The Best (And Worst) Disaster Movies!

Here's the just-released trailer for the upcoming disaster film San Andreas, starring Dwayne Johnson, Colton Haynes, Ioan Gruffudd, Archie Panjabi, and many others. As a disaster movie connoisseur (it's my favorite genre, tied with Turkish Oil Wrestling), it hits all of the right disaster notes. Heroism in the face of death! Innocents in peril! The Hollywood Sign destroyed! The only thing it's missing is a plucky dog.

We won't know until May 29th if San Andreas will join the classics of the genre (or have the ultimate tribute - a Syfy Channel ripoff), but while we wait for the chaos and destruction (and Colton's puppy dog eyes), let's take a look back at the best and worst that the disaster genre has given us through the years.

For the purposes of this list, we'll start in the early 70's, when the Golden Age of the disaster genre started (thanks to the iconic Irwin Allen), and we're going to focus only on natural disasters, so no aliens (Independence Day, War Of The Worlds), no bugs, beasts or monsters (Godzilla, Cloverfield, The Swarm), and nothing based on actual events (Titanic, The Hindenburg, Perfect Storm). And these are all big screen entries, so no TV movies.



The 70's disaster era began with 1970's Airport, but it was 1972's The Poseidon Adventure that remains the benchmark for all disaster films to come, and it still holds up splendidly more than 40 years later. It set up the template for the genre, as a ragtag group of survivors have to work together to escape death and see ... the morning after. Those survivors are played by established stars as well as newcomers, each representing a certain archetype. We've got the sacrificial hero (Gene Hackman), the hero's begrudging counterpart (Ernest Borgnine), the scantily clad sexpot (Stella Stevens), the innocent girl (Pamela Sue Martin), and ... the Shelley Winters. It was Shelley who stole the film (and received an Oscar nod), and yes, her death scene still gets me every time.


Irwin followed up The Poseidon Adventure with 1974's The Towering Inferno, which was the year's top grossing film and received an Oscar nod for Best Picture. Another all-star cast (including Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, who were contractually required to have the exact same amount of scenes and dialogue) fought their way through a high-rise fire, including Jennifer Jones, who ... screamed all the way down. Is that any way to treat an Oscar winner?


Earthquake doesn't hold up nearly as well as Inferno or Poseidon, in fact, much of it is cringe-inducing, but it is those WTF moments that make it an enjoyable spectacle. This is a movie that wants us to believe that Ava Gardner is Lorne Greene's daughter (they were seven years apart). Add Victoria Principal's awe-inspiring fro, Marjoe Gortner giving one of the worst performances in the history of film, and Charlton Heston briefly unclenching his jaw to romance Nicole Janeway (My undying love to whoever gets that reference). And this scene, one of my favorites in any disaster film. The only thing missing at the end is "SPLAT!"


The original Airport had the prestige (and the Oscar for Helen Hayes), and Airport '75 had the delirious sight of a screaming Karen Black at the controls, but "The one where the plane sinks" is the best of the Airport films. Credit a game cast, including Brenda Vaccarro, Jack Lemmon, and a scenery chewing Lee Grant.


The Disaster genre has ebbs and flows, and in the late 90's there was a flood of cataclysm, with similar films from competing studios trying to capture box office dollars. 1997 saw the release of Volcano and Dante's Peak, and both appear on this list ... on opposite ends. Dante's Peak was released first, and had a much more sympathetic leading lady (the warm Linda Hamilton instead of the shrill Anne Heche), better special effects, death scenes that didn't cause fits of giggles, and ... a pluckier dog. Look at this little guy!


In 1998 two more similar-themed disaster epics were released, with Armageddon (which we'll see later) and Deep Impact. I think Roger Ebert said it best that when compared to Armageddon, Deep Impact "belongs on the American Film Institute list." That's not say this film doesn't have problems. Tea Leoni sleepwalks through yet another performance as the heroine reporter working for upstart MSNBC. Hey, that's what this movie needed ... Rachel Maddow! And it's nice to know that when the mini-Extinction Level Event occurs, you can outrun it on a moped. But there was enough good stuff to recommend it, including Vanessa Redgrave, who sadly does not "haul ass to Lollapalooza."


See! This is exactly what climate change will lead to! Well, maybe not. There was a furor when this movie was released because it was not "scientifically accurate." You mean if a naval ship freezes in downtown NYC you won't have to worry about escaped wolves tearing you to pieces? Phew! Fresh-faced Jake Gyllenhaal and Emmy Rossum starred, but took a backseat to the special effects. This is the film that brought Roland Emmerich his disaster credentials, but it would be another film that cemented his reputation as heir apparent to Irwin Allen.


If you're reading this, the Doomsday Prophecy of 2012 did not occur, but it did give us Roland Emmerich's insane tribute to throwing as much CGI against the screen and seeing what will stick. John Cusack stars with other humans, but they're really beside the point, as the film is more concerned with destroying the world in as many ways as possible. Actually, Woody Harrelson does make an impression as a nutjob conspiracy theorist, and Johann Urb earns his place as the Hottest Disaster Movie Pilot.



First of all ... there's no volcano. They can't even get that right. An embarrassed-looking Tommy Lee Jones stars with Anne Heche, and the two of them barely escape unscathed. There are so many things cringe-inducing and just plain wrong here, from the "Incredible Melting Stan" scene ...

"What a World! What a World!

To the "Look at their faces, they all look the same" ending. It's a terrible film.


Two Words: Animal Crackers


It pains me to put this on the worst list because it's so goofy I have a certain amount of affection for it. Stanley Tucci seems to be the only actor who realizes how ridiculous it is. Watch him try to keep a straight face during the infamous "peach" scene.


Wolfgang Petersen brought us the classic Das Boot and the box office behemoth Perfect Storm, but he went back to the ocean one too many times with the waterlogged remake Poseidon. It covers all of the bases, but it's cold and calculated, and Richard Dreyfus gives us one of the most annoying gay characters in screen history. While the straight guys get to be strong and brave and give us scenes of amazing heroism and self-sacrifice, the Dreyfus character: Starts off suicidal, sends poor Freddy Rodriguez plummeting to his death by kicking him in the head, almost drowns everyone by getting his ass stuck in a duct, and almost kills everyone again at the end when he turns the wrong crank. On the plus side, at least Fergie doesn't attempt "The Morning After."


If The Asylum (who brought us such mockbusters as Transmorphers, Snakes On A Train and Titanic II) had existed in the 70's, they would have brought us Beyond The Poseidon Adventure. Michael Caine and Telly Savalas head this sequel, as salvage crews head back into the capsized ship looking for gold, diamonds, and ... plutonium? It's all very low-rent and "road show," but luckily for the faboo Sally Field, Norma Rae came out just two months before and was able to overshadow this career low point.


Irwin Allen flopped with Beyond The Poseidon Adventure, but a year later he tried one last time, and it would prove to be his last gasp. 1980's When Time Ran Out scraped the bottom of the disaster barrel with its cheap effects and tired plot. But at least Pat Morita survives, right? RIGHT?


By the late 70's the disaster genre was on its last legs, and Meteor would help hasten its demise, and apparently even the cast knew it was going to be a turkey.

With universally negative reviews (it made numerous "Worst Of" lists for that year's movies), it proved unpopular with audiences, losing millions in the process, and is considered to be one of the reasons for the downfall of American International Pictures. According to one biography of Natalie Wood, she and most others in the cast knew early on this film was going to be a dud, mainly due to the director and the script.

Okay, your turn! What's your favorite (or least favorite) disaster movie? And no, Showgirls doesn't count.

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