The 10 Best Disaster Movies of All Time

best disaster movies

Why do we like disaster movies so much?

It seems a good plot device. It usually puts people in peril, through the direct fault of man or Mother Nature’s wrath. They tend to show the best and worst of humanity. We either tend to screw each other over or band together in the face of adversity to survive.

Disasters can be either global or centering on a specific group or area of the Earth.

Depending on what year they were made, they can rely heavily on optical and visual effects, CGI, miniatures or other Hollywood trickery. They can deal with the event happening at the beginning of the film and characters have to cope and deal with the aftermath or the doom can be pending and building throughout the entire film waiting to show us the upcoming cataclysm.

The films selected cover wide range of disaster subjects; tending to be the most believable and not science fiction.


1. The Impossible

The Impossible

This 2012 film is a true story of Maria and Henry (Academy Award nominee for her role Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor) and their family’s struggle to survive the 2004 tsunami that occurred in the Indian Ocean on December 26th, 2004 after a 9.3 magnitude earthquake striking 14 countries and killing an estimated 230,000 people.

Many actual survivors of the storm were used in the production and the film used some of the actual locations which were struck. The family depicted in the film were technical advisors and were actually on the set during production. According to production notes, the tsunami sequence took over a year to plan and the scene was only actually filmed in one take since it would have cost too much to completely rebuild the set.

The acting throughout the film is first rate across the board including the child actors. The real star, however, is Watts who gives one of the performances of a lifetime. This is one of the biggest recent tragedies in the world and this film finds the right balance in telling this sensitive story.


2. The Towering Inferno

The Towering Inferno (1974)

Producer Irwin Allen had made a career up to this point in making high budget disaster films (including The Poseidon Adventure on this list as well as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea from 1961). The same was true with this film which cost $14 million to produce in 1974; however, the film made $116 million making it a huge financial hit.

This was actually the first time studios Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox had co-financed a film. One of the other staples of an Allen-produced movie of this type was the huge ensemble cast of big stars. The same was the case with this film. The stars included Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Robert Wagner and Robert Vaughn.

A newly-constructed skyscraper bursts into flames when its poor workmanship comes back to haunt the architects and the people trapped within its walls have to find a way to escape and survive. At the time, there as a robust rivalry between costars McQueen and Newman off-screen. So much so certain assurances were put into place including each of their characters having the same amount of lines.

Newman actually regretted starring in the film saying “I fell for the goddamn numbers. I did this turkey for a million and 10% of the gross, but it’s the 1st and last time, I swear.” It’s too bad producer Allen did not have the same luck with the long-forgotten “When Time Ran Out…” in 1980 about a volcano threatening an island resort.


3. The Poseidon Adventure

The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

Actor Gene Hackman was hot off his Academy Award winning performance in the 1971 Best Picture winner The French Connection when he was tapped to star as Reverend Scott in this 1972 disaster film about an ocean liner capsized by a giant wave and the passengers struggling to survive and find their way out before drowning.

Another Producer Irwin Allen ensemble cast included Roddy McDowall, Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons, Shelly Winters and a rare dramatic performance by Leslie Nielson as The Captain. This film was also a huge hit at the box office costing only an estimated $5 million to make but grossing over $93 million. The “capsize” scene used both special and practical effects including tilting the set and camera to produce the desired effect.

The film actually received an Academy Award for visual effects as well as a nomination for Winters for Best Supporting Actress. The dynamics between the characters as they make their way through the upside-down ship and traverse the obstacles presented which makes the film work. You are forced to care about the survivors and hope for their rescue.


4. The “Airport” series

Airport (1970)

The original “Airport” from 1970 in often credited as starting the “disaster decade” of the 1970’s which showcased several films on this list and in the honorable mentions. The original starred Dean Martin, Burt Lancaster, Jacqueline Bisset and George Kennedy (the only actor and character to appear in all four films) as passengers the flight and ground crew at an Airport who have to deal with a multitude of problems including a mad bomber, bad weather and a soap opera between them.

Unfortunately, the first film seems too occupied by the characters’ affairs and low morals rather than the action/drama of the events surrounding them. “Airport 1975” starred Charleton Heston, Karen Black and had two planes colliding in midair having the crew and passengers deal with the aftermath.

“Airport ‘77” starred Jack Lemmon, Lee Grant and Jimmy Stewart and had thieves crash a 747 into the ocean and passengers attempt to survive before a rescue mission is executed. “The Concorde…Airport ‘79” was the final, worst film in the series and starred Eddie Albert, Susan Blakely and Robert Wagner. This time a Concorde jet is attacked when it revealed one of the passengers’ plans on bringing disparaging information to light on her boyfriend.

The entire series was spoofed by “Airplane!” released in 1980 and using some scenes from the “Airport” films almost exactly. Airplane remains one of the great film comedies of all time.


5. Titanic

titanic ending

Jack. Rose. Love. Iceberg. What else can be said? At this point, no one seems to remember what a big risk this film was to make. Director James Cameron actually gave away his $8 million salary and the percentage of the film’s grosses he had agreed to since he was worried about the film’s staggering budget. At the time, this was the most expensive 20th Century Fox film ever made at a budget of an estimated $200 million (the original budget was $135,000 and had run to months over its production schedule).

The film was #1 at the box office for 15 weeks in a row finally being beaten in week 16 by “Mission to Mars”. Other interesting facts: once filming was completed, the entire ship set was sold as scrap metal, the line “I’m the king of the world” was an ad-lib by Leonardo DiCaprio. The film remains the #2 all-time highest grossing film at over $658 million behind only the also-directed Cameron fantasy yarn “Avatar which is at $760 million.