Blame it on Irwin Allen. The producer who towered over the Golden Age of disaster movies in the 1970s may not have been the first to hit upon the winning formula of mixing an all-star cast, multiple plotlines, and mortal peril, but the Master of Disaster elevated watching stars struggle for survival to an art. We invite you to sit back, relax, and enjoy Darwinism in action in the following ten disaster classics.
10. The Perfect Storm (2000)
As they say in New England, if you don’t like the weather, wait a minute. Adapted from Sebstian Junger’s bestseller, Storm pits unlikely commercial fishermen George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg and their boat the Andrea Gail against once-in-a-lifetime rough seas when they sail into the storm of the century. But this is no feature-length wet T-shirt contest: In this man vs. nature epic, a subplot featuring love interest Diane Lane and solid supporting actors like John C. Reilly and William Fichtner all get swept away by the wrath of some wicked big CGI waves.
9. Earthquake (1974)
Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, Genevieve Bujold, Richard “Shaft” Roundtree, and genre-staple George Kennedy brave unlikely plot twists and shifting tectonic plates when the big one hits southern California. Think Crash with aftershocks. Notable mostly for its use of “Sensurround,” a gimmick that used bass speakers set in the floor to simulate earthquake rumbles in theaters, this disaster flick about the destruction of Los Angeles almost seems like an exercise in Hollywood wish fulfillment.
8. Twister (1996)
Bill Paxton (a weatherman!) and Helen Hunt (a scientist!) play a storm-chasing couple on the brink of divorce who bicker, track tornadoes with names like “The Finger of God,” and dodge flying bovines. OK, maybe just one cow. Still, the number of objects that get airborne is sickly satisfying. The Weather Channel might offer more three-dimensional characters, but how often do you get a movie where Mother Nature serves as marriage counselor?
7. Dante’s Peak (1997)
Pacific Northwest hamlet Dante’s Peak has just been named second-best small town in America, but it sits atop a volcano thought long dormant. Then ex-Bond Pierce Brosnan comes to town, which is when I’d start packing. A star “volcanologist” who’s already lost one lady love to lava, he falls for the mayor, played by Terminator ‘s Linda Hamilton in ass-kicking mode. Yeah, time to leave. The mountain blows its top in satisfyingly realistic style, and yet the lovers still manage to outrun the blast. Win-win!
6. Armageddon (1998)
asteroid the size of Texas is on a collision course with earth? Leave
it to master driller Bruce Willis and roughnecks Ben Affleck, Owen
Wilson, and Steve Buscemi to deploy a nuclear bomb and an overload of
special effects to save the planet. Deep Impact
— released the same year — opted to deploy real actors like Robert
Duvall and Morgan Freeman to deal with an extinction-level event, but
they’re no match for director Michael Bay’s awesome mastery of CGI
explosions and the delicious empty calories of a love scene that
involves animal crackers and an Aerosmith song.
5. The Day After (1983)
movies aren’t always big-screen blockbusters. In fact, one of the most
graphic fictional depictions of a nuclear blast and its aftermath aired
on network television. This cautionary Cold War classic follows Kansan
survivors like Jason Robards and JoBeth Williams after Soviet ICBMs
strike the heartland, leaving those not vaporized instantly to suffer
from starvation and radioactive fallout. The psychic fallout may be
harder to measure, but this missiles and mushroom clouds movie renewed
Duck and Cover paranoia in a whole generation of viewers.
4. The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
Some might find Al Gore’s PowerPoint presentation The Inconvenient Truth
scarier, but no one can claim Roland Emmerich failed to pull out the
stops in this movie about the effects of accelerated global warming.
Taking a page from almost all of its disaster flick forebears, the film
flings hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, and an ice age at
its paleo-climatologist hero (Dennis Quaid) as he tries to save his son
(Jake Gyllenhaal) — and the world. Quaid gets to say “I told you so,”
but the world is left a sadder, wiser — and wetter — place.
3. Airport (1970)
The granddaddy of the modern day disaster movie spawned three sequels (and the endlessly quotable spoof Airplane !), but the star-studded original is still the best of the bunch. Based on a best seller by Alex Haley, Airport‘s
convoluted subplots link Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin as brothers;
Jean Seberg and Jacqueline Bisset as airline employees; multiple Oscar
winner Helen Hayes as a stowaway; and, yes, George Kennedy in this
thriller about a stressed-out, snowed-in airport and a plane with a
bomber on board.
2. The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
liner the Poseidon is struck by a tidal wave. At midnight. On New
Year’s Eve. Cue histrionic bathos. As the water floods into the
ballroom, drowning the revelers, it’s every star passenger for himself.
Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Roddy McDowell, Stella Stevens, Pamela
Sue Anderson, and the unforgettable Shelley Winters scale an enormous
aluminum Christmas tree and dodge steam, fire, and floods as they try
to survive this killer cruise. Poseidon was nominated for 13
Oscars, winning one for its melodramatic theme song, “The Morning
After.” The 2006 remake only proved you shouldn’t mess with perfection.
1. The Towering Inferno (1972)
Allen put A-list actors Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Fred Astaire, Faye
Dunaway, and other lesser luminaries inside the shoddily constructed
world’s tallest skyscraper — and then set the whole thing ablaze. Fire
chief McQueen teams with Newman to lead the daring rescues; together
they work to save women, children, and the hundreds of dignitaries
trapped on the top floor. The suspense mounts as stairs are ascended
and descended, and every effect looks so unnervingly realistic you’ll
be changing the batteries in your smoke alarms.
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