21 Disaster Movies You Should Absolutely Watch Right Now
Lava and twisters and asteroids, oh my.
Disaster movies—those often star-studded, effects-laden blockbusters about people dealing with or attempting to thwart catastrophic incidents—rose to prominence in the '70s, thanks to the massive success of Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, and The Towering Inferno. Possibly due to oversaturation or being spoofed by Airplane!, the genre went into a decade-long dormancy, like a volcano, only to erupt in the mid-'90s with smaller-scale disaster epics and doomsday thrillers about the tornadoes, asteroids, icebergs, and yes, volcanoes that threaten us, and have been an intermittent staple of the Hollywood release calendar ever since. The movies below, a mix of ludicrous adrenaline rushes, dramatic tear-jerkers, and angst-inducing sci-fi, represent the best of the genre from the past several decades.
The more famous of 1998's "astronomical projectile imperils Earth" blockbusters, Armageddon is worth a watch (or re-watch) regardless of your feelings about Michael Bay movie-making prowess. It's a true sci-fi spectacle, with scenes of meteoric destruction that channel Michelangelo and add much-needed visual flair to this overly long and manipulative sensory assault. The ludicrous mission to blow up the space rock hurtling towards Earth is the closest we'll come to a Bay-directed opera. In 1998, the cast was the main draw, with Hollywood vet Bruce Willis sparring with relative newcomer Ben Affleck, and zeitgeist supporting turns by Steve Buscemi, Liv Tyler, Owen Wilson, Billy Bob Thornton, and so many more. These days, the macho fist-pumping patriotism and frequent religious platitudes grate pretty hard, but to paraphrase Aerosmith's soundtrack hit, you don't want to miss a thing.
During the first few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, this tense disease thriller shot to the top of the iTunes rental charts as curious, worried viewers looked to the movies for a way to process the events unfolding in headlines and on the nightly news. Always a discreet and exacting stylist, director Stephen Soderbergh doesn't exactly deliver the straightforward Matt Damon-starring disaster docudrama that you might expect given the material. Instead, Contagion has a mischievous quality as it bounces between different government, medical, and scientific teams hoping to stop the spread of a deadly virus. There's plenty of grim paranoia, yes, but there's also dark humor and even a hint of hope.
The Core (2003)
Listen, it's simple: All we have to do is build a heat-proof ship shaped like a giant tube to drill down beneath the Earth's crust, swim through hundreds of miles of molten magma, and ignite a bunch of nuclear depth charges to restart the rotation of the planet's core, so that Earth's magnetic field won't collapse and heat-lightning storms won't barbecue our greatest landmarks. If that premise doesn't hook you, the cast of this movie will, teaming astronaut Hilary Swank and academic Aaron Eckhart with astronaut Bruce Greenwood, haughty tectonic specialist Stanley Tucci and his disgruntled former partner Delroy Lindo on an impossible mission to save humanity. It's also not a spoiler to say that the multiple dramatic deaths-by-lava rank within the top 20 movie deaths of all time.
Dante's Peak (1997)
Just like the twinned apocalyptic-object movies Deep Impact and Armageddon a year later, the lava-centric thrillers Dante's Peak and Volcano arrived in theaters only a few months apart in 1997 and don't have much in common beyond their inherent existential threat. For one thing, Dante's Peak—which follows a sad volcanologist played by Pierce Brosnan, fresh off his debut as James Bond in GoldenEye, as he becomes increasingly Chicken Little-y about the titular mountain's likelihood to blow its top and wipe out a tiny Northwest town whose mayor is played by Linda Hamilton—concerns an actual volcano. This movie also boasts some choice '90s nostalgia, including Grant Heslov's coffee-obsessed geologist during Starbucks' post-grunge-era surge, but adds in some commentary relevant to our current pandemic. Brosnan's scientific concerns are undermined by his boss's political decision to suppress the truth about a potential eruption, so as to minimize pushback from locals over the economic impact it might have, and only accepts facts once the ash and lava start spewing forth, far too late to get everyone out alive, including himself. Prescient.
The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
Disaster-movie specialist Roland Emmerich got some heat (no pun intended) from scientists upon the release of this blockbuster starring Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal—but we can wholeheartedly recommend it for entertainment purposes, even though, according to (real) paleoclimatologist William Hyde, the film is "to climate science as Frankenstein is to heart transplant surgery." The ice-age phenomenon portrayed in the film is a result of melting ice caps and a chaotic array of global super storms—in the realm of possibility, but not in its actual depiction, where a natural doomsday suddenly transforms the world into complete chaos, especially in Manhattan, where high-school academic decathlete Gyllenhaal is forced to shelter at the New York Public Library while also fending off ravenous zoo wolves as he waits for paleoclimatologist daddy Quaid to rescue him. While the film’s special effects were impressive for the mid-2000s, the over-the-top "what if?" scenario spawned a slew of imitators that envisioned similarly quick descents into glacial epochs.
Deep Impact (1998)
It's rare that a disaster movie actually stops to consider the sadness inherent in an actual disaster, but Mimi Leder's Deep Impact does. It's one of the reasons why this notorious second fiddle is one of the most soulful entries in the genre. Coming out the same summer as Armageddon, Deep Impact has been historically overshadowed by Michael Bay's more macho take on the astronomical-object-will-destroy-us-all trope, and side-by-side, they're indicative of how a director's point of view can shape similar material. After a first act featuring a space mission to stop the deadly comet led by Robert Duvall, Leder mostly turns her attention to the souls back on Earth grappling with the sacrifices that must be made in times of crisis. Essentially, the last hour of this movie is people tenderly saying goodbye to their loved ones. Sure, there's technically a happy ending, but the most indelible image from the movie is Téa Leoni's journalist hugging her estranged father as they are engulfed by a tidal wave with no possibility of survival. It's a disaster movie that's actually bleak and it's all the better for it.
Who could have predicted that in the near future, after humanity has tamed the Earth's weather systems with a network of satellites orbiting far above the surface, nefarious individuals would take control of those satellites and wreak havoc on the global population, setting off a chain reaction that can only result in one thing? Yes, the word "geostorm" is said many times, which is delightful every time. Everything about this movie serves is silliness with aplomb: Gerard Butler plays a satellite designer who is shot up into space to, essentially, reboot a computer, while the president, who has the keys to the satellites, gets kidnapped by a secret service agent with a self-driving taxi.
The scale of the disaster in Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity is simultaneously both intimate and vast. The fate of the world is not at stake. Instead, it's just the survival of one woman who is faced with the emptiness of space. Upon release there was much ink spilled over the supremely tense, nearly 20-minute long opening sequence, presented as if it were in an unbroken take. People freaked out over the filmmaking for good reason—it's tragic and a recipe for frayed nerves, but the rest of the movie is a testament to the power of Sandra Bullock's fearless performance. You're with her as she persists through the emptiness.
Independence Day (1996)
"Today we celebrate our Independence Day," bellows Bill Pullman's President Thomas J. Whitmore in his climactic speech to a motley group of fighter pilots assembled to take out an enormous spacecraft bent on total destruction of the planet. It's a great, ridiculous speech, delivered by a Commander in Chief who is about to strap into the cockpit of a jet to kick some alien ass encapsulating the bombastic appeal of director Roland Emmerich's science-fiction disaster epic. The film finds Will Smith's swaggering cool guy and Jeff Golblum's babbling nerd teaming up to save the world, with an eventual crucial assist by crop duster Randy Quaid. With its massive explosions and reliance on spectacle, Independence Day was received in the '90s as a new strain of mega-blockbuster, one willing to blow up the White House, but there's an old-fashioned hokeyness to the storytelling that makes it feel downright quaint two decades later.
What if the apocalypse was here but you were too depressed to do anything but exist? Lars von Trier's Melancholia addresses as much as a family melodrama, an apocalypse movie, a fantasy epic, and a symbolic meditation on mental illness all at once. With a first act that focuses on Justine (played by Kirsten Dunst), a severely depressed bride-to-be struggling to make it through her nuptials, its part two shifts the focus to her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), as both she and Justine react very differently to the discovery that a rogue planet is on a direct collision course with Earth. Overflowing with stunningly evocative imagery and devastating performances, Melancholia is one of the all-time best cinematic representations of depression, one that will haunt you long after the closing credits.
In the tradition of many disaster blockbuster movies, the title of Roland Emmerich's cosmic masterpiece Moonfall gives you everything you need to know. Moonfall is a movie about the moon falling, specifically onto the Earth after being jolted out of its orbit by a malfunction coming from, apparently, deep inside the moon itself. The only people who can save humanity are an internet "megastructurist" conspiracy theorist (John Bradley), a disgraced former astronaut (Patrick Wilson), and NASA's hotshot deputy director (Halle Berry), who must brave catastrophic weather events, tsunamis, a nuclear threat, and space program bureaucracy to board a rocket and find out why the moon is acting all weird. In other words, it's pure cinema.
The Perfect Storm (2000)
Based on Sebastian Junger's bestselling non-fiction title about a Massachusetts fishing boat lost at sea in the midst of a massive storm in 1991, this George Clooney star vehicle understands the terror and wonder of a giant body of water. Director Wolfgang Peterson, who also helmed 1981's German submarine classic Das Boot, knows how to drench a bunch of shouting, gesticulating movie stars as they wildly emote in the face of nature's more unforgiving tendencies. Huge gusts of wind, massive waves rising from the depths, and even the calm before the titular storm—it's all here in one unbearably tense study of what a big visual effects budget could buy back in 2000. Don't forget your rain slicker.
If you're itching for a staid romance set during one of the greatest natural disasters ever to hit mankind, you could do worse than Pompeii, a movie that charms with lengthy shots of Game of Thrones star Kit Harington's abs before setting an entire ancient Roman city ablaze. Harington plays Milo, aka The Celt," a former Briton tribesman who was sold into slavery after the quashed rebellion of the Brigantes (led by Queen Cartimandua, Google it!) and now makes his way as a gladiator hunting down the general who murdered his family. The effects-heavy movie's credits include "with Jared Harris and Kiefer Sutherland," the latter as a power-hungry Roman senator in a way that can only be described as simpering.
San Andreas (2015)
Nothing drives home the fact that human society is living on the brink at all times more than the knowledge of the San Andreas faultline grinding its gears underneath the state of California, ready to reshape our nation's entire coastline at any moment anticipated to be the next "big one." Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson plays a helicopter rescue firefighter who commandeers a number of vehicles to rescue the members of his family from cities reduced to collapsing skyscrapers and piles of rubble. The film set off a chain reaction of its own, launching Johnson into a string of films that cast him as some kind of fireman or former-Special-Forces-soldier-turned-primatologist or former-Marine-turned-private-security-consultant who almost always has a daughter in need of rescuing. You know, The Rock. Your classic everyman hometown hero and the guy you'd want on your side when the world goes to hell.
This Is the End (2013)
Disaster films can be funny because of how silly they often are, but rarely is it intentional. Enter: This Is the End, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's half-parody of celebrity and half-rapture scenario. As with most of Rogen's oeuvre, This Is the End is mostly just about bros being bros. It all begins as a hangout comedy where Jay Baruchel, playing himself as everyone else is in this movie, comes to visit Seth in LA. Jay is uncomfortable with Seth's Hollywood lifestyle, which becomes glaringly evident at James Franco's housewarming party attended by Rihanna, Mindy Kaling, Jason Segel, and a coked-up Michael Cera. And then the apocalypse starts. The brutal kills and plentiful cameos are the funniest parts of the movie, but it also has some thoughts on excess and friendship.
Grab a box of tissues, review your favorite super-dramatic quotes, then travel back to the time before Leonardo DiCaprio was a bearded playboy dadbod-ing it up with supermodels. Over two decades after its release, James Cameron's retelling of the R.M.S. Titanic tragedy still earns its runtime and unspools as one of the greatest love stories among disaster in movie history. Never seen this classic? You gotta. Its 11 Academy Awards are no joke, and if DiCaprio and Kate Winslet don't leave you at least misty-eyed by the end of this emotional marathon, you'll at least know you have to get your head checked.
Tearing through multiplexes like an Oklahoma cyclone, this natural-disaster flick was a runaway hit. Helen Hunt, a meteorologist, and Bill Paxton, a weather reporter, anchor the over-the-top action as estranged ex-husband and wife forced back together when a tornado that sends cows flying into the stratosphere hits town. The production was plagued with disasters of its own, thanks to unorthodox strategies from director Jan de Bont, but it earned Oscar noms for truly breathtaking—and groundbreaking—visual effects and sound design.
Tommy Lee Jones, in classic The Fugitive mode here as a Los Angeles emergency management specialist, barks orders with a puckish grin and generally chews scenery, a stronger force of nature than even the titular lava-spewing volcano. His very important job grants him outsize authority over disasters, and, hoo boy, do he and a seismologist played by Anne Heche have a doozy of a problem on their hands here. The sudden emergence of a volcano in the city threatens to melt and pelt a rogue's gallery of stock LA-set movie characters, the turgid suspense aided by generous helpings of poorly computer-generated lava and "lava bombs." Volcano earns some points for some choice '90s nuggets, like psychic hotline ads, a reference to the Dow Jones at 6,015, and an on-the-scene reporter who describes apocalyptic mayhem to his editor over a huge car phone, but this isn't a great movie, per se, largely because slow-moving liquid hot magma isn't the most compelling villain. Still, far more than rival 1997 volcano thriller Dante's Peak, it's an important stop on any disaster movie sightseeing tour to see just how much the genre has evolved.
The Wandering Earth (2019)
One of the highest-grossing Chinese films ever made, The Wandering Earth is a major cinematic spectacle set in an apocalyptic future where most of humanity lives shabbily in a city-sized bunker underground. The premise introduces a future Earth that has been converted into a planet-sized spaceship by installing enormous rocket engines onto one hemisphere in order to drive it away from a dying sun that has become fatally cold… and then most of the entire film following a bunch of people driving in utility trucks. In terms of "Earth is dying" movie fare, you could stand to do a lot worse than this slow-burn sci-fi action movie with a sneaky emotion punch.
The Wave (2016)
Disaster movies don't always have to rely on apocalyptic events. Sometimes a burning building or a sinking ship can be enough terror for 90 minutes of entertainment. The Wave is a throwback to the genre's '70s heyday, or at least to anti-Roland Emmerich proportions, pitting a small Norwegian village against a fjord-enabled tidal wave. Roar Uthaug—great action director name or best action director name?—takes the time to embolden his main characters, a loving family of four in a small Norwegian village battling against a fjord-enabled tidal wave, and capture Norway's rolling beauty. Then the mayhem starts. When the townsfolk realize their fate, and only have 10 minutes to evacuate, The Wave capsizes tranquility with 100 tons of liquid devastation. Not since Titanic has underwater photography looked so terrifying. Like its actors, we are in the tank for The Wave.
World War Z (2013)
Not all zombie movies are disaster movies. Sure, the presence of a flesh-chomping, brain-devouring undead creature at your doorstep would count, by most objective measures, as a "disaster," but most zombie movies are focused on intimate ethical questions of survival. World War Z, the big-budget adaptation of Max Brooks's bestselling oral history of a fictional global outbreak, splices the gnarly genre specifics of a zombie freak-out with the scale, structure, and moral vision of a disaster movie. As Brad Pitt zooms around the globe looking for a vaccine, the movie whirls around him, putting organizations like the United Nations and the World Health Organization at the center of the urgent global response.