The Best Disaster Movies of All Time
From a 1970s classic to a sinking ship blockbuster, a disaster-film superfan rates the six best ever
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From avalanches and high-alpine storms to volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, going outside has always meant flirting with danger and disaster. Sometimes a crisis can be averted with good planning or turning back at the right time, but others situations are just bad luck.
Tales of disaster have always captivated me. My grandfather died in a mountain fall before I was born, which probably kickstarted my fixation. Even as a kid, I read every book about ill-fated expeditions I could get my hands on. And of course, I’ve always been obsessed with disaster movies. Unlike action and superhero films, the A-list celebrity stars in these stories are never safe.
Like all big-bucket categories, what is and isn’t a disaster movie is open to debate. For this list, I stuck with disasters of plausible origin. Asteroids, yes; viruses, absolutely; but no aliens or extraterrestrial viruses. The science could be ridiculous, but it had to be grounded in something approaching reality. Sadly, this means 2012 and Sharknado didn’t make the cut—but there are six other great films to watch, ranked on the plausibility of the danger and the cheesiness (1 being the least plausible and least cheesy, 5 being the most) of everything else.
The Perfect Storm (2000)
“The Storm,” by Sebastian Junger, was published in the October 1994 issue of Outside. It detailed the story of the commercial fishing boat Andrea Gail’s last fateful voyage and the effect it had on the small New England community where her six-man crew was based. Junger expanded the article into the 1997 book, The Perfect Storm, which eventually became the hit 2000 film directed by Wolfgang Petersen and starring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg.
The Perfect Storm gets credibility points for literally being a true story and showcasing the humbling power of the ocean. Sure, the movie had to fudge some details to fit everything into a dramatically paced 130-minute run time, but it pays off with some grippingly realistic (and realistically horrifying) scenes, including near-fatal fishing accidents and the beleaguered Andrea Gail heading into ever-rougher seas.
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Three years into a global pandemic, Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s prescient 2011 flick about a zoonotic respiratory virus that spreads from Hong Kong to the U.S., kills millions, and shuts down much of the world, hits a bit too close to home—in the best way.
Contagion stars a pre-Goop Gwyneth Paltrow as patient zero of the fictional MEV-1 pandemic. The ensemble cast also includes Matt Damon as Paltrow’s husband, Jude Law as a profiteering conspiracy blogger, Lawrence Fishburne as a doctor in the CDC, Kate Winslet as a contact tracer, and Marion Cotillard as a WHO epidemiologist. While the specifics of the virus don’t exactly match COVID-19—fomites are a far bigger concern and it has a much higher mortality rate—it is close enough to give you chills. Expect to hear a lot of now-familiar terms thrown around, like R0 and social distancing.
Dante’s Peak (1997)
Dante’s Peak stars Pierce Brosnan (on a break from shooting James Bond movies) as a volcanologist with a traumatic past investigating seismic activity in the titular town. While waiting for the mountain to blow, he falls for Linda Hamilton’s small town mayor, single mother, and business owner. It’s all very silly and surprisingly scientifically accurate, unlike Volcano, which was released just two months later and featured Tommy Lee Jones leading a team redirecting lava as it flows through the streets of LA from a newly-formed underground volcano. The U.S. Geographical Survey even published an FAQ in the months after its release to address viewers’ concerns.
Dante’s Peak is one of the formative movies of my childhood. The slow-building tension and horrific deaths of a few supporting characters were enough to leave seven-year-old me absolutely terrified of volcanoes—despite living in Ireland, somewhere with near-zero risk of being killed by anything exciting. It isn’t quite as scary to rewatch, but I still sometimes get the urge to climb up on my coffee table—just in case.
Armageddon is what you get when you let Michael Bay make a movie about a Texas-sized asteroid barreling toward Earth. With just 18 days to divert the rock before it wipes out all life on the planet, a team is dispatched with a couple of nuclear bombs and a questionable plan. But instead of, say, training astronauts to drill the necessary holes, NASA under Bay’s madcap influence decides to train up a load of oil drilling cowboys led by Bruce Willis. It’s as daft as it sounds, but Billy Bob Thornton, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Steve Buscemi, Owen Wilson, Michael Clarke Duncan, and the rest of the cast are clearly having as much fun as the audience.
Of the two big-rock-from-outer-space movies released in 1998, Armageddon earns a spot on this list because it’s just pure silly fun. If you want a more considered, accurate, and emotionally subtle portrayal of humanity’s attempt to divert a planet-threatening comet, check out Deep Impact. Sadly, it doesn’t feature any space cowboys.
Airport was one of the first modern disaster movies, and it pioneered the cheesy, almost-comic tone that so many of the films on this list have. The main plot follows an airport manager (Burt Lancaster) trying to keep everything operational during a massive snowstorm while a suicidal failed businessman (Van Heflin) plots to blow up an inbound plane. But that summary is far too neat. With half a dozen overlapping B plots—including stuck planes, stowaways, and lots of intermarital drama—true disaster doesn’t strike in Airport until late in the movie. It’s the interplay between the all-star cast (also featuring Dean Martin, George Kennedy, Helen Hays, Jean Seberg, and Jacqueline Bisset) that really steals the show.
While the seventies comedy tropes can be a bit grating at times, if you’re prepared to view Airport as a product of its time, its influence and importance to the disaster movie genre can’t be overstated. Just skip the sequels.
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James Cameron’s Titanic is by many measures the best disaster film of all time. The true story of the ocean liner Titanic sinking in the North Atlantic in 1912 on its maiden voyage is a dramatic and action-filled backdrop to a star-crossed teen romance between Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Cameron blends fact and fiction seamlessly so that you can’t tell if a character is made up or based on some small details from an obscure history book.
It’s this obsessiveness that makes the film so good. Cameron spent six months researching all the crew and passengers, creating an extremely detailed timeline of everything that happened aboard. The majority of the underwater shots of the wreck aren’t CGI—Cameron took 12 dives in a submarine to film them. And when the movie was re-released in 2012, the night sky was replaced with one that was historically accurate.
For a cultural institution that has earned more than $2 billion, Titanic’s success was far from guaranteed. When it was made, it was the most expensive movie ever produced. Cameron, the studios, and many Hollywood critics were certain that it would bomb. Instead, it tops our list of disaster movies.