10 Natural Disasters – And the Best Movies Depicting Them

Movies have been showing disasters almost from the inception of the film camera. Thomas Edison had a team that managed to get onto Galveston Island and record the devastation following the 1900 Cat 4 hurricane that destroyed much of the city. For narrative films, in 1913 there was a depiction of the last days of Pompeii, and a comet causes widespread destruction in 1916’s The End of the World. With the increasing sophistication of special effects, and now digital effects, filmmakers can convincingly show disasters as part of their movies. Below are listed ten natural disasters, and my choice for the best movies to depict them. (I’ll include some honorable mentions as well.) Please feel free to add your suggestions in the comments.

1) Flood: The Wave (2015)

According to the Bible, God promised Noah never to destroy the whole world again in a flood. But that hasn’t stopped parts from being washed away. The Wave is a Norwegian film about the collapse of the side of a fjord that sends a massive wall of water down the inlet towards a city. As the preamble of the film states, the movie’s based on past events that will likely again happen in the future. Click here to read my full review of this film. (Honorable Mention: The Impossible)

2) Hurricane: The Hurricane (1937)

This is the oldest movie to make this list, but there are reasons for its inclusion. Foremost, it was directed by a Hollywood legend, John Ford. Also, special effects probably became an Academy Award category because of this film along with San Francisco a year earlier. (The award was added for 1938.) While the main story of a Polynesian native and his wife (Jon Hall and Dorothy Lamour, slipping into a sarong for the first time) being persecuted by the island’s governor (Raymond Massey) is pretty standard, the climatic storm is intense even viewed with today’s eyes, as you can see in this clip. (Honorable Mention: The Perfect Storm)

3) Plague: Contagion (2011)

Plagues have had devastating impacts on humans. The Black Death in the 14th Century killed 50 million, or 60% of Europe’s population, and the 1918 Influenza pandemic killed between 20-40 million worldwide, more than died in the four years of World War 1 leading up to the outbreak. For Contagion, Steven Soderbergh assembled a huge cast to populate this story of another worldwide pandemic. Along with depicting the plague and its effects, the movie is also a mystery story that slowly reveals the origin of the disease and its spread. My full review. (Honorable Mention: Outbreak)

4) Tornado: Into The Storm (2014)

In the age of storm chasers and compact video cameras, it’s hard to remember that tornadoes were once the rarest weather event caught on film. Now you can watch hours of them on YouTube. Likewise, visual effect twisters have come a long way from the 35 foot muslin tube around a chicken-wire frame used for the twister in The Wizard of Oz. While most people might choose my Honorable Mention, for me the best Tornado movie is Into The Storm. The film uses (for the most part) the found footage motif to assemble the story of an outbreak of storms that decimates a Midwestern city over the course of a few hours. Click here to read my full review. (Honorable Mention: Twister)

5) Earthquake: San Andreas (2015)

I could have selected San Francisco, another granddaddy of the disaster genre, with its depiction of the 1906 earthquake and fire. However, I chose San Andreas because, different from many disaster movies, it gives its main characters intelligence. While it’s thrilling, it could also be used as a public service announcement of what to do during a quake. Much of the action is over the top, especially with the number of high rise buildings that fall like dominos, though that’s not completely out of the question. The Millenium Tower in San Francisco has sunk a foot and a half since it opened 8 years ago, and it has tilted 2 inches to the northwest. It’s located in an area where the ground could liquefy during a major quake, so San Andreas might be prescient. My full review. (Honorable Mention: 1936’s San Francisco)

6) Volcano: Volcano (1997)

This disaster has an overabundance of dishonorable mention movies, including the geographically-challenged Krakatoa, East of Java, the Irwin Allen disaster of a disaster movie, When Time Ran Out, and the 2014 embarrassment Pompeii. 1997 saw two volcanic movies released, Dante’s Peak (with Pierce Brosnan and Linda Hamilton) and Volcano (with Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche). Neither are great, but I’m choosing Volcano because it has a cockeyed comic edge that helps you forgive the stereotypical characters and ham-fisted directing. Dante’s Peak, on the other hand, is deadly serious. Neither film erupted at the box office, but Volcano did have the one of the best movie poster tag lines ever: “The Coast Is Toast.” (Honorable Mention: 1961’s The Devil at 4 O’Clock)

7) Famine: Distant Thunder  aka Ashani Sanket (1973)

Famine is not a theme that is dealt with often in movies in North America or Europe. About the only time its possibility is faced is in science fiction, as seen in the honorable mentions. But in other places on the globe, famine is an immediate concern. Distant Thunder was made in 1973 by one of the greats of the Indian film industry, Satyajit Ray. Set in the middle of World War II, it focuses on the newly installed leader of a village in India, and on his wife. A famine grips the area and reaches catastrophic proportions. While the leader seeks to maintain his privileged position, his wife seeks to help the victims of the famine. (Honorable mentions: Interstellar, Soylent Green)

8) Climate Change: The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

One problem with depicting climate change is that it happens gradually. Yet the effects are there to be seen in warmer average temperatures, more intense weather events, and changes in water levels. The best movie on this subject would be An Inconvenient Truth (2006), which has a sequel being released later this year: An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. But we’re not dealing with documentaries here. So while climate change is referenced in movies like Interstellar and Into the Storm, the narrative film that focused on climate change was The Day After Tomorrow. Disaster specialist Roland Emmerich put climate change on fast forward and postulated what would happen if the change, leading to a new ice age, occurred in weeks instead of gradually. While it’s a popcorn movie entertainment, it’s worth remembering that it came out the year before Hurricane Katrina and 8 years before Hurricane Sandy. Where we used to talk about the storm of the century, we’re now down to the storm of the decade. (Another reason for choosing it: Al Gore used a clip from the opening sequence of Day After Tomorrow in his film)

9) Asteroid/Meteor Impact: tie – Seeking A Friend For The End of the World (2012) and These Final Hours (2013)

There have been extinction-level events caused by asteroids or meteors, but not since man came on the scene. The Tunguska Event in Siberia in 1908 was the largest in recorded history, caused by an object estimated to have been 200 to 600 feet in size. Rather than impact, it blew up in the air with the force of 10-15 megatons – about 1000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima A-bomb – and flattened 830 square miles of trees in an uninhabited area of Siberia. That’s large enough to destroy New York City and much of the surrounding area. But there are objects out there that are measured in miles. If they hit us, that would be the end. Two movies in 1998 – Armageddon and Deep Impact – had astronauts saving the world by breaking up the asteroid, but the fallacy of both movies is that there’d be a lengthy warning of the approaching object that would allow a mission to be launched. Instead, it’s likely we’d only have a short time to prepare for the end. Seeking a Friend… and These Final Hours both deal with that eventuality, though from different perspectives. Seeking a Friend… is pre-impact and follows Steve Carell trying to help Kiera Knightly get home to England before the end. It treats the situation as black comedy. These Final Hours is an Australian film set after the impact with a firestorm wave sweeping around the world. In the twelve hours before destruction reaches Australia, a ne’er-do-well discovers his humanity by helping a young girl separated from her parents. (Both films are currently available on Netflix.)

10) Miscellaneous Catastrophe: The Children of Men (2003)

Films have presented disaster in many massive ways: a solar flare microwaving the Earth (Knowing); the disruption of the magnetic field (The Core); the liquefaction of the center of the earth causing catastrophic movement of the continents (2012). But Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 film Children of Men, based on the P.D. James novel, has the world thrown into apocalyptic disarray because no children have been born in over two decades. England has become a dystopia where immigrants are herded into ghettos while society slides towards oblivion. But then a man (Clive Owen) is recruited by his estranged wife (Julianne Moore) to shepherd a young African woman out of England to meet a ship filled with scientists. The catch is the young woman is pregnant. This movie was sabotaged in the theaters by one of the worse trailers ever, but it’s a powerful film with scenes that stay with you long after the movie ends. (Semi-honorable mention: If you haven’t seen The Core, it’s worth a shot. While the premise is ridiculous, its cast is filled with exceptionally good actors and it has a gonzo sense of humor that serves it well.)

Suspension of Disbelief

I admit I like well-done disaster movies, though like effective or inventive horror films they are rare. The genre is the junk food of cinema – tasty at times but you have to limit your intake if you want to stay fit and healthy. Disaster flicks go back all the way to the silent era, and two of the best were from the 1930s: 1936’s San Francisco, starring Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, and 1937’s The Hurricane, directed by John Ford. Neither could win a Special Effects Oscar, since that category wasn’t added until 1939, but San Francisco got 6 nominations and won for Sound Editing, and The Hurricane got 3 noms, also winning for Sound. The 1970s were the heyday of the genre, with The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, Earthquake, etc, but by the end of the decade their box office had fizzled. Movies like The Swarm, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, and When Time Ran Out (all produced by disaster-master Irwin Allen) were nails the genre’s coffin. But like zombies, the genre keeps coming back. Last year’s Into The Storm and this summer’s release, San Andreas, are the latest to keep it alive.

Often the premise of the impending disaster is repeated in multiple movies – sometimes in the same year. We’ve had dueling volcano (Dante’s Peak vs. Volcano) and killer asteroid (Armageddon vs. Deep Impact) pictures in the past. Occasionally, though, there can be an original – if hardly credible – idea that is done decently enough that you suspend your disbelief for two-plus hours and just enjoy the ride. It may even become the chocolate bar you enjoy when no one’s looking, even when you eat healthily the rest of the time. For me, that guilty pleasure is 2003’s The Core.

Let me grant from the outset that the premise is completely ludicrous: the core of the earth has stopped spinning, causing a breakdown of the electromagnetic field that leads to all manner of catastrophic events, and a team must travel to the center of the earth and use nuclear weapons to jumpstart the planet. It’s not quite as bad a premise as 2012’s overcooked continents, but it’s close. What separates The Core from schlock like 2012 is a good director, an unusually fine cast, a script that manages some wit and surprises, and decent special effects.

The movie was directed by Jon Amiel, who graduated from Cambridge and has worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He directed the classic “The Singing Detective” for the BBC, and did several good movies in the 1990s, among them Sommersby with Jodie Foster and Richard Gere, and Entrapment with Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Since The Core he’s mostly worked in TV, with recent work on “The Borgias,” “The Tudors,” and “Once Upon a Time.”

In the opening scene, he focuses on a hotshot businessman about to earn millions on a deal. The man’s expensive watch stops just before he enters the meeting, but he doesn’t think much of it. In the meeting, the businessman leads his team to the head of the glass conference table – then collapses on it, dead. Sounds of alarms filter into the room from outside, and the camera pans out the window to a fair in a square and the surrounding streets where other people have fallen dead at the same time. It’s one of the more effective opening sequences for a disaster flick.

The cast for the movie is not the usual suspects – no Bruce Willis or, for an earlier generation, Charleton Heston. Instead the cast is heavy with Oscar and Golden Globe winners and nominees who usually work in independent films. The main roles are played by Aaron Eckhart, Hillary Swank, Stanley Tucci, Alfre Woodard, Delroy Lindo, DJ Qualls, Tcheky Karyo, Bruce Greenwood and Richard Jenkins. Among them they have 2 Academy Award wins plus 3 nominations, and 5 Golden Globe wins plus 5 nominations.

The disaster scenes are unusual and decently done. Along with the opening scene, you have two other set pieces early in the film. One features birds going amok in Trafalgar Square, and while it’s not the equal of Alfred Hitchcock’s attack on Bodega Bay, it’s effective. Part of the action is shot through the viewfinder of a video camera that’s been dropped during the mayhem. The other sequence is better, with the Space Shuttle having to make an emergency landing in Los Angeles. The filmmakers do move Dodger Stadium from Chavez Ravine in East LA to somewhere around Long Beach for the sake of a shot of the shuttle buzzing over the stadium. It would have made more sense geographically to use Angel Stadium, but The Core was produced by Paramount, and at that time the Angels were owned by the Walt Disney Company. Such is life in Hollywood. Later in the movie they do meet a major criteria for disaster films and destroy the Golden Gate Bridge, but not in the usual way. This time they melt it.

The screenplay was done by Cooper Layne and John Rogers. Layne was also a producer of the film, but his credits are thin according to IMDb. He’d acted three times, produced a documentary and The Emperor’s Club before The Core, and his only other screenwriter credit was the 2005 remake of The Fog. Rogers has more writing credits, particularly for the TNT shows “Leverage” and “The Librarians” which he also helped create, but he has a major blot on his record. He followed up The Core with the horrible Halle Berry Catwoman.  Somehow the script for The Core turned out better than anyone had a right to expect, unless there was an awful lot of ad libbing on the set.

While still conforming to the thriller format, the movie has plenty of sly humor. You have Eckhart as Dr. Josh Keyes, Karyo as Serge Leveque, and Tucci as Dr. Conrad Zimsky, all scientists, though Tucci is one of the rock star variety. When Keyes hands him a paper where he’s outlined his evidence that life on earth will end in a year, Zimsky’s first thought is he wants an autograph. When Keyes and Zimsky brief a Pentegon meeting on the threat, they give a demonstration of what will happen to the Earth when the electromagnetic field disappears – using an orange, a can of air freshener, and a lighter. Keyes drops the incinerated orange in a carafe of water and tells the group, “Feel free to throw up. I know I did.” It’s a welcome relief from the usual stoic heroism in disaster flicks.

Jenkins plays Thomas Percell, a 4-star General, while Swank and Greenwood are shuttle pilots and Woodard is a NASA mission controller. Lindo is Braz Brazzleton,a scientist who left academia to pursue creating an inner space ship. When Percell and the other scientists approach Braz, you have this exchange:

Serge Leveque: Dr. Brazzelton, when do you think the ship will be operational?

Brazzelton: When I get my fabrication methods perfected; twelve…no, ten years.

Percell: What would it take to get it done in six months?

Brazzelton: (laughing) Fifty billion dollars, I…

Percell: (deadpan face) Will you take a check?

Keyes: Why don’t you use a credit card? You get miles.

With his lanky body and unusual face, D.J. Qualls is perfect as “Rat” Finch, a hacker who’s recruited to keep any news about the Earth’s impending doom off of the internet. When Zimsky scoffs at his usefulness, Rat asks Zimsky how many languages he speaks. Zimsky says five, and Rat comes back with: “Well, I speak one…One Zero One Zero Zero. With that I could steal your money, your secrets, your sexual fantasies, your whole life. Any country, any place, anytime I want. We multitask like you breathe. I couldn’t think as slow as you if I tried.” Bam!

The Core didn’t light up the box office, and only made back about half of its production cost in its US release. You’ll likely find the DVD in the $5 bin at your local Wal-mart. The production did consult with scientists about the science of building a capsule to reach the Earth’s core, and it actually stimulated one to theorize a way for an unmanned probe to do it. He published his ideas in the prestigious journal Nature in 2003. The movie did find an audience at the University of British Columbia, near where it was filmed in Vancouver. The Earth and Ocean Science course uses it by showing the film and then having the students discuss the bad science in it.

But, if you do suspend that old disbelief, it is a bit of a fun ride.