I’ve loved disaster movies ever since my parents dumped me off at the Southgate Quad to catch The Towering Inferno during a matinee when I was eleven years old. Until then, all I really ever saw was Disney stuff. This was my first ‘grown-up’ movie, where people actually died and all kinds of shit exploded. It was awesome, and I caught every disaster movie that came along afterwards. Good or bad, I did ‘em all. They essentially had the same plot, but I didn’t care, so long as a lot of stuff got destroyed and those characters who deserved to die usually did.
Even now, it is still my favorite genre, and its brief comeback in the mid 90s was especially cool (since I had assumed 1980's Airplane! killed-off the genre for good). I admit most disaster movies are kinda dumb - no one’s gonna confuse them for documentaries - but who cares? They’re fun, even the aggressively bad ones. Show me someone who didn’t enjoy Independence Day and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t enjoy breathing. That being said, the following is a list of some of the best movies from the genre I love.
10. INDEPENDENCE DAY (1997)
Aliens arrive in giant flying saucers to kick our asses. The only movie to feature a dog outrun a rolling fireball, or Will Smith as a macho pilot able to expertly operate an alien space craft mere minutes after climbing into the cockpit for the first time. But who cares about plausibility when the White House gets wasted? And what does it take to destroy this vicious alien race? A laptop. It’s nice to know Apple software is truly compatible with everything, including alien technology.
9. EARTHQUAKE (1974)
L.A. gets wasted by the big one. Lorne Greene plays Ava Gardener’s father (he must have conceived her when he was eight), while Charlton Heston turns in the last decent performance of his career. Although the special effects are mostly terrific, watch for a cattle truck which flies off a bridge and no cows topple out! This one earns extra points for killing off a majority of the cast, and features Greene roaring at some female co-stars, “Take off your pantyhose, dammit!” Too bad he never said that on Bonanza.
8. 2012 (2009)
In the real world, I am a middle school teacher, and a few of my more intellectually-challenged students thought this was more than a movie…it was a prediction. That aside, this could be the epoch of all disaster movies, one which kills off 99% of the human race yet still manages to tack on a happy ending. And who knew John Cusack, playing a failed writer, possessed such superhuman abilities as outrunning a volcanic eruption, steering a sports car off a crashing cargo plane and escaping a massive earthquake in a limo? The funniest movie since Twilight.
7. THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW (2004)
I’m convinced director Roland Emmerich once had a really bad experience in New York. Maybe he was mugged, or more-likely bet on the Knicks and lost a bundle. At any rate, this movie marks the third time (after ID4 and Godzilla) he totally destroys The Big Apple. The science presented may not be credible, but it is his least-dumb film.
6. THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972)
If you’ve ever wanted to check-out Shelly Winters’ giant underpants, Red Buttons bashfully confirm his fondness of Vitamin E (while pining for a teenage girl), Stella Stevens explaining to her dim husband where suppositories go and an obnoxious kid whose death you‘ll pray for, look no further. That aside, this is the first true disaster movie as we’ve come to know the genre (some like to credit Airport, but it's more of a soap opera). This has some godawful dialogue, especially in the first 30 minutes, but it’s suspenseful, violent and features special effects which still hold up well today.
5. THE SWARM (1978)
Killer bees! So deadly they can cause people to hallucinate, passenger trains to careen off cliffs and nuclear power plants to meltdown! Michael Caine plays a sunflower seed-scarfing entomologist placed in charge of killing them (he’s also placed in charge of delivering some of the goofiest lines in disaster movie history). Richard Widmark is the standard military man who exists to deny there’s a problem (even though people are dying by the thousands) and suspects Caine has some secret agenda (!). Sure, The Swarm was one of the biggest nails in the 70’s disaster coffin, but is so bad it manages to achieves a level of kitschy greatness few mega-budget flops have managed before or since. It also has the distinction of being one of the few disaster films to kill-off its obligatory obnoxious child character.
4. TITANIC (1997)
Sure, it made Leonardo DiCaprio a star. Sure, lots of teenage girls swooned and cried. Sure, it only gets interesting once the ship starts sinking. Sure, it’s corny. Sure, it made us all undure “My Heart Will Go On" long after we'd rather kill someone than hear it again. Sure, it’s proof James Cameron is second only to George Lucas as a master of dumb dialogue. And sure, we're still convinced Rose could've made room for Jack on that raft. But it is the only disaster movie to win a Best Picture Oscar, and though it’s currently hip for retro-haters to scoff at it now, Titanic is still a hell of a lot of fun.
3. THE CASSANDRA CROSSING (1977)
There's a deadly disease onboard a loaded passenger train! The government’s solution...crash the train, of course. Ava Gardner’s back from Earthquake for another round of all-star mayhem, this time cavorting with boy-toy Martin Sheen (yes, you'll throw-up in your mouth a bit). Sofia Loren adds luster just by showing up. Richard Harris takes his role seriously. Bad guy Burt Lancaster looks perpetually constipated. The climactic train wreck is phony but fun…it reminds me of the time as a kid when I blew up all my Hot Wheels and train sets with firecrackers. Bonus: O.J. Simpson saves a little girl. How could this guy be a murderer?
2. DEEP IMPACT (1998)
I knew I was gonna love Deep Impact ten minutes into it, when an astronomer, upon discovering a comet is on a collision course toward Earth, rushes from his observatory to warn authorities. Speeding down the mountain in his jeep, he’s involved in a fatal, fiery accident while fumbling with his cell phone. The incident doesn’t really have much baring on the story, but let that be a lesson to all you assholes yakking on your phones when you should be watching the road!
1. THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974)
Four decades later, this is still the Gone with the Wind of the disaster genre. The world’s tallest building goes up in flames, along with a lot of aging actors in leisure suits. Hundreds of people die, including characters you either manage care about or totally despise. This was the last movie where Steve McQueen manages to be cool. It was also the last disaster movie to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (losing to The Godfather Part II, which deservedly won) until Titanic twenty years later. Bonus: O.J. Simpson saves a kitty. Again, how could he be a murderer?