Mt. Vesuvius erupting in "Pompeii"
2015 was a good year for disaster movies and after seeing a bunch of "Best Disaster" movie lists I decided to create my own. Shortly after starting the list I realized I needed to make some rules to clarify which movies qualified as disaster movies and come up with a grading system to sort out the best from the rest. Both the rules (at the bottom) and scoring system are described below.
There are some movies that are truly great films and are related to a disaster but the disaster is not that big a piece of the film. This grading system was created to focus on the elements of a movie that make it a great disaster film, not just a great film.
To rank the movies I used a simple scoring system broken down into 3 key factors graded 1 to 10:
- Disaster: This score was determine based on several aspects of the movie: How spectacular was the disaster? How much of the movie did the disaster drive? How interesting was the disaster?
- Thrill/Fun: The adventure inherent in many disaster movies takes you a thrill ride that can be fun and funny. What I looked at for this score: Was there an adventurous story amid all the chaos? Did it have moments of humor or fun? Did it put me on the edge of my seat at times?
- Plot: Many disaster movies have plots that are ridiculous. I scored the movies not based on how realistic the plot was, but how interesting the story was and if the characters made you care about what happened.
The Top 40 Disaster Movies Of All Time
41. Tidal Wave (2009)
A South Korean film centers around a "mega-tsunami" that hits a coastal city. Its pretty bad… until the tsunami hits! There's a couple of scenes in this one that you can see "San Andreas" borrowed from.
Score 11: Disaster: 5, Thrill/Fun: 4, Plot: 2
40. The Perfect Storm (2000)
Gloucester fishermen George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg head out in their fishing trolley and are not smart enough to avoid a huge storm in the Atlantic. It is fairly cheesy, Diane Ladd's Boston accent is terrible, and though the storm part interesting, the actual disaster part of the movie is not that big.
Score 12: Disaster: 3, Thrill/Fun: 4, Plot: 5
39. Zero Hour! (1957)
Passengers and both pilots come down with food poisoning and its up to passenger, and emotionally scared WWII vet Dana Andrews to land the plane! Some pretty awkward 1950's moments, and bad effects, but you can feel the pressure on Andrews as he tries to save his family and the rest of the people on board. If you like this one, you'll probably like "The High & The Mighty" too.
Score 12: Disaster: 4, Thrill/Fun: 4, Plot: 4
38. Everest (2015)
Kind of "The Perfect Storm" for hikers, this one tells the story of the group that went to the top of Everest and then got caught in a fast moving storm. Its a good film, but not a great disaster movie.
Score 13: Disaster: 3, Thrill/Fun: 3, Plot: 7
37. Airport (1970)
This is one of the movies that started the run of 70's disaster flicks and it certainly has its moments. The first half of the movie is tough to watch as some bad 70's filmmaking is on display with over acting, caricatures, and simplistic plot lines dominating. But once the plane is in trouble, its gets interesting.
Score 13: Disaster: 4, Thrill/Fun: 3, Plot: 6
36. Sharknado (2013)
A tornado hits and its full of sharks…. of course! It is so very dumb, with bad acting, terrible dialog, and an extremely awkward story. But it has sharks in a tornado which gets it on this list.
Score 13: Disaster: 4, Thrill/Fun: 8, Plot: 1
35. Knowing (2009)
Nick Cage deciphers a message from a time capsule and… crazy stuff is happening! That includes the end of civilization as we know it. This doesn't look like a disaster movie at the beginning, but it does a decent job of becoming one as well as having the feel of a mystery movie. It has its fun moments but is very uneven.
Score 14: Disaster: 4, Thrill/Fun: 5, Plot: 5
34. Daylight (1996)
Sylvester Stallone tries to save a group of people trapped in a Manhattan traffic tunnel that is flooding. Say what you will about Stallone, but he does carry this film. It has the feel of a boat sinking movie (like The Poseidon Adventure) somehow.
SCORE 14: Disaster: 5, Thrill 5, Plot: 4
33. Pompeii (2014)
The Mt. Vesuvius eruption dominates the storyline as slave-turned-gladitor Kit Harington tries to find his love and save her. Some great effects make it watchable, but the whole movie is a bit off and the plot doesn't hold together very well.
Score 14: Disaster: 5, Thrill/Fun: 5, Plot: 4
32. Dawn Of The Dead (1978)
This zombie classic is less about battling the zombies than what life would look like if you could live out a disaster in a mall with your friends. Like most George Romero films there's some really bad scenes and and plenty of gore, but it works for the most part.
Score 15: Disaster: 4, Thrill/Fun: 7, Plot: 4
31. War Of The Worlds (2005)
Aliens show up and start shooting up the streets of New York and New Jersey and Tom Cruise is on the run with this family. It has a few decent moments but misses on many fronts. The first half has a pretty good disaster atmosphere that changes into something else as it goes.
Score 15: Disaster: 5, Thrill/Fun: 5, Plot: 5
30. Earthquake (1974)
A star studded 70's disaster with Charlton Heston's bad acting leading the way as a series of earthquakes rocks Los Angeles. The story is pretty good and the cheesy 70's movie sets are not too bad. Kind of fun and entertaining.
Score 15: Disaster: 6, Thrill/Fun: 4, Plot: 5
29. The Tower (2012)
A South Korean film where a fire hits a super skyscraper and there are people trapped throughout the building. It has some good effects and there's pieces of the film that work well, but some characters and scenes are very over the top.
Score 15: Disaster: 6, Thrill/Fun: 4, Plot: 5
28. Into the Storm (2014)
A bit of a "Twister" spinoff where tornadoes hit a small town and all heck breaks loose. Better tornadoes than "Twister", but the rest doesn't work quite as well. It gets monotonous.
Score 15: Disaster: 7, Thrill/Fun: 5, Plot: 3
27. The Andromeda Strain (1971)
A satellite crashes to earth and a whole town dies for a mysterious reason. Its 1971 and they were really into showing the details of how technology was going to affect the future so there are many scenes dedicated to showing ridiculous technical examples. Still, its a good story and it is kind of a time capsule of tech and film from that era.
Score 16: Disaster: 4, Thrill/Fun: 5, Plot: 7
26. 28 Days Later (2002)
Walking dead Zombies full of rage kill most of the humans in London and surrounding towns in 28 days. The healthy humans left are banding together to survive. Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, and Brenden Gleeson carry the plot and make you care what happens even when things get a bit wacky. Be wary, there are quite a few ferocious deaths.
Score 16: Disaster: 4, Thrill/Fun: 5, Plot: 7
25. The Towering Inferno (1974)
Steve McQueen and Paul Newman take on a fire in a new San Francisco supertower. A fantastic cast and some good disaster work, but it is too damn long at 2 hours and 45 minutes.
Score 16: Disaster: 5, Thrill/Fun: 5, Plot: 6
24. The Omega Man (1971)
Charlton Heston is the last rational man in Los Angeles after some germ warfare agent gets loose and turns everyone into with a bunch of crazies who try to kill him every night. Its a bit dated now, but it is still cool to see Heston survive in the remnants of the city. (Remade later as I Am Legend in 2007).
Score 16: Disaster: 5, Thrill/Fun: 6, Plot: 5
23. The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
Gene Hack, Ernest Borgnine, and Shirley MacLaine try to escape a cruise ship that has been flipped upside down. Its a bit dated, but it quite an adventure. The 2006 remake is not nearly as good.
Score 16: Disaster: 5, Thrill/Fun: 5, Plot: 6
22. The Impossible (2012)
The 2004 Malaysian Tsunami hits and an American family gets caught in it. It is hard to watch at times as Naomi Watts goes through so much pain to get her and her son to safety. Its a good story and a good movie.
Score 16: Disaster: 7, Thrill/Fun: 1, Plot: 8
21. The Core (2003)
The Earth's core is slowing down and it is having disastrous effects. Aaron Eckhart, Hillary Swank, Stanley Tucci, Delroy Lindo and Bruce Greenwood head down to the core to try to start it back up again… with nuclear bombs! Its a pretty fun ride if you can get over the premise and does a good job of hitting the sweet spots of classic disaster adventures: a crazy problem, technology to help solve it, some funny and quirky people, conflict, romance, action, and… will they save the world?
Score 17: Disaster: 5, Thrill/Fun: 7, Plot: 5
20. Alive (1993)
A soccer team crashes in the Andes and has to survive in the cold mountains until help arrives. Watching the team survive the spectacular crash and how they band together to make it through is well done. Not fun, but very good.
Score 17: Disaster: 6, Thrill/Fun: 1, Plot: 10
19. Deepwater Horizon (2016)
The well documented oil rig disaster that happened off the coast of Louisiana is brought to life in this actioner. Director Peter Berg does well in establishing something interesting about the culture around working on the rigs, establishing the "bad guys" and then it all goes south. Its not great, but the fire and explosions are pretty spectacular and in the end you really feel for the people that went through it. Too formulaic, but entertaining.
Score 17: Disaster: 6, Thrill/Fun: 4, Plot: 7
18. Titanic (1997)
Leo and Kate on James Cameron's boat that you know is going to sink, but it still works somehow. The story is awkward in so many ways that it can drive you crazy, but it does a good job of making you care about the people on the boat. If you liked this you may like "A Night to Remember" from 1958 which has aged quite a bit but it does a good, but different job of covering the Titanic sinking.
Score 17: Disaster: 6, Thrill/Fun: 4, Plot: 7
17. Contagion (2011)
Director Steven Soderberg's detailed look at the start of a killer illness spreading across the world. It feels a bit too docudrama like at times so that you feel you are missing the big picture. Really good in the details, but lacks punch.
Score 17: Disaster: 6, Thrill/Fun: 3, Plot: 8
16. Dante's Peak (1997)
A volcano blows in the Pacific Northwest and geologist Pierce Brosnan is there to help! The first of the 1997 volcano movies is a smaller story than "Volcano" and it is ok, a bit fun, but it turns into a chase movie at some point and doesn't fully click. (IMDB)
Score 18: Disaster: 6, Thrill/Fun: 6, Plot: 6
15. The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)
Jimmy Stewart crash lands a plane in the desert and the passengers have to figure how to survive. Its a well made film and you can feel the desperation in the air as they wither away in the desert. There's some fun and cool pieces that make this one pretty good.
Score 19: Disaster: 5, Thrill/Fun: 5, Plot: 9
14. Gravity (2013)
Disaster… in space! Sandra Bullock and George Clooney get caught in space when a chain of events causes a whole bunch of space junk start hurtling around earth. It gets ridiculous, but it has some spectacular moments… in space!
Score 20: Disaster: 6, Thrill/Fun: 8, Plot: 6
13. World War Z (2013)
There's a zombie outbreak and U.N. Investigator Brad Pitt first has to save his family, then he has to save the world. One thing after another happens to Pitt as he travels across the globe searching for a way to beat the zombies. There are some spectacular scenes.
Score 20: Disaster: 6, Thrill/Fun: 7, Plot: 7
12. The Martian (2015)
Matt Damon is accidentally stranded on Mars has has to "science the shit out it" to survive up there while NASA comes up with plans to get him home. It is very funny, a great science story, and a very compelling plot that keeps you interested the whole way through.
Score 21: Disaster: 4, Thrill/Fun: 7, Plot: 10
11. Jurassic Park (1993)
Yes. This is a disaster movie. Zoo patrons are on the run when the animals take over the park! It is lots of fun and the dinosaurs in the present day world add to the adventure.
Score 21: Disaster: 5, Thrill/Fun: 8, Plot: 8
10. Outbreak (1995)
A sick monkey is secretly brought into the U.S. and people start dying. Its up to infectious disease experts Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo to track down a way to stop it. The mystery of tracking down the source adds to the overall disaster movie feel as lots of people walking around in virus protection suits run the show.
Score 21: Disaster: 6, Thrill/Fun: 7, Plot: 8
9. Deep Impact (1998)
An asteroid is coming and Earth has a couple of years to prepare. This is less of a fun ride and more of a fascinating story as we see how everyone deals with the looming, and happening, disaster. There's space fun too!
Score 22: Disaster: 7, Thrill/Fun: 6, Plot: 9
8. Twister (1996)
A series of Tornados hits the Midwest and a group of fun loving scientists are along for the ride. A great cast (Helen Hunt, Bill Paxton, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Cary Elwes, Jamie Gertz…) lead the way as we see how these tornados rip through towns at day and during the night.
Score 23: Disaster: 7, Thrill/Fun: 9, Plot: 6
7. San Andreas (2015)
A swarm of earthquakes along the San Andreas fault causes severe damage from Los Angeles to San Francisco. It is ridiculous but with some fantastic effects. The Rock and Carla Gugino carry the story which is good enough to not distract you from the eye popping disasters.
Score 23: Disaster: 9, Thrill/Fun: 9, Plot: 5
6. Apollo 13 (1995)
The play by play of the Apollo 13 mission that went awry is a great watch. Strong characters and a fascinating story line (which is mostly true) drive this tense, moving film. This may be the best film in the list, but it doesn't have quite enough disaster to make it to the top.
Score 24: Disaster: 6, Thrill/Fun: 8, Plot: 10
5. Volcano (1997)
Anne Heche and Tommy Lee Jones team up to try to save Los Angeles from a volcano eruption in the middle of the city. This one is quite a bit of fun as they have to get innovative to save the city. Classic Summer movie fun.
Score 24: Disaster: 7, Thrill/Fun: 9, Plot: 8
4. Armageddon (1998)
Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck lead a team of oil riggers into space to blow up an asteroid that is going to crash into Earth. An absolute guilty pleasure that damn fun and a good thriller you can root for.
Score 25: Disaster: 7, Thrill/Fun: 10, Plot: 8
3. Independence Day (1996)
The aliens show up and they mean business! Wil Smith and Bill Pullman lead the charge in a fight to the death. Lots of fun and lots of disaster including the iconic shot of the White House being blown up.
Score 25: Disaster: 8, Thrill/Fun: 9, Plot: 8
2. 2012 (2009)
This one has everything! Earthquakes, volcanoes, fires, tornados, tsunamis… it is the greatest hits of disaster movies! The funnest of the disaster movies keeps getting crazier as it goes while John Cusack tries to save his family in an around the world trip.
Score 26: Disaster: 10, Thrill 10, Plot: 6
1. The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
Climate change hits all at once: Blizzards, epic article blasts (polar vortexes), and ice everywhere. Jake Gyllenhall and Denis Quaid are a father and son who's story carries much of the plot as Quaid has to hike from Washington, D.C. to New York City to save his son at the New York Public Library. It may not sound like it, but it is a pretty good movie and a great disaster movie worthy of the top spot.
SCORE 27: Disaster: 9, Thrill 10, Plot: 8
Some Surprising Learnings From The List
The Golden Age of Disaster Movies Is The Late 1990's
The 1970's often are referred to as the golden age of disaster movies, but make no mistake about it, the late 1990's rocked! With 7 of the top 10 and 9 out of the top 20, the four year period of 1995-1998 dominates the list.
Roland Emmerich Is The Greatest Disaster Movie Director Of All Time
Emmerich directed the top 3 pictures on the list (The Day After Tomorrow, 2012, and Independence Day). I never would have guessed that.
The Mid 2010's Are On A Good Run
With 4 of the top 15 movies on the list (San Andreas, The Martian, World War Z, and Gravity) coming out in 20013 through 2015, we have seen some great special effects propel some stories to new levels.
Movies That Did Not Make The Cut
There were two ways a movie did not make the list:
- It was not a disaster movie.
- It was not a good disaster movie.
1. It Was Not A Disaster Movie
Determining what is a disaster movie and what is not was a bit tricky, so I came up with a few rules to define what a disaster movie is for the sake of this list:
- There has to be a major incident(s), or the threat of an incident(s), that drives the movie.
- The story is mostly about people preparing for, going through, or surviving the aftermath of the disaster.
- If the movie meets those first two points, it is considered a disaster movie for this list with these exceptions:
- Zombie movies are only included if they are more about the adventure of surviving (World War Z) and less about the killing or horror of the zombies (Night of the Living Dead).
- Hostage and terrorist situations are not disaster movies. So no Die Hard, Under Siege, White House Down, Black Sunday, Juggernaut…
- No monster movies (Godzilla), no sequels (Airport 75), no remakes (Dawn of the Dead, Flight of the Phoenix, Poseidon), no horror movies (The Thing, The Blob…), no earth based war movies (The Day After, Testament), no post-apocalyptic stories (Book of Eli, Waterworld, Reign of Fire…)
- No movies that are about something else but take place during a disaster (Key Largo, Hard Rain).
- No movies that are comedies first (Airplane, Night of the Comet, This is the End).
2. It Was Not A Good Disaster Movie
There's many, many disaster movies that were eligible, but didn't grade high enough to make the list. If you are a real fan of the genre, you may want to check them out. They include:
- The 33 (2015) – The story of the Chilean miners trapped over 2,000 feet under ground for more than 2 months is a decent film but not quite good enough to make this list.
- All Is Lost (2014) – Robert Redford is sailing on his own and runs into some problems after a collision with some cargo ship debris. He suffers one problem after another and must fight tooth and nail for his survival. It is a well made film, but it certainly is not a fun filled adventure.
- As The Light Goes Out (2014): A group of Chinese firefighters is caught in a building blowing up because of gas leaks and other problems. A strangely operatic feel to it, but it drags on for quite a while with lots of grunting.
- Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain (2014): A look at the Union Carbide Cyanide disaster in India that injured over 500,000 people and killed up to 16,000 is a sad story with some awkward production values at times.
- The Cassandra Crossing (1976) – A plague gets on a train and the passengers are in danger on all fronts. Slow moving, but it has Richard Harris and Bert Lancaster.
- The China Syndrome (1979) – A good story but its a big short on the disaster to make the list.
- Crack in the World (1965) – A ludicrous movie about a scientist that is dropping nukes underground to break through to the earth's core. Really bad.
- The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) – Nuke testing causes the Earth to tilt and that leads to rapidly rising temperatures which is a diasaster. A 1960's British movie with bad sets and bad acting.
- Doomsday (2008) – Much more of an action thriller than a disaster movie about some folks trying to save the Scotland from a killer virus.
- Flood (2007) – A series of weather events leads to the English coast to be hit with a flood.
- The High and the Mighty (1954) – John Wayne and Robert Stack pilot a passenger plane that runs into trouble over the Pacific. Not too bad. If you like Airport, you'll want to see this.
- The Hindenburg (1975) – A fictional tale of what may have brought the Hindenburg down. A great cast including George C. Scott, Anne Bancroft, and Burgess Meredith can't quite carry this one enough.
- The Hurricane (1937) – For the 1930's this was a great special effects movie. Today, its a very dated, very slow look at a huge hurricane hitting an island in the South Seas.
- In Old Chicago (1937) – A look at the Great Chicago Fire 1871 is laborious to watch in the lead up to the fire, but then all heck breaks loose as the fire consumes the city. A hugely expensive film at the time that has not aged well.
- Japan Sinks (2006) – The Teutonic plates are shifting which will cause Japan to sink into the ocean. It could have been good, there's lots of disaster, but the plot is very confusing and the disasters are in the background for the most part.
- Meteor (1979) – The U.S. and Russia team up to blowup a meteor that is going to hit Earth with nukes. Bad acting and everything else.
- A Night to Remember (1958) – A decent telling of the sinking of the Titanic.
- Noah (2014) – The story of Noah's Ark weathering the great flood. Its long and bad.
- No Highway in the Sky (1951) – Scientist James Stewart has determined that a certain plane design is dangerous and the tail could fall off once it is in the air for a certain number of hours. He risks quite a bit to prove his point. Interesting movie, but more about preventing a disaster than a disaster.
- San Francisco (1936) – Clark Gable is in 1906 San Francisco when a big earthquake hits. The disaster happens very late in the film and the story leading up to it is painful to sit through. Blowing up the houses was pretty cool though!
- Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) – The Van Allen Radiation Belt catches on fire and the temperature on Earth soars to over 130 degrees. A lone wolf submarine admiral disobeys orders and uses nukes to try and fix the issue.
- The Wave (2015) – A Norwegian film of a small coastal town that get hits with a Tsunami after a fjord collapses. It would have been pretty good if the characters weren't so stupid.
- When Time Ran Out (1980) – Paul Newman is on an island where a volcano erupts and the lava is after them. Damn bad at times.
- When Worlds Collide (1951) – This had some real potential, but it missed some opportunities and had some really bad sets. Its the story of a group of people who are preparing to leave the planet because a star is about to collide with Earth. Its just too cheesy. They should remake this one. With today's effects it could be much, much better.