The disaster movie is a film spectacle that is set around some type of natural or man-made disaster. Popular disasters that feature in these films include earthquakes, volcanoes, planes in the process of crashing, ships sinking, tall buildings on fire or asteroids and meteors about to strike the Earth.
The disaster movie adheres to a formula that is dependent on two elements – the spectacular fascination with mass destruction as cities and the resident venue of the show is destroyed; and the drama as a diverse crosscut of characters are thrown together in the midst of this and struggle to survive and make it to safety or else affect the rescue of those who are trapped.
The original disaster movies became very dependent on large star casts to sell them, bringing many A-list names of the day together under one roof. By contrast, tv movies and modern disaster movies made for cable tend to feature B-list former stars looking for a paycheque.
The topic Disaster Movies should be differentiated from the topic Catastrophe Films. While both genres frequently overlap, the Disaster Movie is a recognisable form of melodrama with a formulaic plot that sets up a clearcut heroic battle against the resident catastrophe and almost always reaches a resolution or rescue for the survivors. By contrast, the catastrophe film is merely about events that cause mass social disruption. Alien invasion films and many monster movies involve catastrophes but, with some exceptions, cannot be said to be necessarily said to engage with the Disaster Movie’s formulaic requirements. Not all catastrophe films are focused around the depiction mass destruction.
For films focused around providing colossal special effects set-pieces involving the destruction of cities and buildings see Mass Destruction Spectaculars.
The Original 1970s Disaster Movie Fad
The disaster movie began as a genre in the 1970s. A number of films have retrospectively been cited as antecedents such as the air disasters The High and the Mighty (1954) and Zero Hour (1957), the Titanic film A Night to Remember (1958) and the volcano film Krakatoa, East of Java (1968).
One of the earliest antecedent examples within genre material was Deluge (1933) where the USA is swept by a massive flood. Another example would be When Worlds Collide (1951) where the Earth experiences devastating effects caused by two planets coming into orbit. The original The War of the Worlds (1953) can certainly be counted as a disaster movie. If one really wanted to stretch definitions, the puppet films Thunderbirds Are Go (1966) and Thunderbird 6 (1968) feature hi-tech rescues of respectively a returned space expedition and an airship impaled on an airport tower.
The first disaster film was Airport (1970), concerning the attempts to land a plane with a bomber on board during the midst of a snowstorm. This became the second-highest grossing film of its year. The success led to a series of sequels with Airport 1975 (1974), Airport 77 (1977) and Airport 79: The Concorde (1979), all of which enjoyed similar success.
The two even bigger hits that essentially launched the disaster movie fad were Irwin Allen’s duo of films The Poseidon Adventure (1972) with an all-star cast struggling to get to safety in an cruise liner that had been overturned by a tidal wave and The Towering Inferno (1974) with an all-star cast trapped in a burning skyscraper.
A host of other films jumped aboard the disaster movie fad including the likes of Juggernaut (1974) about a bomber aboard a luxury liner, The Hindenburg (1975), Avalanche (1978), City on Fire (1979), the submarine drama Grey Lady Down (1978) and Hurricane (1979).
The undisputed king of the disaster movie during this period was director/producer Irwin Allen who made The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979), The Day the World Ended/When Time Ran Out (1980) and one genre entry with the widely ridiculed bee attack film The Swarm (1978).
The original disaster movie fad featured sporadic genre examples including Earthquake (1974) in which Los Angeles is devastated by a massive earthquake; the Japanese The Submergence of Japan (1974), recut for the US as Tidal Wave (1975); The Cassandra Crossing (1976) about a plague-infected train; Rollercoaster (1977), a psycho film about a mad bomber blowing up rollercoaster rides that was sold as a disaster movie; and Meteor (1979) about a meteor on an impending collision course with the Earth.
In the midst of this, there were also lesser-budgeted tv movie copies with the likes of Heatwave! (1974), The Day the Earth Moved (1974), Flood! (1976), Fire! (1977) and S.O.S. Titanic (1979). Genre examples amid these include the comet collision film A Fire in the Sky (1978) and the theatrically released Starflight One (1983) about a plane that becomes trapped in orbit.
The original disaster movie fad died away around 1980 with the box-office flops of budgetarily over-inflated films like Meteor and Irwin Allen’s The Swarm and The Day The World Ended.
The CGI Disaster Movie
The original disaster movie fad had died away by 1980. It was revived in late 1990s following the advent of the CGI effects revolution in a trend that continues to this day. This saw many themes revisited but with the addition of even more spectacular effects sequences. The biggest success among these was James Cameron’s Titanic (1997), which could be considered a disaster movie with elevated ambitions, and became the biggest box-office success of all time.
Genre examples of this period include Twister (1996) about tornado chasers; Volcano (1997) in which Los Angeles is engulfed by a volcanic eruption; the asteroid collision films Deep Impact (1998) and Judgment Day (1999), plus some parts of Armageddon (1998), which is primarily an action film; The Core (2003) about efforts to reboot the Earth’s magnetic core; Steven Spielberg’s remake of War of the Worlds (2005); a remake of The Submergence of Japan with Sinking of Japan (2006); San Andreas (2015) with California struck by a massive earthquake; and Greenland (2020) where Earth faces an extinction-level impact from a comet..
There were also a host of non-genre entries including the volcano film Dante’s Peak (1997), Hard Rain (1998), a remake of The Poseidon Adventure with Poseidon (2006), Into the Storm (2014), Pompeii (2014) and Skyscraper (2018).
The undisputed king of the CGI disaster movie was Roland Emmerich who made such films as Independence Day (1996), which is essentially an alien invasion film conducted as a disaster movie, and sequel Independence Day: Resurgence (2016); The Day After Tomorrow (2004) about the onset of a new Ice Age; and 2012 (2009) about the end of the world according to the Mayan Apocalypse. Emmerich’s co-writer Dean Devlin directed Geostorm (2017) featuring multiple disasters as a result of amok weather.
The Low-Budget CGI Disaster Movie
From the late 1990s, the disaster movie moved towards tv movies and video-releases such as Without Warning (1994), Asteroid (1997), Doomsday Rock (1997), Airspeed (1998), Ice (1998), Tycus (1998), Aftershock: Earthquake in New York (1999), Atomic Train (1999), Atomic Twister (2002), Descent (2005) and tv mini-series such as Category 6: Day of Destruction (2004) and sequel Category 7: The End of the World (2005), 10.5 (2004) and its sequel 10.5 Apocalypse (2005), Supernova (2005), Flood (2007), Impact (2008), Meteor (2009), Delete (2013) and Eve of Destruction (2013).
Today the province of the disaster movie is usually the province of the low-budget Syfy Channel film (and other cable networks). Examples include Path of Destruction (2005), The Black Hole (2006), Deadly Skies (2006), Magma Volcanic Disaster (2006), Meltdown: Days of Destruction (2006), Solar Strike (2006), Nuclear Hurricane (2007), 2012: Doomsday (2007), NYC: Tornado Terror (2008), Lava Storm (2008), Annihilation Earth (2009), Ice Twisters (2009), Megafault (2009), Polar Storm (2009), Arctic Blast (2010), Ice Quake (2010), Meteor Apocalypse (2010), Meteor Storm (2010), Quantum Apocalypse (2010), Stonehenge Apocalypse (2010), Behemoth (2011), Collision Earth (2011), Doomsday Prophecy (2011), Earth’s Final Hours (2011), Ghost Storm (2011), Mega Cyclone (2011), Metal Tornado (2011), Seeds of Destruction (2011), Miami Magma (2011), Storm War (2011), Super Eruption (2011), Super Tanker (2011), 2012 Ice Age (2011), Alien Tornado (2012), 500 MPH Storm (2012), Seattle Super Storm (2012), 100° Below 0 (2012), Jet Stream (2013), Stonados (2013), Super Collider (2013), Asteroid vs Earth (2014), Christmas Icetastrophe (2014), Crystal Skulls (2014), Firequake (2014), LA Apocalypse (2014), 10.0 Earthquake (2014), Zodiac: Signs of the Apocalypse (2014), Impact Earth (2015), Meteor Assault (2015), San Andreas Quake (2015), Stormageddon (2015), Geo-Disaster (2017), Global Meltdown (2017), Oceans Rising (2017), Airliner Sky Battle (2020), Apocalypse of Ice (2020), Asteroid-a-Geddon (2020), Collision Earth (2020) and Meteor Moon (2020).
These have become numerous and turned to some increasingly more fanciful science-fiction scenarios in a search for novelty. These films have developed their own tropes, particularly of the scientist with the untested or discredited theory who goes out on a limb and is proven right, as well as the last minute countdown to launch said theory before (usually) a mad or reckless military commander launches their own solution that will have devastating consequences.
Common in the Syfy Channel disaster movies have been themes involving global warming and new onset Ice Age scenarios. With the sheer proliferation of product among these low-budget disaster films, most of the regular possibilities for disasters – earthquakes, volcanoes, meteors, Global Warming and so on – were soon exhausted. Thus the films have been turning to more exotic forms of weather and scientific phenomena – black holes, white holes, wormholes, dark matter, cold fronts from the mesosphere, freak onset Ice Ages and the like. (The science justifying most of these scenarios is often fairly dubious).
And then there have been attempts to combine menaces – such as Firequake, Stonados and the wilfully ridiculous Sharknado (2013) and sequels featuring a tornado of killer sharks. Some of the scenarios these have devised have been getting fairly bizarre – a storm of dead souls in Ghost Storm, giant plants left over from the Garden of Eden in Seeds of Destruction, a tornado of alien origin in Alien Tornado and the winner of them all – a revived Ouroborous creature in Behemoth.
There is an entire sub-genre of these weird hybrid menaces devoted to various creatures loose aboard planes and trains. The first of these was the psycho on a plane film Turbulence (1997), which led to two increasingly ridiculous sequels. Others to follow include Tail Sting (2002) with mutant scorpions on a plane; the high-profile Snakes on a Plane (2006), followed by the mockbuster Snakes on a Train (2006); Swarm (2007) with ants on a plane; Silent Venom (2009) with snakes on a submarine; Howl (2015) with a werewolf on a train; and Lost in the Pacific (2016) with mutant cats on a plane. There were also several films about zombies on a plane with Flight of the Living Dead: Outbreak on a Plane (2007) and Quarantine 2: Terminal (2011), while the hit South Korean Train to Busan (2016) transferred the zombie film aboard a train. That said, many of these stretch the definition of being a disaster movie and are more focused on the resident creatures amok rather than mass destruction and are thus monster movies as opposed to disaster movies.
The disaster movie was quickly parodied. The first of these was The Big Bus (1976) featuring an atomically-powered luxury bus gone amok. The most successful of the parodies of the original disaster movie fad was Airplane/Flying High (1980). This was a non-genre film but had a sequel with Airplane II: The Sequel/Flying High II: The Sequel (1982), which is set aboard a space shuttle.
In the modern era, we have also seen the amusing Snakes on a Plane (2006), which came about as a result of scriptwriters attempting to come up with the most ridiculous title they could conceive. Sharknado (2013) started as a tongue-in-cheek Syfy Channel disaster movie but the five sequels quickly abandoned any shred of realism and played for the deliberately ridiculous.
Disaster Movie (2008) is a film parody but, surprisingly enough, contains no spoofs of the disaster movie and its conventions.
- When Worlds Collide (1951)
- The War of the Worlds (1953)
- A Fire in the Sky (1978)
- Twister (1996)
- The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
- War of the Worlds (2005)
- Snakes on a Plane (2006)
- 2012 (2009)
- Sharknado (2013)
A full list of titles can be found here Disaster Movie Archives