Unlike the buildings that crumble in its wake, the disaster movie has proved a resilient genre, laying waste to cities with apocalyptic fury through almost a century of cinema. Some are granted studio-crippling blockbuster budgets, while others explode out of the cash-poor realms of exploitation. Either way, every one of them retains a God-given B-movie spirit.
Where some genres emerge from the fear and disillusionment of their contemporary moment, the disaster film has proven as universally enduring as the hubris and stupidity it invariably pummels. The cause of a given cataclysm may vary from picture to picture, but the message remains the same: don’t mess with mother nature.
From the early days of the 1930s to its popular twin peaks in the 70s and 90s, the genre has never really gone away – only occasionally laying dormant, ever-ready to erupt again. With a structural sturdiness that lends itself to infinite variations on a theme, the maximalist spectacle of the disaster movie defies the usual genre tides, thumbing its nose at realism or satire as it conjures increasingly deranged ways to obliterate humankind.
With climate change and pandemics now a part of our daily lives, these big screen cataclysms increasingly cut closer to home. Here are 10 of the best.
Director: Felix E. Feist
The great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 was still a living memory when the 1930s rolled around and the disaster movie was born. That particular catastrophe, the most devastating in California history, wouldn’t find its way on to American screens until 1936, in the Clark Gable-starring blockbuster San Francisco. Three years earlier, on the other side of the country, New York had taken a cinematic hammering. King Kong had escaped to do his thing in the spring, and by summer, RKO Pictures were back, laying waste to the entire eastern seaboard with some template-setting Old Testament fury.
A lost film until its rediscovery in 1981, Deluge is generally considered the first disaster picture, one whose proximity to the San Francisco tragedy necessitated an opening title card insisting it was “an adventure in speculation”. You’ll find none of the bloat synonymous with the genre’s 1970s popular peak here. Dynamically edited and running barely 70 minutes, Deluge is over before most later films feel their first tremor. The human melodrama may come with some iffy pre-Code sexual politics, but the FX work once the earthquake and tsunami hit remain astonishing feats of miniature engineering.
The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)
Director: Val Guest
“It is exactly 30 minutes since the corrective bombs were detonated. Within the next few hours the world will know whether this is the end or another beginning; the rebirth of man or his final obituary.” Director Val Guest opens his doomsday chiller on the empty streets of London’s west end, the anamorphic black-and-white photography washed with a sulphurous tint. Flashing back three months, to the days before a series of nuclear tests knocked the earth off its axis, Guest catalogues the rising temperatures and ensuing panic that signal the encroaching obliteration of humankind.
Going against disaster movie convention, it’s the human drama that makes The Day the Earth Caught Fire one of the strongest entries in the genre canon. Our protagonist is a booze-sodden journalist, intimately framed by the BAFTA-winning screenplay as a microcosm of humanity in need of salvation. Shooting on the streets of London and in the actual Fleet Street headquarters of the Daily Express, Guest marries sharp-tongued patter to procedural authenticity, casting former Express editor Arthur Christiansen in his real-life role. It was slapped with an X certificate on release, and few examinations of nuclear anxiety and global warming would prove as bleak, cynical or prophetic.
The Towering Inferno (1974)
Director: John Guillermin
Throughout the 1970s, one catastrophe followed another on the silver screen. The all-star blockbuster Airport (1970) set the template: A-list leads surrounded by a rolodex of character actors, up-n-comers and also-rans, all gnawing at the scenery while concrete-coloured balsa wood rains on their heads. Producer-director Irwin Allen was the self-appointed ‘master of disaster’. He’d scored a big hit with some rising damp in The Poseidon Adventure (1972), and continued to imperil the masses throughout the decade with the increasingly hysterical likes of Flood! (1976), The Swarm (1978) and the wearily-titled The Night the Bridge Fell Down (1980).
The Towering Inferno was his biggest production, an Oscar-winning mega-blockbuster so expensive that it had to be funded as a joint venture between two studios. It was the gold standard in popcorn maximalism, requiring two directors (producer Allen for the action, John Guillermin for the dialogue) and two above-the-title stars in Paul Newman and Steve McQueen – the latter allegedly only willing to sign on if he was given exactly the same number of lines as his co-star. Despite the near-three-hour bloat, the still-impressive scale of the whole endeavour means it holds up well, aided immeasurably by the practical effects, and Newman’s charismatic commitment to dangling his way from one fiery precipice to another.
The Cassandra Crossing (1976)
Director: George P. Cosmatos
Turning The Towering Inferno on its side for a barrelling horizontal cataclysm, this doozy of a disaster flick splits the difference between the viral outbreak of Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011) and the locomotive dynamics of Tony Scott’s Unstoppable (2010). Director George P. Cosmatos (Rambo: First Blood Part II, 1985) wrangles an all-star cast of disaster movie veterans. Burt Lancaster is the man on the ground, trying to cover-up the loss of a weaponised pathogen in Vienna; Richard Harris the neuroscientist on a train carrying the escaped patient zero. O.J. Simpson plays a priest with a secret, while Ava Gardner is an heiress on the lam with her toyboy lover (Martin Sheen).
Performances and hysterics are dialled up to 11, while Cosmatos keeps things moving through a series of killer set-pieces. One sees a helicopter called in to lift an infected dog from the moving train, in a thrillingly preposterous chase that plays like a prototype of Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible (1996) climax. Proceedings take a darker turn as the train is quarantined and diverted towards an isolation ‘camp’ in Poland, instilling grim panic in Lee Strasberg’s Jewish survivor. The final destination is the titular bridge, which may or may not be able to take the weight of the train. Spoiler alert: it can’t, at least in part, leading to one of the most grisly catastrophes in the disaster movie canon.
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
To this point, disaster movies tended to be buoyed by action and a survivalist spirit of adventure. Trust Japanese cinema’s pre-eminent nihilist to offer a sharp rejoinder. Kinji Fukasaku’s Virus, butchered for a US release under the title Day of Reckoning, was the most expensive Japanese production to date. It’s a film of two halves and dual disasters: the first a viral outbreak that wipes out almost the entire globe, followed by the launch of the US atomic arsenal, which effectively finishes the job. There are no heroes in Fukasaku’s study in impotence, just 863 scared souls stranded at the South Pole, where subzero temperatures keep the virus dormant.
The first hour or so documents the spread of the pathogen – a vaccine-resistant “Frankenstein monster masquerading as a virus” – in grim, procedural detail. Social order breaks down across the globe, and soon the US president is keeling over in the Oval Office while a mad general activates a defence system that will lob some nukes at the (innocent) Soviets. A finale in the apocalyptic wastelands of an incinerated world carries an elegiac charge, capping a mournful lament for mankind’s hubris and self-inflicted annihilation.
Director: James Cameron
If the 1980s proved a fallow period for the disaster flick, the genre saw a major resurgence come the 1990s, boosted by the destructive capabilities of computer-generated effects. Such digital wizardry enabled the recreation of the most iconic disaster in 20th-century history, the sinking of the RMS Titanic. But director James Cameron would only wheel out his pixel generator when absolutely necessary, relying on stratospherically expensive practical effects wherever possible, including multiple trips to the wreck itself.
Working from the original blueprints with an unheard-of $200 million budget at his disposal, Cameron built a replica of the Titanic at full scale, in a purpose-built, 17 million gallon tank on the Mexican waterfront. Word on the street in the run-up to the film’s release was that its funding studio 20th Century Fox was about to go the way of the ship, sunk by the costs of Cameron’s staggering ambition. Instead, Titanic broke every box office record and equalled the 11-Oscar haul of Ben-Hur (1959), as audiences swarmed to a romantic tragedy for the ages, mounted on a scale heretofore unseen.
Director: Michael Bay
In its straight-faced reckoning with real-life tragedy, Titanic was something of an anomaly in the disaster movie landscape of the late-90s. Everywhere else, it was silly season, and big screen cataclysms had started arriving in pairs. 1997 saw twin lava-letters to the genre in Dante’s Peak and Volcano, while a year later audiences were showered with a meteoric diptych in Mimi Leder’s Deep Impact (1998) and this gloriously ripe action-melodrama from director Michael Bay.
“It’s what we call a global killer, the end of mankind,” says a NASA nabob of the asteroid on a collision course with earth. The plan? Send up Bruce Willis’s crew of deep-core drillers – “Talk about the wrong stuff!” – to dig a hole and detonate a nuke, before the planet is ravaged by “the worst parts of the Bible”. Willis smirks and smoulders opposite Ben Affleck, the latter still trying to make it as a romantic lead, but it’s the supporting cast of roughnecks that enliven the human drama. Bay certainly knows how to wield an image, with a sixth sense for finding the pomp in every circumstance. His maximalist pageantry works wonders on the popcorn charms of Armageddon’s ode to blue-collar heroism.
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Leaving behind the narrative and structural intricacies of the Resident Evil franchise for some old-fashioned romantic melodrama, director Paul W.S. Anderson plunders his DVD collection for a B-movie collision of Gladiator (2000) and Titanic. His tale of class-crossed lovers in the shadow of Vesuvius holds little truck with the niceties of polished dialogue. Anderson has loftier goals in mind, like the delivery of spatially-coherent action across every axis of his 3D arena.
Pompeii moves at a lick, pausing only to savour the prime ham that Kiefer Sutherland’s senatorial antagonist sells by the ton. Anderson knows his way around a digital playground, and understands the importance of geographically orienting the viewer before a given set-piece unfolds. Close-quarters action is kinetically charged and intelligibly pieced together – the viewer is never in doubt as to who is doing what to whom – while mother nature’s pixellated fury is captured in awe-inspiring wide shots. A tsunami that lays waste to Naples in the wake of the eruption is one of Anderson’s greatest sequences, one that puts most of Pompeii’s A-list counterparts to shame.
The Wave (2015)
Director: Roar Uthaug
While Hollywood certainly has a monopoly on the disaster movie, there are a smattering of international alternatives out there. That said, ‘alternative’ might not be the best choice of word when it comes to this Norwegian entry, given how closely it hews to the genre template established by its American forebears. No bad thing, when mounted with as much dramatic urgency and efficiency as The Wave.
Act 1: A geologist in a small, fjord-side town has a bad feeling about the stability of a nearby mountain. Per the rules of the game, his colleagues think he’s crying wolf. Act 2: Seismic activity causes the rockslide he predicted, sending a 250ft tidal wave in the direction of the town. Act 3: Time to rescue his family from its demolished ruins. Director Roar Uthaug shamelessly hits the requisite beats, but with a sharp eye for textural detail that elevates his pulse-quickening set-pieces. Marshalling an impressively tactile combination of digital and practical effects, Uthaug doesn’t so much rejuvenate the genre as polish its archetypal ingredients. It works a treat. A vastly inferior sequel (The Quake, 2018) repeats the formula with an Oslo earthquake but without Uthaug, which only serves to vividly demonstrate the value of a sure directorial hand.
Only the Brave (2017)
Director: Joseph Kosinski
There’s a welcome Hawksian vibe to this excellent firefighting drama from director Joseph Kosinski (TRON: Legacy, 2010), which takes its narrative cues from a real-life disaster that swept through Arizona in 2013. Josh Brolin leads a crew of ‘deucers,’ the second-line of defence come fire season in the American southwest. Only ‘hotshots’ are allowed to tackle the fire itself, and Brolin’s team are auditioning for a bump up the chain of command. They’re a tight-knit crew doing dangerous work in the tradition of Only Angels Have Wings (1939), with Miles Teller’s dopesick newbie serving as our introductory passage into their hermetically focused world.
Kosinski takes his time establishing characters and relationships within the group, stressing the tensions between professional and personal obligation. It pays huge dividends when the main event rumbles into view, lending a fully-earned emotional weight to the tragic events that follow. Cinematographer Claudio Miranda invests set-pieces and lyrical interludes alike with a scorched beauty, as we wait for the first act training sequences to pay off in the heart-stopping climactic inferno.
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