I love a good disaster movie, but what makes it “good” can be subjective. For instance, it doesn’t necessarily have to be realistic in order for me to love it – I mean, come on, The Poseidon Adventure is going to be on this list, and that’s about as far-fetched as it can get. What makes me like disaster movies? A good cast. Well-rounded supporting characters. A sympathetic/likable character who dies. Somewhat of a plot – as in, not just explosion after explosion followed by senseless death after senseless death, just for the action/drama.
Now, because there’s no way for me to list these in the order in which I like them (I enjoy them all equally!), this is alphabetical. Oh, fairness.
1. Dante’s Peak I don’t think I even knew what this was about when I went to go see it, all I knew was that Linda Hamilton was in it, and after the Terminator movies I’ll pretty much watch anything she does. This movie has one of my favorite supporting casts; the vulcanoligist team (IMHO) sets the bar for “team of quirky scientists who work really well together”. I would watch the shit out of a TV series that featured only them, travelling around the world, studying volcanoes.
2. The Day After Jason Robards! Steven Guttenberg! JoBeth Williams! John Lithgow! Man, did this movie ever scare the pants off me as a child, especially having recently read Alas, Babylon for the first time a year or two before seeing this movie. The actual nuclear war only lasts a minute or two of the film; the rest is about survival… if you can even call it that. This is not a hopeful film, but it’s an honest film, and made me think even at that young an age, “how can we know this would be the end result and still have these weapons pointed at each other?”. The scene where the family shows up for church still kills me, as does the scene where Jason Robards finds what’s left of his house.
3. Deep Impact Robert Duvall! Téa Leoni! Frodo! Morgan Freeman as the President! I think my favorites are the supporting characters, though; Vanessa Redgrave, Maximilian Schell, and Laura Innes (who I think has the best character arc in the film, going from spiteful to sympathetic over the course of the movie). I liked that this movie focused more on the human drama rather than the drama of special effects (although, sure, there are some). People made faulty choices, came to wrong conclusions, did the wrong thing and then tried to do the right thing to fix it, put their loved ones first (or didn’t), or chose their own way out. I find those things more appealing about end-of-the-world scenarios, more so than spectacular special effects.
4. The Poseidon Adventure Gene Hackman, *not* playing a bad guy! Shelly Winters! Ernest Borgnine! Roddy McDowell! Grandpa Joe! This one probably has my favorite complete ensemble cast; meaning, I couldn’t pick out any one above the other as a lead. I grok that Gene Hackman is supposed to be the lead, but you can’t tell me that Roddy McDowell and Shelly Winters (especially Shelly) don’t stand out, or that Ernest Borgnine doesn’t chew through every scene he’s in like a grizzled old badger. Sure. The premise is unlikely. Improbable, even, if not outright impossible. But who isn’t cheering for them to get to the bottom – now the top – of the ship by the end of the movie?! Let’s just not mention the 1979 sequel, or the remake in the early 2000s. Those are both dead to me – this is a stand-alone film. Oscar winning, too!
5. Twister Helen Hunt! Bill Paxton, *not* playing a bad guy OR an asshole! Philip Seymour Hoffman! A cow! And my second favorite team of nerdy scientists who work well together. Not to mention that you know I want to be Aunt Meg when I grow up… living in the country in a beautiful big house, making crazy art, giving no fucks, and making everyone feel welcome when they unexpectedly drop by. Yes, this one is heavy on the special effects, and the end tornado showdown is highly improbable… but I do like the characters and if this is on when I’m flipping channels, I can’t help but stop and watch.
Honorable mentions: Earthquake and The Towering Inferno which both, granted, have fantastic casts and focus more on the people than the disaster itself.
Tip of the hat to Contagion and Outbreak… if I could think of three more, I’d do a post on five favorite plague/virus films (could I squeeze The Stand in there, the miniseries from the 90s?).