A-List: Five Best Disaster Movies

By J. Don Birnam

July 14, 2014

I'm so lonesome I could cry.

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I recently watched the latest installment of Transformers and was decidedly underwhelmed. But the fourth movie in the franchise, like the third, made much about the destruction of human cities. Inevitably, it reminded me of my favorite guilty pleasure genre in movies by far - the Disaster Movie.

I mean, first of all, who doesn’t like to see their favorite landmarks blown to smithereens? Or recognized actors sacrificed to Mother Nature’s wrath? More interesting still is to go back to old disaster movies and laugh a bit at the somewhat dated effects and, even better, see some now famous celebrities get chopped in half when they had a two-bit role.

But, by far the best part of disaster movies is that, despite their complete formulaic predictability, they generally manage to entertain, amuse, and excite. Oh, make no mistake about it, I have studied the disaster movie formula well. The noble sacrifices. The animals warning of impending danger. Briefing the President. The implication that mankind’s greed/stupidity/love of pollution is responsible for the end of the world. A family reconciliation with an unwitting and scrappy hero. Someone getting compartmentalized to die. Most of these elements appear in some form or another in any disaster movie who calls itself a respectable film.


So which are arguably the Best Five of all time? Before we get into it, you should know by now that I like rules - even if they are artificial ones. So let’s make sure we know what we are talking about. Movies about horrific critters destroying a city or terrorizing humanity are not really disaster movies - thus, Jaws, Arachnophobia, or even Hitchcock’s The Birds are not disaster movies. Spoofs, funny as they are, also don’t count. Sorry Airplane! Movies about man-made disasters that end up with destruction of fun places also do not count—so don’t expect to see, for example, Air Force One or White House Down on the list. And, finally, just to save everyone a headache, I’m not going to count Titanic as a disaster film, even though it obviously is. Unfortunately, this also disqualifies what is probably one of the best disaster movies of all time - The Poseidon Adventure.

I am, however, going to make alien invasion movies count. Essentially, my criterion for putting something on this list is simple: if it’s a Sim City recognized disaster, then it fits the bill. And, as you may know, alien invasions and destructions of your city are one of the most devastating challenges of that game. To be clear, other disasters like virus outbreaks, hurricanes, tornados, etc., are also fair game under these rules. Godzilla is a harder question - the implication, after all, is that he’s the result of essentially a nuclear meltdown. But I don’t think any of the versions of the movie I’ve seen merit being on the list anyway.

I will say this is the hardest list I have had to make for the A-List so far. Disaster movies are everywhere and it is hard to choose. I will give honorable mentions to two movies I know people would have mocked me incessantly for putting on the list: Armageddon and 2012. Yes, I know the former is excessively cheesy and the human-element plot infinitely annoying. I realize that the latter features the same airplane escape scene over and over and over again. But the world destruction scenes in both are so amazing (each for their own decade) and the stereotypical clichés in each so hilariously played out that I could watch either movie repeatedly.

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