Greenland is nowhere near as big, dumb and explode-y as you’d be led to believe by the presence of its star, though, okay, “realism” might be overselling things somewhat. But if you’re expecting an Armageddon-lite, CGI-saves-the world, popcorn-munching extravaganza, think again. Greenland genuinely wants you to think about how events might unfold if an asteroid impact was imminent. The lovable Mr Butler plays John Garrity, an Atlanta-based structural engineer of indeterminate accent. Garrity’s trying to patch things up with his estranged wife Allison (the always-fantastic Morena Baccarin), when it emerges that an incoming near-Earth comet – which authorities have been swearing blind will no more than graze the outer atmosphere – is, in fact, set to wipe out life as we know it. Cue a desperate race against time to get John, Allison, and their adorable little diabetic son Nathan to the titular island, where, rumours have it, an underground bunker presents their only possible chance of survival. You will, of course, have to suspend your disbelief on occasion, but not so much as you’ll have the chance to pretend that events on screen aren’t terrifyingly plausible. We’re not sure what’s more unsettling: the script, or the fact that Gerry Butler’s in something this opposite-of-ridiculous.
Folks, you will never know the bitter tears Rachael wept over the exclusion of some of her all-time favourite bits of cinematic nonsense from this list. Yes, she enjoyed San Andreas. A lot. Also Volcano, Category 6: Day of Destruction, and – believe it or not – Megafault, though she’s not proud of that. In a crazy, dystopian, out-of-control world pinballing from catastrophe to catastrophe, there’s something vaguely comforting, we suspect, in the formulaic reconstruction of adversity into a neat 3-act structure with a defined – and lasting – close. When you’re living in a disaster movie, maybe that’s what escapism looks like.
Or maybe we just like explode-y CGI. Who knows; we’re complicated like that.
What are you watching to while away the dystopia?