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.)

High Water Mark

I do enjoy a well-done disaster flick, not to be confused with a flick that’s a disaster. Historically this genre is the province of Hollywood, with studios laying out big bucks for special effects, but the digital revolution has broken borders. Some of the premier SFX houses are spread around the globe, like Weta Workshop in New Zealand. A great example of disaster films breaking out of Hollywood is 2015’s The Wave, which is now available on Netflix.

Just as American films focus on possible disasters in the United States like the recent San Andreas (earthquakes) and Into the Storm (tornadoes), this Norwegian film deals with a disaster on the home front – in this case a massive landslide into a narrow fjord that sets off a mammoth tsunami. Indeed, the film opens by citing earlier instances of this taking place. It then focuses on the town of Geiranger, nestled at the end of a fjord, that will have ten minutes to evacuate if a cliff-face down the fjord lets go and crashes into the water. In this, the film is factually correct, and the director was guided by the actual geology of an event that will happen. The only question is when.

Geologist Kristian (Kristoffer Joner) has been working at a station that monitors the mountainsides, but he’s now taken a job with an oil exploration company and his family is preparing to move. When he returns from a preparatory trip to their new apartment in Oslo, he finds his wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp) fixing the sink while their teenaged son Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro) and younger daughter Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande) watching. Over dinner Kristian explains the technologically advanced apartment they’ll have when they move, though Idun says she will miss the soul of their older house.

The next day, Kristian goes in for a final time to the Early Warning Center, located over 100 meters above sea level. There’s a particularly unstable section that they are monitoring remotely with both sensors and video. While he’s there a warning goes off about a drop in ground water levels, but when they check the video and the other monitors everything seems fine. The next day Kristian is leaving town with Sondre and Julia, while Idun has a last day at the hotel she manages in Geiranger and will follow later. He suddenly makes a connection with what caused the change in levels and why the monitors didn’t register a problem, so he turns around and heads to the Early Warning Center.

Oftentimes Hollywood disaster films begin with a bang to get the adrenalin pumping and to foreshadow the larger thrills to come. For example, with the two movies cited above, San Andreas begins with a white-knuckle helicopter rescue while Into The Storm has a nearly invisible night-time tornado take out a car with four students in it. The Wave does a slower build, focusing on the family and people they know, so we become close to these characters. They’re completely real, not the larger than life heroic types that often populate this genre. The term “disaster flick” inherently gives away some of the plot – bad things will happen – but the films usually split into two sub-categories: 1) the focus is on the disaster, or 2) the movie is a drama that happens to include a disaster. The Wave is firmly in the second sub-category.

Director Roar Uthaug has worked only in his native Norway, though that will be changing. He’s been tapped to helm the new Tomb Raider film due in 2018 that will star Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft. The Wave only had a limited release in the US, common for a non-English film, but in Norway it sold over 800,000 tickets. Considering Norway has a population of around 5 million, that’s the equivalent of 1 in 6 people in the country seeing the film. That’s akin to a US movie having a domestic box office of approximately $500 million – about the domestic gross of The Dark Knight, which is 6th on the all-time domestic box office list.

Where many disaster movies feel over-bloated and usually have a running time in excess of two hours, The Wave is a lean 105 minutes. In the midst of the destruction – and the effects are stunning – it doesn’t lose sight of the human level. If you like this genre and have Netflix (or find it on another streaming service) I highly recommend you check out this film. It is well worth the viewing.