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.)

Plot Twists

It may seem unbelievable these days, but footage of actual tornados was almost non-existent back as late as the 1980s. Then video equipment got smaller and portable so storm chasers could record tornados while they were on the ground. With the digital revolution, now there might be dozens of shots of one storm. Digital technology also changed how twisters appeared in motion pictures. The tornado in The Wizard of Oz was created by filming a thirty-five foot long muslin sock, similar to the wind socks you find at airports. In 1996, computer graphics were used for the second major movie involving tornados, Twister. However, quite a few scenes were still filmed with old-fashion effects, like the truck driving through the rolling house. The two formats didn’t blended well, since there were the dark CGI storms and then bright sunshine in the next shot, like when Bill Pullman and Helen Hunt dodged combines dropping from the sky. Now, 18 years later, comes the next major film dealing with tornados, Into The Storm.

The movie is set up as a “found footage” film, similar to Chronicle or the grandfather of the genre, The Blair Witch Project. Here, though, director Steven Quale gives a nod to our digital society in that there are so many cameras involved that every angle is covered. (He does sneak in a shot or two that couldn’t have been caught by someone’s camera, but the pace of the movie is such you won’t notice until after it’s over.) Most effective are scenes purporting to be surveillance video. With the absence of sound, they look like they’ve been culled from YouTube rather than filmed specifically for the movie.

As with most disaster movies, the main focus is the action, and the plot revolves around it, rather than the action illustrating the plot. Into The Storm features three main threads. The central one deals with Gary Fuller (Richard Armitage), the vice-principal of the Silverton, Oklahoma, high school, and his two sons Donnie (Max Deacon) and Trey (Nathan Kress). Both Donnie and Trey help Gary with AV projects for the school, including the current one of interviews for a 25-year video time capsule. Donnie is infatuated with Kaitlyn (Alycia Debnam Carey), and when she’s in need of help with a video, Donnie cuts out on the school’s graduation ceremony, leaving Trey to record the event.

Of matching importance is the plot thread involving storm chasing Team Titus, who pursue storms in a tank-like vehicle while a van outfitted with computerized weather gear provides support. After a year with no results, Pete (Matt Walsh), the team leader, finds his funding has just been cut. But he sees a chance to re-establish it when a huge storm front comes into the area. His meteorologist, Allison (Sarah Wayne Callies), points him toward Silverton, even though he wants to go to another town. When that other town is hit, Pete explodes at Allison, but he’s interrupted by a thunderstorm with golf-ball size hail. In the van they discover the storm has reestablished itself and is heading directly toward Silverton.

As comic relief – and this film is intense enough that comic relief is a requirement – there is self-styled YouTube stuntman Donk (Kyle Davis) and his i-Phone cameraman Reevis (Jon Reep). When they see Team Titus drive by, they’re inspired in their half-functioning brains to become storm chasers themselves. They paint a sign on the side of their pickup truck, grab their cameras, and head off after Team Titus.

After a brief preface that establishes the found footage premise – and gives a major jolt of adrenalin – Director Quale takes a while to establish the stories. Once the storm hits, though, the pace of the movie shoots into high gear. Quale had served as second unit director for both Titanic and Avatar, before his first chance to direct with the 5th installment of the Final Destination series. This is his sophomore effort, and it’s clear he’s a good student. Twister was a bit pretentious, with its script by Michael Crichton, director Jan de Bont coming off his triumph with Speed, and Steven Spielberg as executive producer. In contrast Into The Storm is a lean 89 minutes (24 minutes shorter than Twister) and was made for half the earlier film’s budget. Yet visually it puts Twister to shame. Granted, neither will be singled out as great examples of film as high art, but Into The Storm is a very effective B-movie.

I would give a word of caution to anyone who has dealt with the aftermath of an actual tornado. This film may be too emotionally impacting, and could bring back horrible memories. It probably won’t do any business in Joplin, MO. On the other hand, it does reflect a new reality in our relationship to the weather. “It seems like once-in-a-century storms are now happening every year,” Allison says early in the film. While it aims for thrills, Into The Storm may also be prescient.

Doctoring Oz

In the classic story, “The Velveteen Rabbit,” the Skin Horse says to the Velveteen Rabbit, “Real isn’t how you are made; it’s something that happens to you.”  That’s also the lesson at the heart of Sam Raimi’s Oz The Great And Powerful.

Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is a sideshow magician in a threadbare circus that’s playing near his hometown in turn-of-the-19th-century Kansas.  Oz is a selfish, egotistical man and a smooth talker with the ladies, though he longs to be as great as Harry Houdini or Thomas Edison.  Still, he doesn’t mind shortchanging his assistant Frank (Zach Braff) on the ticket money his show generates.  A visit from his former sweetheart Annie (Michelle Williams) brings home to Oz how far he’s fallen from his dreams.  The visit is cut short when the circus strongman comes looking for Oz, who has put the moves on the strongman’s girlfriend.  Oz makes his getaway in a hot air balloon – right into the vortex of a tornado.

After a stomach-churning journey, Oz lands in the Land of Oz.  He meets a beautiful good witch named Theodora (Mila Kunis) who tells him of a prophecy of the former king of Oz, that a great wizard who bears the name Oz will come and claim the throne in the Emerald City.  While they travel to the city, Oz saves the life of a flying monkey named Finley (voice by Braff), who swears his undying loyalty to the magician.

At the Emerald City, Oz meets Theodora’s sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz).  She shows Oz the wonders of the city, including a room filled with gold, and promises it will all be his.  But first he must complete one task to prove himself worthy of the throne: he must kill the Wicked Witch.

Raimi, assisted by screenwriters Mitchell Kapner (The Whole Nine Yards) and David Lindsay-Abaire (Inkheart), has crafted a wonderful prequel that references The Wizard of Oz.  The MGM original is actually owned by Warner Brothers, so the Disney production couldn’t reproduce items from the original.  That’s why you’ll see nary a ruby slipper in the film.  Strangely enough, The Wizard of Oz was put into production because of the success of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch was based on the evil queen’s old lady disguise.  Raimi mirrors the beginning of the original film, shooting the opening in black and white and in the 1.37:1 ratio used in movies of the 1930s.  When the movie gets to Oz, not only does it change to rich Technicolor as it did in 1939, it also opens up to the widescreen aspect of 2.35:1.

Franco shows maturation as an actor in the role of Oz, giving a multi-leveled characterization.  His previous work with Raimi on the Spiderman films would have given him confidence with the direction.  Franco worked for weeks before filming began to master the sleight of hand needed to sell the magician tricks.

Weisz, Kunis, and Williams (as Glinda the Good Witch) each portray their roles with flair and authority, though of them Kunis has the most compelling role.  When the Wicked Witch comes on the scene, all green skin and black leather, the movie captures the feeling that has made The Wizard of Oz one of the most terrifying movies that little kids regularly see.  Raimi changed the Wicked Witch’s flying monkeys into flying baboons so they’re even more frightening.  (Very young children could find this movie too intense.)

The CGI used throughout the film is first rate, in particular with the character of China Girl (voiced by Joey King).  It captures the sheen and fine cracks of bone china, while the facial expressions are wonderfully rendered.  As always, the director’s brother Ted and Bruce Campbell appear in small roles, with Campbell’s chin appearing even larger than normal.

Danny Elfman’s score, especially the music box theme, adds a plaintive note to all the visuals and action.  While it’s possible to get lost in the effects, the story is strong and anchored in human emotions.

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey) formulated three laws in an essay called “Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination.”  The third one was: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.  Oz finds the magic within himself, and it makes the movie a magical delight for audiences.