The 15 Best Disaster Movies Of All Time

What constitutes as "disaster?" In Hollywood, it usually refers to investing millions of dollars into a production that fails to turn a profit. (We’re looking at you, The Lone Ranger.) On screen, however, disaster movies tend to give audiences the chance to huddle together in dark theaters and watch two hours of wonton destruction, all in service of an edge-of-your-seat blockbuster meant to inspire, educate and terrify… even as it entertains.

Gareth Edwards aspires to "Disaster Movie" status with his reimagining of Godzilla, posing a radioactive threat to our planet (personified by two MUTO creatures) and then hoping the iconic character of Godzilla will emerge from the seas to save us all. But in the comments section below Kristy’s review – where she called Godzilla "the best disaster movie since Independence Day" – we had a disturbing number of comments questioning the quality of Roland Emmerich’s ID4.

Could it be that we’ve forgotten how great disaster movies used to be? Because for a while, they were to Hollywood what superhero movies are at the moment: the red-hot genre that lured the best actors, directors and below-the-line talents in the industry. We polled the Cinema Blend staff and came up with a list of what we believe are the 15 best disaster movies of all time. Come home from Godzilla, rent a few of these, and keep the carnage festival flowing.


Gojira (1954)

Director: Ishiro Honda

Cast: Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi,Akihiko Hirata, and Takashi Shimura

The Disaster: The King of the Monsters attacks!

Why We Chose It:

Most modern disaster movies are excuses for audiences to cheer loudly at massive chaos and calamity on the big screen, but that was not what was going through director Ishiro Honda’s mind when making the original Gojira back in 1954. The film doesn’t feature "fun" destruction because it is actually entirely a metaphor for the horrific atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. And it remains just as effective today as it was 60 years ago.

While the scenes of Gojira tearing through Toyko may come across as silly to younger viewers (the consequences of using a guy in a big rubber suit), the film actually stands up as a great piece of historical art, excellently capturing the post-nuclear disaster atmosphere in Japan of the time while also asking big questions about whether the ends can really justify the means when it comes to the atom bomb. It’s not just a great film, but a massively influential one as well. Not only did it eventually spawn a number of not-as-serious sequels, Gojira was also one of the earliest kaiju movies and played a massive part in the creation of the genre.

Apollo 13

Apollo 13 (1995)

Director: Ron Howard

Cast: Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, Gary Sinise, and Ed Harris

The Disaster: Houston, we have a serious space shuttle malfunction here!

Why We Chose It:

In April of 1970, astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise were assigned by NASA to board the Apollo 13 space ship on a mission to the moon. While things went fine on takeoff, an on-board oxygen tank explosion two days later severely damaged the shuttle, causing the moon mission to be aborted and for Lovell, Swigert and Haise to begin desperately searching to find some way that they could get back to Earth. The story made headlines as it was unfolding in the real world, but perhaps the greatest telling of the story is featured in Ron Howard’s 1995 Oscar-winning film.

While perhaps not as large-scale as some of the other titles on this list, Apollo 13 qualifies as a disaster movie because its plot hinges on a devastating accident, but it’s on this list because it is simply one of the best examples of the genre we’ve ever seen. The movie certainly gets a few bonus emotional points for being based on a true story, but above all it’s a tight, exciting thriller with some truly excellent performances from a terrific ensemble cast and beautiful construction. It may not feature the destruction of any cities or feature giant monsters, aliens or asteroids, but it’s a disaster film that proves that all that stuff is good emotional storytelling.


Twister (1996)

Director: Jan de Bont

Cast: Helen Hunt, Bill Paxton. Cary Elwes, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jami Gertz

The Disaster: Escalating tornadoes attack the Plains!

Why We Chose It:

The mid- to late-90s were far more upbeat than today’s dour times, as can be seen through the selections on this list that reflect cinema’s overall mood. Twister and its various counterparts staged devastating natural disasters as forms of entertainment. We didn’t really think that a volcano was going to rise up in the center of downtown Los Angeles, but the magic of special effects – and the advancements in the various technical films – let directors like Jan de Bont explore tragic situations for roller-coaster-type thrills.

Twister is absurdly extreme (as personified by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s "cranked to 11" character, Dusty). It plunges storm trackers into the eyes of escalating tornadoes, and excites audiences by taking them along for the ride – with a thumping Van Halen soundtrack to match the visual thrills. Is it a good movie? That’s debatable. You can have more fun mocking it with a group of friends than if you tried to sit down and take it seriously. But the natural disaster whipped up by De Bont was undeniably impressive in 1996, which is why Twister makes the list.

Mars Attacks!

Mars Attacks! (1996)

Director: Tim Burton

Cast: Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan, Danny DeVito, Martin Short, Sarah Jessica Paker, Michael J. Fox, Tim Jones, Rod Stieger, Jim Brown, Natalie Portman

The Disaster: Mars attacks!

Why We Chose It:

While there are plenty of fun and funny disaster movies out there, director Tim Burton took it to a whole other level in 1996 when he made Mars Attacks!. A tribute to the classic science-fiction films of the 1950s, the film brings together an absolutely outstanding ensemble cast and a collection of strange, sadistic aliens to create an amazingly chaotic, weird comedy that is never short on utterly bizarre death and demolition.

The movie certainly earns status as a great disaster movie through its destruction, laying waste the recognizable monuments around the world, but what really makes Mars Attacks! great is simply its unhinged silliness, featuring wild looking extraterrestrials who seem to love nothing more than to fuck with the human race in the worst ways. If you really want to add some extra fun to your next screening, do yourself a favor and go into your TV settings and turn the color all the way down and the contrast all the way up. While the coloration of the film normally is great (love the red and green skeletons), monochrome only heightens the movie’s 50s feel and makes it even better. Trust me, and thank me later.


Independence Day (1996)

Director: Roland Emmerich

Cast: Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum and Randy Quaid.

The Disaster: Massive alien spacecrafts appear all around the globe, then systematically destroys major cities in a bid for world domination.

Why We Chose It:

Independence Day was not just a huge blockbuster, it was a game changer. Pulling in $817 million worldwide, this was the highest grossing movie of 1996. Today it is still the second highest grossing disaster movies ever made, following behind the behemoth that was Titanic. Independence Day's special effects were cutting edge, and ignited audience enthusiasm, pushing studios to up their game in summer movie spectacle. Plus, this was the unadulterated summer hit that launched Will Smith to mega-stardom.

Today, Smith's star is a bit sullied, and the VFX may not look as out of this world as it did 18 years ago. But for its grand-scale tale of disaster and global coming-together, Independence Day has earned a reputation as a rousing crowd-pleaser, as well as one of the best Summer Movies ever made, according to a 2010 Entertainment Weekly poll. It gave us jaw-dropping action sequences, loveable (albeit stereotypical) characters, and one of the most inspiring speeches cinema has ever known. Sure, it has its flaws. You don't have to like it, but to pretend it's not a classic is downright absurd.


Titanic (1997)

Director: James Cameron

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane

The Disaster: A boat runs into an iceberg!

Why We Chose It:

Titanic was such an overwhelming sensation, both with critics and fans, that it became cool for people to act like they’re above it. Between its love story that occasionally borders on melodramatic, its questionable usage of music and its kind of infuriating ending, there’s a lot to point at and feel superior to. But the truth is, despite all of those complaints, Titanic is still kind of awesome. It’s a filmmaking masterstroke, a gigantic production that should feel bloated but instead feels warm and enclosed.

The key to Titanic is the way Cameron was able to balance all of the set-up with the actual destruction of the boat. The film spends just enough tell letting us get to know the passengers and the boat itself before running into the iceberg. That prevents the majority of viewers from getting bored, while also giving everyone a reason to be genuinely sad when familiar faces start losing their lives.

Deep Impact

Deep Impact (1998)

Director: Mimi Leder

Cast: Robert Duvall, Tea Leoni, Elijah Wood, Morgan Freeman

The Disaster: Giant comet headed toward Earth.

Why We Chose It:

Releasing in close proximity to Armageddon, Mimi Leder's Deep Impact seemed like the smaller of the two films back in 1998, with its emphasis on the character stories and the fact that it saved most of its "disaster" for the end. Armageddon left a bigger impression at the time, but not necessarily the better one in retrospect. (It's debatable, at the very least.) As a disaster film, Deep Impact splits its focus between a kid who discovers a comet headed straight toward Earth, a reporter who begins to uncover the government's plans to preserve some of mankind in the face of a global disaster, and the astronauts who attempt to blast the comet apart before it arrives in our atmosphere. The family situations of the lead characters come into play throughout the film, adding another human layer to this story about the days and months leading up to what could be a world-ending event.

Chaos and destruction in the face of the approaching apocalypse isn't the focus of this film, which may be why Deep Impact slipped into the shadow of the bigger, flashier Armageddon when they released. But Deep Impact's emphasis on human stories and mankind's efforts to prepare for the comet allow this movie to hold up well in the years since it released, maintaining the emotional impact of the film more than a decade later. And of course, there is the suspenseful final act to consider, as last-minute plans to save mankind and the comet's eventual arrival deliver an exciting and memorable conclusion.


Armageddon (1998)

Director: Michael Bay

Cast: Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Billy Bob Thornton, Liv Tyler, Steve Buscemi, William Fichtner, Owen Wilson, Michael Clarke Duncan and Peter Stormare

The Disaster: An asteroid the size of Texas is hurtling towards Earth!

Why We Chose It:

Director Michael Bay has spent years as one of the top –dog blockbuster filmmakers in Hollywood, making nine films that have made more than $100 million worldwide, are Armageddon is perhaps the best example of why he is so popular. On a plot level, the entire movie doesn’t really make any sense, as it would be a hell of a lot easier to teach NASA scientists how to use oil drill equipment than it would be to teach oil drillers how to function in space, but that ultimately doesn’t really matter because the audience is too damn distracted by all the beautiful celebrities, wanton destruction and silly side characters that Bay loves so much. And as long as you’re willing to switch you’re brain off for 151 minutes, it’s a pretty damn fun ride.

Since 1998, Bay has only stepped further into disaster movie game, with movies like the Transformers and (yikes) Pearl Harbor, but Armageddon is certainly his best film for sheer destruction. In addition to having all kinds of chaos happen in space with various members of the team getting picked off one by one, the film also always makes sure to bring things back home where we can see asteroid fragments come crashing to Earth. Armageddon is certainly not the smartest title on this list, but it definitely earns its position.

Piranha 3D

Piranha 3D (2010)

Director: Alexandre Aja

Cast: Elisabeth Shue, Jerry O’Connell, Ving Rhames, Adam Scott, Christopher Lloyd

The Disaster: Piranhas invade a lake during Spring Break.

Why We Chose It:

Wait, Piranha 3D? Yes, Piranha 3D. The whole point of a movie is to accomplish its most basic goal. If it wants to be scary, it needs to be scary. If it wants to be touching, it needs to be touching. And if it wants to be one of the campiest and rowdiest disaster flicks in history, it needs to be exactly that. Piranha 3D is and then some. With the help of Christopher Lloyd playing a mad scientist, Jerry O’Connell playing a porn kingpin and Ving Rhames playing the Ving Rhames character we’ve all come to love, the film wallows in a stew of B-movie filth and comes out the other side smelling like debauchery.

Most of the films on this list have very little sense of humor about themselves. They want the audience to live inside the moment and feel utter terror. Not Piranha 3D. It’s interested in reminding the audience at every turn that it’s an over-the-top farce. It starts with Richard Dreyfuss in a lovely call back to Jaws. It ends with Adam Scott in a climax everyone should see coming, and in between, it gives us gruesome death, boobs and plenty of laughs. What more could any of us ask for?


Contagion (2011)

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Cast: Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Elliot Gould, Jennifer Ehle, John Hawkes and Marion Cotillard

The Disaster: Disease! Disease everywhere!

Why We Chose It:

Unlike Roland Emmerich or Michael Bay, Steven Soderbergh is not typically the guy you think of when you think of the disaster movie genre. Sure, he’s dabbled in big studio filmmaking, making movies like the Oceans trilogy and Out of Sight, but he is certainly better known for his smaller projects. But that didn’t slow him down creating the large scale epidemic film Contagion in 2011.

Sporting a massive ensemble cast of star actors – none of whom are safe from the titular monster – the film aims to put a serious bug in your skin and essentially make you afraid to touch your surroundings, and it is rather effective in doing so. The movie plays out very realistically, so when things do start getting really bad and the world’s population begins to sharply decrease, you begin to realize that Contagion is a disaster movie that could very easily play out in real life. With the exception of angry protestors and rioters, the film doesn’t rank very high on the destruction scale, but all the same does a great job painting the portrait of a horrific global viral event. Each copy of the Blu-ray should come with a tiny little bottle of Purel, because you’re definitely need it after a screening.

The Impossible

The Impossible (2012)

Director: J.A. Bayona

Cast: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland

The Disaster: A massive tsunami floods Thailand, separating a vacationing family!

Why We Chose It:

The ocean is a terrifying neighbor. There are so many locations around our planet that try their best to get as close as physically possible to the vast bodies of water dubbed as oceans. And yet, we never really stop to consider how powerful the ocean can be when it rises up, displaces its own waters, and floods the territories we like to think of as "dry land." The state of "dry" is only temporary, and J.A. Bayona’s masterful The Impossible reminds us that with horrifying details.

The special effects to create Bayona’s tsunami are fantastic. He plunges his cast (and his cameras) into the all-encompasing waters when The Impossible is showcasing the powerful tsunami waves. Thankfully, the movie isn’t just soggy thrills. There’s real heart in the possible reunion of the vacationing family that keeps The Impossible afloat. And even if you have a relatively good idea that we’re limping toward a happy ending for some of the characters on screen, it’s the journey that helps put The Impossible on our disaster list.

World War Z

World War Z (2013)

Director: Mark Forster

Cast: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enows, Daniella Kertesz

The Disaster: Zombie Apocalypse!

Why We Chose It:

Loosely based on Max Brooks' novel, World War Z focuses its attention on the efforts of Brad Pitt's Gerry Lane, a former UN investigator who's called upon to find a solution to the widespread zombie apocalypse that's quickly spreading throughout the globe, leaving whole cities in ruins and threatening to decimate humanity.

There's no way for us to truly experience the full scope of this disaster, and we're not getting an Independence Day sequence that shows major cities being wiped out. It's through Gerry's travels as he attempts to seek out information in various unstable environments that we get to see just how bad the situation continues to get, whether he's questioning people about the origins of the epidemic or visiting Jerusalem, which somehow had the foresight to build a massive wall to keep the zombies out. And World War Z also manages to work a good old-fashioned airplane disaster into the mix.

World War Z ranks highly as a disaster film because it doesn't rely solely on the disaster to keep its pace, nor is this "simply" a tale of survival. WWZ invites a solution into its plot, not in the form of a cure, but a way for humanity to get ahead of this situation before it's too late.


Gravity (2013)

Director: Alfonso Cuaron

Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney

The Disaster: Space debris knocks an astronaut from her perch!

Why We Chose It:

Because it’s brilliant. Seriously, Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is an earth-shattering digital accomplishment that far too many people are seeing for the first time on DVD or Blu-ray… and I guarantee you that 50% of the film’s impact is lost if it isn’t screened on the biggest IMAX screen possible. And in 3D, to boot.

Gravity isn’t the deepest story on this list. It’s largely a rescue mission conducted by one woman (Sandra Bullock) who has to overcome her own fears, confront her mortality, and decide whether she’s going to exhaust every resource in her quest to get back to planet Earth. It is an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride concocted out of an impossible situation that very few of us could ever relate to. But the way that Cuaron continues to explore using a camera to relay fantastical visual elements in service of his story mesmerizes. Gravity presents a wholly terrifying scenario – then leans on cutting edge technology to show us how an intelligent astronaut resolves it. It’s a small-scale disaster painted on a massive canvas. It’s a crowdpleasing blockbuster with an Oscar pedigree. And it’s one of the best recent disaster movies we’ve ever seen.

White House Down

White House Down (2013)

Director: Roland Emmerich

Cast: Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal

The Disaster: Terrorists take over the White House!

Why We Chose It:

Not all "disasters" have to be of a natural – or extraterrestrial – nature, Sometimes, the scariest disasters are man-made… as when heavily-armed military troops invade the physical representation of our national government and hold the President of the United States (Jamie Foxx) hostage. Gigantic waves, impending asteroids and hovering space craft are scary. But a hostage situation at the White House would ALSO have American citizens perched in front of their television sets, waiting for details.

White House Down might have been dismissed as a B-grade Die Hard, with Channing Tatum doing his best Bruce Willis impersonation. But in the hands of disaster-meister Roland Emmerich, the scope of the tragedy was instantly bigger, and the movie started checking all of the boxes on the "Disaster Movie" check list that the director seems to adore. It might not be a cataclysmic as, say, The Day After Tomorrow, but we’d watch White House Down 10 times in a row before sitting through other self-important, so-called disaster movies again.


Godzilla (2014)

Director: Gareth Edwards

Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe and Juliette Binoche

The Disaster: The ascension of an ancient alpha predator from the depths of the Earth could mean the end of mankind's domination of the planet!

Why We Chose It:

Have you consulted our five star review? Legendary Pictures had a tricky task ahead of them, rebooting a classic movie monster that America had previously failed to do justice to. But they brought in passionate Godzilla fan Gareth Edwards, who had won critical acclaim for his low-budget but stunning Monsters. He carefully considered how best to resurrect the roaring, brawling titan that is Godzilla, and so created a movie that’s already being hailed as one of the best of the year as well as one of the best disaster movies to date.

The visual effects and fight scenes in Godzilla will have audiences cheering, and applauding with unbridled excitement. The monster designs are terrifying yet familiar, and the devastation unleashed on the cities that become Godzilla's unwitting battlegrounds is mind-blowing. So on a level of flat-out spectacle, Godzilla gets sky-high marks. But Edwards was also careful to guide his cast in creating grounded performances that keep the human peril in focus, even when our eyes are aimed at towering beasts. And he did all this with an artful eye and incredible imagination that offers action sequences that are as thrilling as they are gorgeous to behold. Take it from us: Godzilla is an instant classic, and a fantastic addition to the monster's storied disaster-movie legacy.

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We limited our Best Disaster Movies list to 15, but you can add on to it with your own disaster movie favorites in the comments section below.

Kelly West
Assistant Managing Editor

Kelly joined CinemaBlend as a freelance TV news writer in 2006 and went on to serve as the site’s TV Editor before moving over to other roles on the site. At present, she’s an Assistant Managing Editor who spends much of her time brainstorming and editing feature content on the site.