This list was originally published in 2015, and we’ve updated it to include newer releases.
It’s a big week for disaster movies, what with both Geostorm and Only the Brave opening wide in theaters across the U.S. And you could say that the two films reflect the wide spectrum of titles that are usually grouped under the term “disaster movie.”
Only the Brave is based on a true story, and emphasizes the humanity of the men tasked with fighting raging wildfires; the flames themselves are terrifying and spectacular, but they’re only part of the story. Geostorm, on the other hand … well, the studio hasn’t let critics see it yet, but it looks like gloriously trashy and ridiculous fun. The kind that returns us to a borderline prelinguistic state where all we can do is mutter: “Big … storm … break … make … explode … good.”
The disaster movie is one of cinema’s oldest genres: There were films about Pompeii and burning buildings in the very early days of movies. (One of the very first narrative short films was Edwin Porter’s Life of an American Fireman, from 1903.) Maybe that’s because film is the one art form that can do proper justice to this sort of spectacle: You can’t re-create it onstage, and who wants to read about a disaster when they can see it?
So here’s a look back on our favorite disaster movies over the years. To do so, however, we had to set some ground rules: We excluded movies that were also creature features or alien-invasion movies. (For example, no Independence Day, or Godzilla, or King Kong.) We also excluded superhero movies (so, no Superman or The Dark Knight Rises) or tales of the supernatural. And we also felt that the scale of the disaster had to be evident in the film (so no Dr. Strangelove or Fail Safe, although both are excellent examples of the Nuclear Armageddon genre). We also skipped films that were mostly about the aftermath of a disaster, instead of the disaster itself. (So, no The Grey or Cast Away.) That may sound like a lot of caveats, but the list is still pretty thorough and wide-ranging.
Here are the 25 greatest disaster films of all time:
25. “2012” (2009)
Roland Emmerich became Hollywood’s king of disaster in the 1990s — mainly by cross-breeding the genre with alien and monster pictures, like Independence Day and Godzilla. This star-studded 2009 epic, however, may have been his purest throwback to the 1970s. In it, solar flares from the sun heat up the Earth’s core, and a series of unfortunate meteorological and seismic events ensue. Nobody anywhere on the planet is safe, and the scale of the destruction and hopelessness is so awe-inspiring that you’ll overlook the sheer idiocy of the film’s plot and character interactions. That said, Chiwetel Ejiofor (as the scientist who discovers what’s happening and warns the appropriate powers) and Woody Harrelson (as a conspiracy theorist wing-nut radio host) are standouts in the cast of thousands.
24 and 23. “Deep Impact” / “Armageddon” (1998)
Walt Disney Studios
I have to make an admission: I really don’t like Deep Impact at all, and I genuinely like Armageddon. (Most viewers these days might reverse that statement.) But I still find it hard not to think of these two asteroid-headed-for-the-Earth films, which opened within a few weeks of each other in 1998, as partners in crime on some level. Armageddon’s appeal at the time had something to do with Deep Impact: Where Mimi Leder’s film was a sensitive, emotional attempt to look at the tragedy of a giant asteroid strike, Michael Bay’s was a macho indulgence in action-movie theatrics.
One film focused on the doomed people back here on Earth; the other focused on the space cowboys trying to blow the big space rock up real good. If you thought Deep Impact was pompous and overbaked sentimentality (as I did), Armageddon felt like a bracing, but no less overbaked, rebuke to that; and if you thought Armageddon was a dumb, jacked testosterone flick that couldn’t even keep its own characters straight, then chances are Deep Impact felt like an intelligent corrective. These two are the yin and yang of giant-asteroid movies.
22. “Earthquake” (1974)
Charlton Heston is the engineer who finds himself rushing through a collapsing Los Angeles to save his mistress (Geneviève Bujold) and her son. Like many disaster movies, this is a turgid soap opera that’s blown apart by chaos. But oh, what glorious chaos! The effects are a bit dated, but director Mark Robson put the city through such a wringer that the breadth of the destruction is breathtaking. Even when it’s clear that what we’re watching are models — and, during one particularly deranged moment, a hand-animated spurt of blood that comes straight at the camera.