Disaster Movie

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

Films whose plots revolve around something huge, horrible, and natural heading towards the protagonists, and their reactions to it.

About half have the main characters trying to stop the disaster somehow, while the other half have them simply trying to survive. In both varieties, viewers are introduced to large casts that exist solely to be killed off in various ways by the disaster and its side effects. Meteors, tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanoes, and catastrophic climate change are among the popular subjects. People who watch these movies are typically Just Here for Godzilla.

The genre became incredibly popular in The Seventies, with Irwin Allen became (in)famous for making a number of these movies. Eventually, like all trends in Hollywood, it burned itself out, finally being killed when Airplane! tore into the genre. Modern special effects helped revive the disaster movie in The Nineties, until certain events made scenes of cataclysmic destruction rather insensitive. This aversion swiftly passed.

Alien Invasion and especially Kaiju movies tend to be very similar in tone to disaster movies, with their focus on destruction.

Not to be confused with the Seltzer and Friedberg movie of the same name, although that was technically a disaster movie, being that is was the only film they made that bombed in theaters.

Common tropes found in this genre include:

Examples of Disaster Movie include:
  • Deluge (1933): One of the Ur Examples, making this trope Older Than They Think. Most of the film was thought to be lost, save for a scene of New York getting destroyed by earthquakes and tidal waves. In the late 1980s, however, a complete print dubbed in Italian was discovered in a film archive. One scene, showing the Statue of Liberty getting hit by a tidal wave, would be copied over seventy years later by Deep Impact and The Day After Tomorrow.
  • San Francisco (1936): Another early example, decipting the historical 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. Stars Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald and Spencer Tracy.
  • The High and the Mighty (1954): An Unbuilt Trope example of the genre. Starred John Wayne, who was also co-producer. Its plot, about a plane that suffers engine failure on a flight from Honolulu to San Francisco, would later be copied by Airport.
  • A Night to Remember (1958): An accurate portrayal of the doomed RMS Titanic; arguably the Trope Codifier and served as the inspiration for James Cameron's Titanic.
  • The Last Voyage (1960)
  • Airport (1970): The Trope Codifier. Started the first boom of disaster films in the '70s. Starred Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, George Kennedy and Jacqueline Bisset. Had three sequels, each one progressively worse (but still successful... at least, until the fourth one finally killed the series).
  • The Poseidon Adventure (1972): An ocean liner is capsized by a giant wave. The first of Irwin Allen's disaster movies. Starred Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters, and Leslie Nielsen in an early[1] role. Had a bad sequel in 1979, and was remade in 2006.
  • Nihon Chinbotsu (Japan Sinks) (1973): Arguably the most successful Japanese disaster film ever, it was followed up by a highly subpar remake in 2006. See below for its plot.
  • The Towering Inferno (1974): The world's tallest skyscraper is built in San Francisco, but on the day of its dedication, it catches fire, trapping partygoers on the top floors. The second of Irwin Allen's disaster movies, and often considered to be one of the best. Starred Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, and Faye Dunaway.
  • Earthquake (1974): An earthquake destroys Los Angeles. Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, and Lorne Greene try to survive. This was the first of a handful of '70s films to use Sensurround, a special surround sound system with a powerful bass line. When the city started to rumble, crumble, and tumble, the bass kicked in to literally shake up audiences.
  • The Last Days Of Planet Earth (1974): Japanese movie. Earth goes through a disaster gauntlet, ranging from mutant slugs to city-engulfing fire-storms, to the sky filling with green shit. Notable for depicting Nostradamus as Japanese. Not kidding.
  • The Hindenburg (1975): Why did this Real Life disaster happen? The fictional story chronicles the possibility that it was sabotage. A rare case of a Disaster Movie that holds off on the actual disaster until the finale.
  • The Cassandra Crossing (1976): A terrorist infected with plague is on a train, so the authorities send it in the directon of a bridge too weak to support it. Can the passengers who don't succumb to the illness save themselves?
  • The Swarm (1978): In another Irwin Allen effort, killer bees attack Texas. Yeah. It was around this point that the genre began dying out.
  • Avalanche (1978): Exactly What It Says on the Tin.
  • Meteor (1979): A bunch of nukes built by Sean Connery and Brian Keith versus a giant asteroid. Not as cool as it sounds, sadly.
  • Hurricane (1979): A remake of a 1937 John Ford film tells a tropical tale of young lovers whose romance is threatened first by the girl's father, then by the titular storm.
  • When Time Ran Out (1980): A volcano in the South Pacific threatens a resort, an oil rig, and a volcano observatory. The final nail in the coffin for the first cycle of disaster films, and Irwin Allen's final theatrically-released film. Even the cast (which included Paul Newman, Jacqueline Bisset, and William Holden) hated it.
  • Airplane! (1980): The Parody of the disaster genre. So effective, it made it nearly impossible for disaster movies to be taken seriously for another thirteen years.
    • The ZAZ team is also responsible for an earlier and much more brief parody of the Disaster genre with "That's Armageddon!", a segment of The Kentucky Fried Movie.
  • The Day After (1983): A very different sort of disaster movie, which is the reason it was able to escape Airplane!'s shadow. It was a TV movie about nuclear war between the USA and the USSR. It, along with its British equivalent, was effective enough at showing the result of a nuclear war that it is widely credited (by, among other people, Ronald Reagan) for inspiring the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987.
  • Threads
  • Twister (1996): Tornadoes in Oklahoma. Helped to revive interest in disaster films, with help from...
  • Independence Day (1996): Aliens blow up the White House, among other things. This film turned Will Smith into a superstar.
  • Mars Attacks!! (1996): A parody of '50s Alien Invasion films, which overlapped into the disaster genre. Directed by Tim Burton, and starred Jack Nicholson, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan, and Sarah Jessica Parker, with early roles by Jack Black and Natalie Portman. Had the misfortune of arriving a few months after Independence Day, and barely made back its budget.
  • Dante's Peak (1997): A volcano erupts in the Pacific Northwest. Surprisingly for a disaster flick, it was notable for its relative scientific accuracy. Starred Pierce Brosnan and Linda Hamilton. Dueled with...
  • Volcano (1997): A volcano erupts in Los Angeles. Not so notable for scientific accuracy. Starred Tommy Lee Jones.
  • Daylight (1997): The Holland Tunnel floods following an explosion, and Sylvester Stallone goes in to save the people trapped.
  • Titanic (1997): What happens when you combine a disaster movie with a Chick Flick. The latest in a long line of films about the Titanic disaster.
  • Armageddon (1998): An asteroid the size of Texas is headed for Earth, and our only hope is Bruce Willis and his team of deep core oil drillers. Makes Volcano look like a scientific documentary. Directed by Michael Bay. Dueled with...
  • Deep Impact (1998), the comparative Dante's Peak of this particular duel.
  • Earthquake In New York (1998): A two-part TV movie about a major quake in a place no one expects.
  • The Core (2003): Earth's core stops rotating thanks to a top-secret military project Gone Horribly Wrong, eliminating Earth's magnetic field and causing it to get hit by solar storms. Aaron Eckhart and Hilary Swank go down into Earth's interior to restart the core with nuclear bombs. Makes Armageddon look like Volcano. Or something.
  • 10.5 (2004): An NBC Miniseries about massive earthquakes destroying the West Coast. Its 2006 sequel, 10.5 Apocalypse, had a massive fault line opening up in the Midwest and splitting North America in half.
  • The Day After Tomorrow (2004): Hollywood Global Warming destroys the world. Starred Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal.
  • Category 6: Day of Destruction (2004): Another Miniseries, this one from CBS and starring Randy Quaid and Brian Dennehy. A massive storm (which is, for some reason, referred to as a hurricane) develops over Chicago and destroys it. Its release just six months after The Day After Tomorrow must be a coincidence.
    • Category 7: The End of the World (2005): The sequel to the above. The storm from the original moves east and destroys New York and Washington, while similar storms destroy Paris and Egypt. Meanwhile, a televangelist and his wife exploit the storms to gain new converts. Starred Gina Gershon as the head of FEMA, as well as Shannen Doherty, James Brolin, and a returning Randy Quaid.
  • Nihon Chinbotsu (Japan Sinks) (2006): Exactly What It Says on the Tin. A remake of the highest grossing disaster film Japan ever produced, it flopped compared to the 1973 original. Earthquakes and volcanoes destroy Japan and cause it to sink into the ocean. A Japanese production, it was notable for actually exploring the consequences of such a disaster with more than just passing reference.
  • Snakes on a Plane (2006): An Affectionate Parody of Airport and its ilk. Was subject to Memetic Mutation even before its release, thanks to the fact that it starred Samuel L. Jackson.
  • Disaster Movie (2008): A Shallow Parody of...erm, movies with cool-looking trailers? Despite its name, it had almost nothing to do with disaster films. Then again, what more would you expect from Seltzer and Friedberg?
  • 2012 (2009): The Mayan prophecies of The End of the World as We Know It start coming true. Lots of stuff blows up. An aircraft carrier crushes the White House and St. Peter's dome imitates a bowling ball.
  • Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 (2009): A disaster Anime. Pretty much Exactly What It Says on the Tin: a story about an 8.0 earthquake in Tokyo, though with a surprising focus on human drama and emergency procedures rather than spectacle. Harsher in Hindsight after 2011.
  • Many Syfy Original Movies tend to be disaster flicks. Why they go for the genre with such a meager special effects budget is unknown, but it may have to do with Canadian and German tax credits.
    • The major networks often did this in the 1970's and '80's, but with better budgets and stars. Mystery Science Theater 3000 did a few of these in their time as a local access show, including SST: Death Flight and Superdome.
  1. not that early -- Nielsen starred in Forbidden Planet way back in 1956