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 (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.