The disaster film genre doesn’t have the best critical reputation, warranted or not. First cauterized in the classic 70s stream of films like The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, Airport, and Earthquake, these films were among the biggest Hollywood pictures in a time before Jaws created the modern summer blockbuster. They had all-star casts, emerging special effects, and huge production budgets. Still today, though much looser a cinematic movement, Hollywood often returns to natural disasters, monster rampages, and tragic true life events for the biggest dramatic and visual stage. Unfortunately, many of these films land much more strongly on the side of spectacle, wearing their big emotions on plainly on the screen alongside the heavy reliance on effects and stunts. As we’ve talked about throughout this week’s look at disaster films, they can be the ultimate popcorn movies, warts and all. There is no lack of the genre available on streaming services, including the prominent run from the mid-1990s that are highlighted below. Many more, including the classics from the genre, are available for digital rental, as well.
Twister [Jan de Bont, 1996]
Available on Amazon Prime
Kicking off the late-90s resurgence of natural disaster films, Twister was a huge hit, grossing nearly a half billion dollars world-wide, behind only Independence Day [which is a different subgenre of disaster films, though I avoided alien invasions for this list] for biggest box office draw of 1996. Unlike the storms, fires, earthquakes of the classic disaster films, tornadoes are much more difficult to capture on film, especially in any realistic way. With special effects booms in the early to mid 90s, Twister became a real possibility with the work of famed production house Industrial Light and Magic. While the physical and scientific aspects of the twister may not all be incredibly sound [flying cow / perfectly stable truck, anyone?], the effects still look convincing. As for the story, two storm chasers whose marriage is falling apart must work together to develop a more advanced alert system when confronted with the title’s natural force, well… it might not be quite as convincing. Still, Twister is a definite nostalgia trip and a fun entry into a genre that would grow increasingly huge and crazy over the following decades.
Titanic [James Cameron, 1997]
Available on Netflix
Whether it’s because of its insane crossover success or the universal love story at the center, but I’m not sure most people think of James Cameron’s Titanic as a disaster film. It may have more going on than most in the genre, but the film’s heart is still a giant ship meeting a giant iceberg. Unlike the thrills of The Poseidon Adventure’s survival plot, Titanic is full of emotion—as the ship goes down, we never leave the lives of the ill-fated passengers and their deaths are deeply felt. This emotion is aided by the true accounts the film is based on, though much of the narrative tells on the fictional account of Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt Bukater. It isn’t unusual for disaster films to include a romantic plot, but it usually isn’t the focus, instead a device to add some stakes so we’ll root for the characters’ safety. For Jack and Rose, the ship going down adds plenty of stakes, sure, but the story is from the world of romantic literature, not disasters.
Armageddon [Michael Bay, 1998]
Available on Netflix
A personal favorite of the genre, Michael Bay’s bombastic space epic is the epitome of 90s blockbusters. It’s big, loud, and hits on seemingly every tone on the spectrum. The plot’s main thrust—expert oil drillers being hired to land on an asteroid hurtling toward earth in order to drill explosives into its core—is beyond ludicrous, but sure is a lot of fun. In retrospect, the cast is unbelievable, featuring mega-star Bruce Willis, future mega-star Ben Affleck, the under-utilized Liv Tyler, and rounded out by wonderful character actors including Steve Buscemi, Billy Bob Thornton, Will Patton, William Fichtner, Owen Wilson, Michael Clarke Duncan, Peter Stormare, and Keith David. It’s a rag-tag group, but nicely well-rounded to provide good comedy, drama, romance, and everything in between. Only his third feature film, Michael Bay would go on to become one of Hollywood’s biggest filmmakers and one of the most critically reviled. Armageddon was a definite precursor to his upcoming filmography, though it is far from as soulless.
Deep Impact [Mimi Leder, 1998]
Available on Amazon Prime
The other asteroid [OK, yes, it was a comet here] film of 1998, Deep Impact is more than an “also-ran” when compared to the marginally more successful Armageddon. It’s not quite as overly emotional or quite as scientifically unstable as its direct competition [it’s all relative], but it is a through-and-through disaster epic, with an awesome and terrifying tsunami climax. Unlike some other disaster films, which clumsily try to inspire hope amongst cynical tones, this satisfactorily preaches kindness and hope in the most dire times. Deep Impact also features an equally impressive and even more experienced cast, including Robert Duvall, Elijah Wood, Vanessa Redgrave, Maximilian Schell, Téa Leoni, and Morgan Freeman as the President of the United States [at a time when that was a novel idea!]. And as one of the few Hollywood blockbusters directed by a woman, Deep Impact is a welcome rarity—it held the record for gross from a female-directed film until it was overtaken by Catherine Hardwicke’s Twilight.
Airplane! [Jim Abrahams, David Zucker & Jerry Zucker, 1980]
Available on Amazon Prime w/ Starz Subscription
The measuring stick for a good parody film is how the film stacks up within its genre, not just as a comedic reflection of it. Airplane! Is perhaps the prime example of a parody film that actually defines the genre. No other disaster film is as popular or beloved than the wacky send off. Few films of any genre are as quotable, either—Airplane! is so indelible that an entire ad campaign for the tourism board of Wisconsin reunited the characters and basically just repeated jokes some 35 years later without the fear of no recognition. Another indicator of a good spoof is its relatability without knowing the sources of its jokes, and Airplane! passes this criteria with flying colors. It is broad enough to encompass all the basic details of the disaster genre, but its comedic sensibility is clear and consistent. Unlike many parody films [even some good ones], Airplane! is never frazzled narratively nor does it feel like just a collection of references and jokes. It is silly and stupid in all the right ways… and don’t call me Shirley!