A cruise ship filled with joyous passengers gets caught in a tsunami and rapidly starts sinking. A catastrophic asteroid, with the power to wipe out the entire human race, hurtles towards Earth. An underground volcano, dormant for thousands of years, unexpectedly sputters back to life in New York City, while a deadly virus is simultaneously unleashed on the population in the midst of a record-shattering earthquake…
These are just a few common scenarios found in your typical disaster movie, one of the most audacious and crowd-pleasing subgenres of Hollywood moviemaking. While subtlety is not the genre’s strong suit, the sheer spectacle and scope of these big-budget, often star-studded Hollywood affairs make “disastertainment” movies a fun way to escape for two hours in the dark. Like horror films, disaster movies have remained popular throughout the years because they prey on the public’s innermost fears and yet do so from a comfortable distance. (“No real people have been harmed in the making of this apocalyptic spectacle.”)
The latest disaster movie to storm into theaters is Steven Soderbergh’s new thriller, Contagion. Featuring an all-star cast that includes Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Winslet, the film follows the sudden, rapid progress of a deadly airborne virus that kills within days. The medical community struggles to find a cure, as panicked people across the globe try to survive in a world on the verge of collapse.
Join MM as we go on a daring adventure through time, looking back at 10 of the greatest “disastertainment” movies ever made.
The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
directed by Ronald Neame
A gigantic cruise ship, the S.S. Poseidon, en route from New York to Athens, is struck by a life-threatening tidal wave and capsizes. It’s up to an angry, intense priest (Gene Hackman) to lead an intrepid band of survivors through the bowels of the ship in order to survive. Other passengers include a police detective played by Ernest Borgnine (who gets into some classic shouting matches with Hackman) and Leslie Nielsen, captain of the ship, before he discovered his funny bone in the hilarious disaster movie spoof Airplane! The film won an Oscar for Special Achievement in Visual Effects and, in 2006, was remade as Poseidon, starring Kurt Russell and directed by Wolfgang Petersen.
The Towering Inferno (1974)
directed by John Guillermin & Irwin Allen
After the success of The Poseidon Adventure, producer Allen once again dipped into the “disastertainment” genre with this high-octane tale that centers on the world’s tallest skyscraper and the fire that threatens to engulf it, along with the hundreds of people inside for the tower’s grand opening party. The all-star cast includes Steve McQueen as a heroic fire chief, Paul Newman as the honorable skyscraper architect and William Holden as a construction magnate. The film was a huge success, earning a Best Picture nomination and winning Oscars for Best Cinematography and Film Editing.
directed by Mark Robson
This large-scale, earth-shattering film revolves around a diverse array of people (including Hollywood legends Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner and George Kennedy) living in Los Angeles who are forced to cope with the effects of a devastating earthquake of unforeseen magnitude. Surprisingly enough, the film was co-written by Mario Puzo (novelist/screenwriter of The Godfather trilogy) and won an Academy Award for Best Sound.
directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker & Jerry Zucker
Although not a disaster movie in the traditional sense, this hilarious spoof of Hollywood clichés certainly qualifies as “disastertainment.” A barrage of nonstop gags from the comedy triumvirate, ZAZ (Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker), this goofy film was inspired by the 1957 disaster Zero Hour, about a plane in peril after the pilots are victims of food poisoning. Taking the basic premise of the film, ZAZ add their trademark absurdist comedy style: Having stone-faced, intense actors like Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack and Leslie Nielsen deliver seriously ridiculous lines. The result is a comedy classic, a loving homage to Hollywood’s hilariously over-the-top disaster movies.
directed by Wolfgang Petersen
This captivating, complex thriller centers on a deadly airborne virus that finds its way from Africa to the USA and starts killing people at an epidemic rate. Dustin Hoffman stars as Col. Sam Daniels who must stop the virus spreading from a small town and possibly infecting people all over the US. Co-starring Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Spacey, Outbreak took a more serious-minded tone than other disastertainment movies, and did solid box office as a result.
Dante’s Peak/Volcano (1997)
directed by Roger Donaldson/Mick Jackson
The release of Dante’s Peak and Volcano in the spring of 1997 marked an odd occurrence when two movie studios rushed two competing volcano movies into production at the same time, apparently to satisfy all those movie fans who for years were griping about the lack of volcano flicks. Dante’s Peak, starring Pierce Brosnan and Linda Hamilton, was released two months earlier than the Tommy Lee Jones vehicle Volcano, and was more successful at the box office. Both films concern hazardous, unexpectedly erupting volcanoes, complete with lava flow sequences, that cause a major threat to the communities in which they are based (In Dante’s Peak, it’s a small rural town. In Volcano, it’s downtown Los Angeles). Despite the rush to get to the big screen, no major volcano-themed movie has been released since; strange how that happens.
Deep Impact/Armageddon (1998)
directed by Mimi Leder/Michael Bay
Like the previous year, there was, once again, an oddly timed coincidence when, in the summer of 1998, two “giant space rock” movies were released just months apart. Both Deep Impact and Armageddon deal with giant asteroids on the verge of colliding with Earth, and the intrepid shuttle astronauts (led by Robert Duvall and Bruce Willis, respectively) who must set off nuclear devices within the asteroid in order to save mankind. Of the two films, action auteur Michael Bay’s Armageddon did better business, probably because of it’s light, “popcorn movie” feel; Deep Impact took a more solemn, serious approach to the subject matter.
The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
directed by Roland Emmerich
Unabashedly old-fashioned, Roland Emmerich’s film is, in many ways, a classic “disastertainment” movie that wouldn’t feel out of place if it had been made in the 1970s. Dennis Quaid stars as a climatologist who must not only figure out how to save the world from abrupt global warming, but must also embark on a dangerous journey from Washington D.C. to New York, which is being transformed into a new ice age, in order to save his teenage son (Jake Gyllenhaal). From it’s eye-popping special effects depicting mass disaster to its ridiculous story, delivered dead-seriously by a cast of game actors, The Day After Tomorrow is proof that massively fun “disastertainment” movies won’t be leaving anytime soon.