Movies are great at showing us things we’d never want to see in real life. You won’t find a much bigger fan of horror films than yours truly — and yet I generally avoid reading too much “real world” news because I get depressed very easily. And while there are few things more horrific than hearing about an earthquake that claimed thousands of lives, there’s also something oddly appealing about watching fictional renditions of natural disasters. Deep down we’re all well aware that a tornado, tsunami, or tremor could swallow us up, so perhaps it’s more than a little cathartic to see fictional characters fail and prevail in the face of Mother Nature’s most outrageous assaults.
The late Irwin Allen recognized the psychology of the “disaster film” long before anyone else. He kick-started the entire sub-genre back in 1972 with the still-great upside-down cruise ship misadventure known as The Poseidon Adventure, and he followed that up with 1974’s kinda corny but still-terrifying The Towering Inferno. But once those films became huge hits, the disaster movie movement expanded in scope, scale, and scariness (or silliness, depending on who you ask). Since at least the mid-1970s, filmmakers have been cooking up new and exciting ways in which to kill thousands of screaming people — and these ones seem to be the most popular:
Producer Jennings Lang was among the first to capitalize on the earliest stages of the disaster movie boom; his Airport 1975 would go on to spawn a trio of sequels, and his 1974 “SenSurround” epic known as Earthquake had all the trappings of an Irwin Allen production — only this time on a much larger scale. True to form, Earthquake offered a collection of big stars (Charlton Heston! Ava Gardner! Lorne Greene!) who go about a predictable series of everyday exploits – and then all of Los Angeles gets ripped apart by “the big one!” The early melodrama is rather banal but it sure seems like Universal opened the purse-strings on special effects; it’s corny and dated, but to be fair Earthquake does feature some rather suspenseful set pieces and more than a few eye-popping spectacles of destruction… which is usually all we want from a movie about earthquakes.
That’s as big as cinematic earthquakes would get for the next 35 years — my apologies to fans of TV movies like Deathquake and Megafault — because that’s when Irwin Allen v2.0 (aka Roland Emmerich) switched on his CG machines and made the whole planet quake in the wildly goofy but undeniably eye-popping 2012. Mr. Emmerich had already committed a whole lot of cinematic demolition with Independence Day (1996), Godzilla (1998), and The Day After Tomorrow (2004), but he clearly wanted 2012 (2009) to be the grand-slam, all-time, mega-buffet of quake-related chaos. What is it that actually causes all hell to break loose? Who knows? Something having to do with Mayan prophecies, solar flares, John Cusack, and the magnetic pull of the Earth’s core, although I may be making that last one up. All we know for sure is that 2012 has to hold some sort of world record for Most Deaths Recorded in a PG-13 Film.
Which means that this weekend’s San Andreas could actually end up becoming “The Best Earthquake Movie Ever,” which is a title I just made up, and all it has to do is be better than Earthquake and 2012. I say those are some pretty good odds.
AVALANCHES AND VOLCANOES
It’s tough to destroy the whole world with avalanches or volcanoes when only a small portion of the world resides beneath mountains, but that hasn’t stopped a few filmmakers from giving it their best shot. Roger Corman jumped into the disaster pool with the pretty darn terrible Avalanche (1978), a film in which a bunch of big stars (Rock Hudson! Mia Farrow! Robert Forster!) contend with a massive avalanche at a Colorado resort. This is a remarkably bad movie, even on the disaster movie scale of awfulness: the actors look bored, the special effects are laughable, and there’s just enough “action” to fill a trailer.
Not surprisingly, the “avalanche” isn’t the centerpiece of all that many movies, although it does make a cameo appearance in “all-out disaster attack!” movies like Meteor (1979), 2012 (2009), and A Very Brady Christmas (1988). Beyond those, you’ll have to pick between B-movies and TV productions with titles like Avalanche Express (1979) and Escape from Alaska (1999). Disaster aficionados were undoubtedly disappointed when Martin Campbell’s Vertical Limit (2000) failed to kick-start a new rash of avalanche movies — although it’s actually not a bad little adventure movie.
But, as any fan of the genre can tell you, there’s no shortage of goofy yet entertaining volcano movies to sift through. Irwin Allen’s final theatrical release was the pretty woeful When Time Ran Out (1980), which saw an all-star cast (Paul Newman! Jacqueline Bisset! Ernest Borgnine!) running from lava at a swanky tropical resort. It wasn’t until 1997 that we got not one but two big-screen lava geysers in Dante’s Peak and Volcano, both of which have their fair share of fans, and then in 2014 we got Pompeii, which probably doesn’t have all that many fans at all. Only so much you can do with a volcano, I suppose.
ASTEROIDS, METEORS & COMETS
We could go all the way back to Rudolph Mate’s fantastic 1951 sci-fi film When Worlds Collide to get a taste of what would happen if a star (and a planet!) decided to smack into Earth, cause all sorts of disasters, and inspire humanity to build itself a getaway rocket — but there has been no shortage of “Earth vs. Space Junk” movies over the years. And, unlike When Worlds Collide, they’re generally pretty terrible.
One need only sit down and try to watch 1979’s Meteor, in which Poseidon Adventure director Ronald Neame delivers the death blow to the 1970s-era disaster movie. It’s not just that the stable of big stars (Sean Connery! Natalie Wood! Henry Fonda!) seem alternately bored and embarrassed by the starchy proceedings, but it doesn’t help that the film contains some of the chintziest special effects ever conceived for a disaster movie. For a movie about an interstellar impact that’s supposed to cause all sorts of crazy disaster mayhem on Earth, Meteor is a remarkably uneventful film.
Indeed, Meteor was such a monumental stinker that it helped to finish the first wave of disaster movies, but that all changed in 1998, because that’s when Deep Impact threw an all-star cast (Morgan Freeman! Tea Leoni! Robert Duvall!) at a comet and Armageddon threw an all-star cast (Bruce Willis! Liv Tyler! Ben Affleck!) onto an asteroid. Both movies made a pretty big impact (sorry) at the box office, thanks mainly to digital effects technology that people like Irwin Allen and Ronald Neame would have killed for — and it’s comforting to note that, despite the proliferation of staggeringly realistic special effects, both movies maintain the earnest, goofy, and frequently cornball tone that were so prevalent in the disaster flicks of the 1970s. And if you think Armageddon is a bad movie, I dare you to watch Meteor.
If you had to tie Roland Emmerich’s outlandishly silly 2004 movie The Day After Tomorrow to one specific disaster, you could say “flood!” but it’s much more amusing to attribute all of the misery to plain, old, simple… winter. Yep! Our heroes don’t have to survive an earthquake or avoid an avalanche; they actually have to thwart… coldness. Note the film’s most ridiculous scene, in which an all-star cast (Dennis Quaid! Emmy Rossum! Jake Gyllenhaal!) tries to stay one step ahead of the encroaching cold. Yes, an actual chase scene in which the pursuer is nothing but temperature. It’s pretty bizarre.
Once again Emmerich takes the “disaster porn” route, which means that even though millions of people are dead, we’re still asked to care about the plight of four patently uninteresting people and their non-stop whining. It’s as if the filmmakers assume we’re there solely for the digital carnage, so they don’t bother putting much effort into things like tension, excitement, or character. (I have digressed. Let’s just say I’m not a big Roland Emmerich fan and leave it at that.) But yes, as far as ice age movies are concerned, The Day After Tomorrow is only slightly less realistic than, well, Ice Age (2002).
We all know that Mother Nature has a wide array of weapons in her arsenal, but her earthquakes, avalanches, and tornadoes come off like child’s play whenever some angry aliens show up and start making trouble. Interstellar visitors have caused global concerns as far back as the 1950s, as evidenced in classic sci-fi films like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), War of the Worlds (1953), and Invaders from Mars (1953) — but, again, we weren’t able to truly enjoy a full-bore alien invasion until the magic of CGI was introduced to the masses — and man oh man did we eat it up.
Arguably the least offensively stupid film from Roland Emmerich, Independence Day (1996) drew in huge crowds thanks solely to the dazzling spaceship effects and the promise of numerous explosions — but (as usual) the characters are a collection of one-note caricatures. One certainly doesn’t expect Shakespeare from an alien invasion movie, but there’s no reason this all-star cast (Will Smith! Mary McDonnell! Judd Hirsch!) should come off quite this silly. To be fair, if we’re judging a movie like Independence Day solely on how well it blows stuff up, then sure, it’s pretty fun stuff. I still say that ending pushes the envelope of stupidity about 15 degrees too far.
Fortunately Steven Spielberg came along a few years later and showed everyone how an all-out alien invasion movie could be more than just a collection of exploding buildings. His 2005 rendition of War of the Worlds holds up surprisingly well ten years later, and it’s mainly because there’s some actual heart, humanity, and humor wedged in amongst all the alien-related mayhem. Also horror. This is probably Spielberg’s scariest film since Jaws.
Speaking of scary, not all alien invasions are quite as overt as the ones seen in Independence Day and War of the Worlds. One clever way of taking over the world is to replace all of the humans with carbon-copy slave creatures, and that’s precisely what goes down in the classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and the (even better) 1978 rendition from Philip Kaufman. These invaders have no need for spaceships, laser guns, or anal probes. No, they just wait until you fall asleep and then replace you with a pod-borne clone that turns you into a desiccated husk that gets tossed in the garbage.
Both versions have their own juicy subtext to savor, but taken solely on the department of impressively effective ways of destroying humanity, they’re also incredibly creepy movies. (Thanks in large part to how they end: darkly.) Abel Ferrara’s 1993 adaptation (called simply Body Snatchers) is actually quite a nifty little thriller that goes off in some of its own directions, whereas the 2003 version (called simply The Invasion) is a stunningly drab mess from start to finish, which makes no sense when you consider they had Jack Finney’s source material and three good films to use as study guides.
In recent years our alien invaders have taken all sorts of forms, from the militaristic monsters in Battleship, Skyline, and Battle Los Angeles to the insectoid creatures of Attack the Block, Slither, and Starship Troopers — and let’s not forget the angry goofballs from Tim Burton’s admirably weird Mars Attacks! Our angriest alien invaders are nothing if not versatile. And don’t even get me started on The Blob. Both the 1958 original and the underrated 1988 remake do a fine job of demonstrating how an amorphous mass can devour a small town… but let’s think bigger! I think we’re all ready for a Blob to eat New York. Or at least Chicago.
HURRICANES, TORNADOES, FLOODS, AND STORMS
Aside from in the “all disasters attack” movies like 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and storms are generally pretty localized and therefore do not offer much of a threat to the world as a whole. But this piece wouldn’t be complete without at least mentioning the drearily awful Hurricane (1979), the amiably stupid Twister (1996), the oddly energetic Hard Rain (1998), the enjoyably intense The Perfect Storm (2000), and the powerfully effective The Impossible (2012). So consider them mentioned.
For a few decades the story of the “zombie apocalypse” was written by one man, and his name is George A. Romero. To say that his original zombie trilogy — Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978), and Day of the Dead (1985) — was “influential” is like saying that one of his undead creatures are “mildly hungry.” But it wasn’t until well after Tom Savini’s 1990 remake of the original film that “the zombie apocalypse” became such a broad and varied landscape.
We can probably thank Zack Snyder’s 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake for bringing the zombie back into the Hollywood spotlight, and while several of the copycats were content to simply churn out their own mindless zombie tales (and the occasional gem like Shaun of the Dead), other producers were focused on the long haul. AMC’s The Walking Dead still manages to bring in huge numbers every Sunday night, and the Netflix “shelves” are stuffed to overflowing with all sorts of low-budget zombie movies (a few of which are actually good), but it wasn’t until 2013’s World War Z that Hollywood decided to throw some serious money at a full-scale, global-assault zombie epidemic. And despite some highly-publicized production problems and a price-tag that allegedly hit $200,000,000 (for a zombie movie?!?), the end result was a surprisingly entertaining and unexpectedly intense combination of horror, action, and disaster movie. And yes, there is a sequel on the way.
Hoo boy. There are way too many directions to go in here. Do you want the stark, sober and horrifying nuclear holocausts of The Day After (1983), Testament (1983), or When the Wind Blows (1986) — or the no less terrifying but slightly more energetic nuclear holocausts of Planet of the Apes (1968), The Road Warrior (1981), or The Book of Eli (2010)? As someone who grew up actively terrified of a nuclear war, I prefer the latter category. The Road Warrior never gave me nightmares like The Day After did. And you simply haven’t lived until you’ve seen the post-apocalyptic mania of Mad Max: Fury Road on a big screen. If only a few more of the Hollywood apocalypses were half this cool.
SOMETHING VAGUELY OMINOUS ABOUT THE EARTH’S CORE
Digging deep into the Earth’s core is nothing new in popular fiction. Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth was adapted into a good film in 1959 and a pretty bad film in 2008. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ At the Earth’s Core got a low-budget AIP adaptation in 1976. But it wasn’t until the post-Armageddon disaster movie resurgence that we got… The Core, a 2003 disaster movie that (without question) ranks among the silliest disaster movies you’ll ever see. And that includes both the remake and the sequel to The Poseidon Adventure.
Here we have (all together now) an “all-star cast” (Aaron Eckhart! Hilary Swank! Stanley Tucci!) who climb into an allegedly unbreakable drill and bore deep into the Earth in order to kick-start the core with a series of nuclear explosions. I think. Meanwhile, on the surface, radiation melts the Golden Gate Bridge and magnets go on strike. Or something. I’ve seen the film three times and I still don’t fully understand the premise or the science of The Core. I do know that the drill is made out of something called “Unobtainium,” which is a clear signal to all that The Core is not meant to be taken very seriously. But it’s still really silly.
Firestorm (1998) is all it took. Howie Long solved everything in one movie. Took down a bunch of convicts at the same time, too.
Scott Weinberg is a film critic of 15-plus years for FEARnet, Cinematical, Nerdist, The Horror Show, Geek Nation, and others. He tweets at @scotteweinberg.