A-List: Five Worst Disaster Movies
By J. Don Birnam
July 15, 2014

Huge upset! Fearmongers were right about the end of the world!

Yesterday, we reveled in the delicious amazingness of the guilty pleasure of movies such as The Day After Tomorrow and Deep Impact. It only seems fair to turn now to some of the most disappointing and ridiculous disaster movies of all time. Because, believe you me, for every amusing, rewatchable epic, there are scores of eye-gouging disaster movies that represent new disasters in and of themselves.

Since we did this last week, I will only briefly go over the rules: if it’s a disaster in Sim City, it counts as a disaster movie. Manmade problems do not count, neither do spoofs, and neither do limit-disaster movies like Titanic that at least have other dimensions, like a love story.

By the way, I should make something clear, in case it wasn’t already: I really enjoy disaster movies, and placing one on this list should in no way be interpreted to mean that I do not or have not watched the movie repeatedly. I own a number of the movies on this list. But, alas, some movies have to be worst if some are to be best. It’s the way of capitalism or what have you.

I apologize in advance for the obscurity of some of these. There are really lots of doozies in the annals of disaster movie history here. Prepare for epic meltdowns…

5. Armageddon

Sorry Bruce, sorry Ben, sorry Liv. Your movie falls too much on the emotional manipulation side of the line for my tastes. It’s a shame too, because Armageddon delivers a solid cast, and an end-of-the-world scenario of epic proportions.

Granted, all disaster movies have emotionally contrived sequences and laughable familial reconciliations. But Armageddon, a movie that does everything on a grand scale (it does claim, after all, to be about an asteroid the size of Texas), takes this abject silliness from the genre and blows it up as big as the meteor it features, and then some. In essence, Armageddon tries to simultaneously weave a love story (and a father/daughter story) into the mix. Not only does this detract from the movie in that it is distracting, the story doesn’t work. Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck are terrible actors in this flick, and Liv Tyler is wooden, unexpressive, and unaffected.

You really end up hoping that the three of them become collateral damage to the nukes sent out into orbit, and that’s not a good sign.

4. Flood

If you watched this 2007 British disaster movie, I truly feel bad for you. I had to, and this is one movie I will only watch once. The cast is a large group of “who?”s - the destruction scenes, well, what destruction scenes? I mean, London gets flooded, as do other parts of the United Kingdom, but it’s less destruction and more Titanic meets Poseidon Adventure.

Essentially, a raging storm combines with rising sea levels to create a deadly combination that ravages the British capital. Not an unlikely story, to be fair, given recent events in some of our own coastal cities.

Rescuing the movie a bit is that it, unsurprisingly, features everything you would expect from a disaster movie: humans who don’t believe disaster is imminent, a secretly evil general, many, many noble sacrifices and - of course, what else would you expect from a movie about flooding - people getting compartmentalized/trapped to die.

But the effects are pedestrian, the acting stifling, and the overall feel of the movie underwhelming. Please don’t make a sequel, remake or reinvention of this movie, ever.

3. Volcano Not only is this movie a clear knock off of the infinitely more entertaining and well-made Dante’s Peak, it is a ridiculous and overly produced one at that.

As you know, the story centers around a mysterious and unexplained force: a Volcano appearing in the middle of Los Angeles. Leaving aside your feelings for the City of Angels for a moment, Los Angeles deserves a better fate in disaster movies than this. Falling completely into the ocean, as, for example, the makers of 2012 imagined, seems much more topical to that city. Instead, the city has to settle for some contrived explanation about the relationship between the La Brea tar pits and magma.

Worse, the city has to deal with Tommy Lee Jones as the unlikely, unwitting, and flawed hero. Triple Ugh. And did you remember that Anne Heche was in the movie? Yeah.

And (spoilers ahead) the end line, that the Volcano, now named for the boulevard on which it appeared, is still in an active state, just adds insult to all the injury caused by the ridiculous way in which the movie deals with a disaster of such proportions in a city of that size: simply divert the lava into the ocean. Right.

Saving the movie a bit is a few of the extra horrific noble sacrifice scenes - people jumping into the lava to save someone else and what not - as well as the hot scenes of lava and ash heaps crushing innocent victims. In other words, the only redeeming quality of the movie is its good death scenes. That says a lot about it.

Last but not least, by the way: the effects are singularly terrible.

2. Earthquake

The counterpart to The Towering Inferno, and released the same year, Earthquake is in many ways similar to the movie I placed on my top five list. It features a cast of well-known actors including Charlton Heston, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Ava Gardner, and George Kennedy. And, better than Volcano, it at least gives the city of Los Angeles a proper destruction: an Earthquake.

But the film is singularly bad not so much for what’s in it, but because of what’s not. Don’t get me wrong, it has its fair share of disaster movie clichés, from the unsuspecting human victims, noble sacrifices, and difficult choices. No, the problem is that the movie isn’t as much a disaster epic as it is a survival/suspense drama.

One might argue that this is the nature of the localized disaster movie as opposed to the global scale, ongoing threat movie that we have explored. But it is not necessarily so. The fires in Inferno rage on and expand, creating an ever growing threat. The disaster, in other words, is ongoing until it’s not: at the very end. Earthquake, by contrast, delivers its disaster goodness in one fell swoop and then focuses essentially on characters trying to escape from the devastation. It is an amusing, even suspenseful and harrowing story at times, but really only a poor excuse for a disaster movie.

And when it does show destruction, it is relatively minimal and tame compared to what they could have done with L.A. and some of its landmarks. Again I return to 2012 and even the Day After Tomorrow, both of which in short sequences accomplished ten times the devastation that Earthquake did in its entire film.

At least the plot is strong enough to make it worthy of consideration for a remake - but by a much more daring and blood thirsty director.

1. The Core

I’ll right to the chase - this movie wins because of how disappointed I was when I saw it. Call me crazy, but I was excited to see The Core. The premise was delicious: the Earth’s core stops spinning, and all sorts of catastrophes ensue. Not just earthquakes and floods, but electrical storms, attacking animals (a refresher from escaping animals), and deadly ozone layer holes. The gamut of destruction was endless.

And the movie also starred a respectable cast that included Stanley Tucci, Aaron Eckhart and two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank. But, oh, what a gigantic and disastrous disappointment this movie proved to be. Simply terrible.

Here are some of the plot points: a machine is constructed within weeks that can drill into the center of Earth, some 1,000,000 times deeper than we had ever been. This machine can chain start the Earth’s core with a nuclear reaction that has to be precise to the millimeter. And, better yet, there is a plan for these unlikely heroes - an eclectic mix of astronauts, computer geeks, and scientists (Armageddon anyone?) - to get back safely. And, that they do. Somehow.

All right, you may say, you have forgiven the horrible science of movies like the Day After Tomorrow and the improbable rescue sequences of movies like Deep Impact. Why not permit The Core the same indulgence? Quite simply, because the sucking of The Core goes miles beyond that. The destruction sequences are treated as an afterthought, not as, no pun, the core of the movie - as they should be in a good disaster movie.

And it’s not that there is a hokey love story to steal the attention (I mean there is one but that too is an afterthought), it’s that the movie can’t make up its mind what it’s about. Is it about the love story? The intrigue behind the scenes of the alternate plans to save the universe? The destruction? You don’t know, and after having watched the movie repeatedly (I know) I still can’t figure it out.

My level of disappointment compared to the promise and expectation from this movie (perhaps my own fault) makes it my least favorite disaster movie of all time.

Not that I won’t watch it, but still…