'SAN ANDREAS' (2015)
San Andreas is there for moviegoers when one city-leveling earthquake just isn’t enough. Director Brad Peyton’s disaster flick offers no less than two massive quakes that decimate buildings and cause thousands of CGI citizens to perish in their wake. The film even throws in a massive San Francisco tsunami for good measure. And while he can’t save everyone, San Andreas stars the one modern action star you might assume is capable of taking on the forces of nature—Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. —Jonathon Dornbush
The biggest movie of all time is a disaster flick? You bet! Remember: Without the stunning moment when the boat kisses that frozen hulk, this Best Picture winner is just another Romeo and Juliet knockoff. (And without its monumental love story, Titanic might as well be The Hindenburg.) That said, James Cameron’s epic reaches the pinnacle of disaster-movie impudence with the distasteful suggestion that the most celebrated tragedy of the 20th century occurred because a few lookouts were distracted by Kate and Leo sucking face. (Okay, maybe that’s just us.)
INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996)
An all-star cast including Will Smith as a hunky fighter pilot, Bill Pullman as the troubled president, Jeff Goldblum as a nerdy environmentalist, Vivica A. Fox as a bootylicious ”dancer,” and a kooky Randy Quaid all fight to survive after aliens obliterate major cities around the world. Independence Day occasionally strays into the megalo-melodramatic, and never more so than when a dog makes a slow motion leap into a doorway just milliseconds before a wall of flames nearly engulfs him.
Everyone refuses to listen to geologist Amy Barnes (Anne Heche) when she theorizes that a volcanic flow is coursing underneath Los Angeles. It sounds crazy until the volcano erupts and starts flowing in the city streets and destroying everything it’s path. It’s up to Heche and emergency official Mike Roark (Tommy Lee Jones) to team up and save the day.
Way back in 1992, we anointed the comedic masterpiece Airplane! the funniest movie ever, and with good reason. The ZAZ boys (writer-directors Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker) are to humor what Phil Spector is to music. There’s so much going on in every frame of Airplane! — which, aside from being positively hilarious, is also a totally legitimate crashing-jetliner disaster flick — watching it feels like being pummeled by a Wall of Laughs. —Marc Bernardin
The tornado tale doesn’t fit the traditional models established by Poseidon (a disaster’s occurred and we’ve gotta escape!) or Airport (a disaster’s about to occur and we’ve gotta prevent it!). But there’s no denying the force of those would-be Fingers of God that terrorize the prairie, scooping up houses, tanker trucks, and, best of all, a mooing steer. Like Walter Matthau’s cameo in Earthquake and Owen Wilson’s wisecracks in Armageddon, flying cows are the kind of wonderfully out-of-place bits of levity we die for.
THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974)
Disaster master Irwin Allen’s thrilling Best Picture nominee is overflowing with classic instances of historical import: Paul Newman and Jennifer Jones meet…Mike Lookinland (a.k.a., Bobby Brady)! William Holden wears a scarlet dinner jacket…and lives to tell about it! Tops is security guard O.J. Simpson putting his mark on the genre’s obligatory animal rescue by saving a cat from a scorching skyscraper. (”Say, kitty,” he coos, ”I almost missed ya.”) Watching the star cradle that sweet ball of fur is a timeless reminder that amidst the most hellish chaos and destruction, compassion and humanity still survive. Thank you, O.J.
Heck, if we weren’t interested in mixing things up a bit, George Kennedy, the undisputed King of Disaster Movies, could easily fill out this whole list. Three decades ago, you couldn’t come across an Earthquake or a Concorde: Airport ’79 without tripping over the brawny brute who always survived through sheer guts. That all started with this Best Picture nominee, where his cigar-chompin’ Joe Patroni throttles up those engines (”Hold on! We’re goin’ for broke!”) to clear a stuck jet from a snowbound runway — thereby saving squirrelly Oscar-winning stowaway Helen Hayes from a nasty crash and making it safe for captain Dean Martin and stewardess Jacqueline Bisset to have their baby after all.
THE RAINS CAME (1939)
In the first few moments of the movie, Tom Ransome (George Brent) laments ”Oh how I wish the rains would come.” And come they did. Rain splashes all over the Indian city of Ranchipur, knocking down entire buildings, causing the ground to collapse, and creating a flood that destroys everything in its path. The destruction and the resulting aftermath is the backdrop between a beautiful love story between Lady Edwina Esketh (Myrna Loy) and Major Rama Safti (Tyrone Power) — kind of like Titanic without the boat.
VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA (1961)
The crew of the Seaview submarine are trapped underwater while a fire in the sky is rapidly heating the world around them and…wait, is that a giant octopus? The freakishly large cephalopod is only one of the many perils Robert Sterling, Walter Pidgeon, and the rest of the film’s stars have to contend with in this feature predecessor to the popular TV show.
It’s hard to tell which is more of a disaster: a giant asteroid careening toward Earth or Ben Affleck’s wild sobs of despair. Affleck and Bruce Willis were the stars of this Michael Bay concoction, but it’s the antics of the supporting cast that make the movie memorable. Armageddon brought us such ”classic” moments as Steve Buscemi playfully straddling a nuclear warhead and a doe-eyed Liv Tyler laying about in a field while Affleck sends an animal cracker stampede across her torso. And while Deep Impact, which was released two months earlier and starred Elijah Wood, also had a deadly comet, it didn’t have Aerosmith’s ”I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.” So Armageddon wins.
There wasn’t a boy in the 1970s who didn’t get all giddy over this pleasing and plot-light demolition derby…presented in amazing Sensurround (yes, the theater seats really did vibrate — sort of)! Starring disaster stalwart Charlton Heston (The Naked Jungle, Airport 1975), the movie won an Oscar for the then-groundbreaking effects it displayed when a massive rumbler topples L.A. Of course, now that such realistic-looking flicks as 2012 have come along, what was once state-of-the-art looks like some dude was just shaking a table holding a scale model of Hollywood.
THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW (2004)
New York City has been the target of many a disaster movie, but few have offered a spectacle like the New York Public Library being inundated by a huge tidal wave. To add insult to injury, the entire city, as well as the northern part of the US, is turned into an arctic tundra by some gnarly post-global warming weather. The Roland Emmerich-directed film stars Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal as father and son who fight to reunite with one another after the world has become a giant popsicle. If only we had listened to Al Gore….
IN OLD CHICAGO (1937)
In Old Chicago starts off as an innocuous film about one family’s climb to social prominence in late 1800s Chicago. That is, until an ornery cow named Daisy kicks over a lantern and ignites a fire that quickly engulfs the Windy City. Panic ensues, the screaming masses head for the river and one man is trampled by a herd of stampeding cattle. What makes the film even more disturbing is it is a fictionalized account of the very real Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005)
It’s hard to imagine that when The War of the Worlds was first broadcast in radio form in 1938 it sent people panicking in the streets. Clearly they weren’t ready for Tom Cruise and CGI. The 2005 film incarnation terrorized moviegoers with menacing aliens bent on destroying everything in their path, including one very cute and very scared Dakota Fanning. After all the destruction and chaos, the visitors are felled by common Earth germs. So in the event of an alien attack, huddle up with someone sick.
THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972)
She may be a sweet granny with a little extra meat on her bones who’s trapped in a capsized ocean liner, but, as talkative Shelley Winters will proudly tell you, ”In the water I’m a very skinny lady.” Good thing, because when Gene Hackman gets pinned under a submerged slab of metal, it’s up to ”the underwater swimming champ of New York for three years running” to rescue him. By swallowing her pride (all those fat comments!) and a big gulp of air, Winters won an Oscar nomination for pulling off the best moment in the best disaster flick ever.