What are the best disaster movies of all time? Who doesn’t love a bit of big-screen destruction? Buildings collapsing, people running from danger, all the while we are sitting on the edge of our seats, our hearts racing, and sweat trickling down our back. These movies provide an adrenaline rush and put us on top of Mount Everest or in a spaceship, giving us thrills we could never experience in real life.
We often turn to the best movies for a sense of escapism, and few other films offer as much of it as disaster movies. We get to be the hero and swoop in, save the day, perhaps even kiss someone at the end of the thriller movie, or return to our families with a newfound sense of purpose. These pictures are full of action and if you crave more, check out our list of best action movies of all time.
Our list features films depicting different kinds of disasters, from man-made, to natural, to medical, and includes work by filmmakers such as James Cameron, Michael Bay, and, naturally, Roland Emmerich. So here are the best disaster movies.
Snakes on a Plane (2006)
Even if you’ve never seen Snakes on a Plane, the likelihood is that you’ve heard this movie’s most famous quote. In fact, we guarantee you’ve just thought (or maybe even said), “I’ve had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!” after reading that last sentence.
An unashamedly delightful B-Movie, Snakes on a Plane is a fun and thrilling disaster movie that, despite its daft premise manages to be surprisingly scary.
The Wave (2015)
Directed by Roar Uthaug, this Norwegian thriller caught everyone by surprise. It’s tight, tense, and beautifully acted. Kristoffer Joner plays a geologist attempting to save his family from a giant tsunami after a fjord collapses, but time is running out, and there is no competing against mother nature.
The Wave also spawned a sequel, The Quake, equally thrilling, but The Wave impresses with its simple premise and effective execution.
Perhaps a controversial choice, Armageddon is a science fiction movie that is as adored as it is loathed by audiences. It’s schmaltzy, cheesy, but oh, so epic, justifying its place on this list. Featuring an all-star cast of Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler, Michael Bay’s actioner sees a crew of deep-core drillers sent to space to stop an asteroid. Hey, we never said good disaster films have to be believable or realistic.
Bay’s film is gigantic in scale but somehow even bigger on its emotional stakes. That ending is enough to make us weep, and Bay’s incomparable ability to stage action scenes makes for a dynamic watch.
Greenland isn’t just a great disaster movie, it might actually be the best Gerard Butler movie. It sees Butler’s character attempt to save his family and a planet-destroying comet plummets towards earth, and what ensues is in equal measure horrifying and thrilling.
There are many moments of spectacular terror which need to be seen to be believed. But what Greenland gets so right is that the apocalypse would not be fun, or have any sense of adventure. You’d just want to escape to Greenland.
We could have included either of director Jan de Bont’s masterpieces on this list, but Twister takes the cake from Speed just by being a little more fun. Helen Hunt and the late, great Bill Paxton go hunting for tornadoes in this cool ’90’s thriller movie. What more could you ask from a disaster flick?
Did you know, there’s even a Twister 2 release date on the horizon, too?
The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
We couldn’t really publish a best-of-list without including Ronald Neame’s The Poseidon Adventure, an adventure movie like no other. Gene Hackman and Ernest Borgnine star as the film’s heroes, attempting to escape a capsized cruiser in the middle of the Mediterranean sea as an underwater earthquake produces a powerful tsunami.
There are multiple memorable sequences and Hackman’s final moments are wondrous and powerful.
Most of the films on this list include natural disasters or mechanical breakdowns, which wreak havoc on the world and our characters. Still, Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak shows us the worst of humanity during a medical catastrophe.
Filled with wonderful actors, such as Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman and Donald Sutherland alongside Hoffman, Outbreak relies heavily on the performances to create tension. It’s all in the looks of fear, panic and disgust as the characters face an invisible, but a seemingly invincible threat, in the form of a deadly virus, giving us big horror movie vibes.
Contagion does owe a debt to Outbreak, and it’s also even better. It has a shockingly stacked cast (Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishbourne, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Bryan Cranston, and many more), and manages to encapsulate a feeling of utter dread in a way that Outbreak doesn’t quite achieve.
The cinematography is also beautiful – with those shots of the empty spaces being especially haunting – and the score pulses along ramping up the tension with every second. It is one of Steven Soderbergh’s most underrated movies, and it begging for a critical reappraisal. Especially in the wake of the recent global pandemic, Contagion is a disaster movie that will hit you like a tonne of bricks.
The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
No disaster movie list would be complete without Roland Emmerich’s epic The Day After Tomorrow. Jake Gyllenhaal and Dennis Quaid star as a father and son battling a new ice age thanks to a massive, unprecedented storm in this 2000s movie. Emmerich knows his way around apocalyptic visuals, and the revolutionary visuals are still as stunning as they were in 2004.
Is it a little silly? Yes, but is it fun? Yes! And at the end of the day, that’s exactly what we want from a film like this. Give us all the extreme weather and a frozen New York landscape!
Volcano and Dante’s Peak, two films about volcanoes erupting released in 1997, would both qualify for this list, but what puts Volcano, the Tommy Lee Jones-starring thriller, ahead is one scene; the death of John Carroll Lynch’s Olber as he heroically saves a train driver and sacrifices himself in the rather traumatising, but effective scene.
James Cameron’s Titanic is one of the most memorable cinematic experiences. The star-crossed lovers, played by Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, and the doomed fate of the Titanic have been brought to life vividly and thrillingly.
At over 180 minutes, Titanic is a romance movie that tests the audience’s patience. Still, the last half is a masterful exercise in tension and pure terror as the ship loses power and eventually splits in half, sending hundreds of passengers into icy waters. Check out our Titanic review for more on this flick, or find out why Titanic is secretly a time travel movie.
The Towering Inferno (1974)
There are a few images as powerful as the one from The Towering Inferno, depicting a skyscraper engulfed in flames. It has always been a striking image, but there is something even more terrifying about it in the post-9/11 world.
Paul Newman stars as an architect who returns from a holiday to find a building he designed nearly finished, but after a fire occurs, Newman’s Roberts and a group of others must find a way to safety. It’s a simple premise that goes far, combining the fear of heights with the fear of fire to create the ultimate mix of terror.
Independence Day (1997)
Finally, we’ve got Independence Day, the perfect disaster movie for all ages. You’ve got Will Smith fighting aliens, Bill Pullman as the president of the United States and Randy Quaid playing… Randy Quaid. Did we already mention it’s an alien movie?
It has epic imagery, thrilling action and funny one-liners, making it a top-tier disaster film. It doesn’t get much more epic than this as director Roland Emmerich’s scope here is huge, and while it might be a little on the nose with the patriotism, it’s rather magnificent.
War of the Worlds (2005)
For close to two thirds, War of the Worlds is effectively a perfect disaster movie, with Steven Spielberg working absolute magic. From the initial emergence of the tripods to the escape out of the city, to the boat sequence and the train on fire, this is disaster movie methadone.
But it falls apart in the final third. The ending crafted by H.G Wells, as intelligent as it is, does not translate to a grand cinematic climax: something that War of the Worlds is more deserving of after all the spectacle. It’s not bad by any means, just underwhelming after all the prior brilliance of the movie which otherwise would rank among the director’s very best. Still, it’s pitch perfect for most of the ride and is a must-watch for any disaster movie fans.
San Andreas (2015)
Dwayne Johnson is busy establishing himself as a modern master of disaster, with high-spectacle outings like Skyscraper and Rampage. But the pick of his destructive epics is the utterly ludicrous San Andreas, in which he plays a helicopter rescue pilot greeted by an earthquake of gargantuan proportions.
The CGI-assisted carnage looks a little ropey at times, but Johnson gives great hero with every shred of his charisma on show. Logic is nowhere to be found, but that’s what disaster movies are all about.
But do you want to know what would be a real disaster? Not reading our new movies guide. Even worse, would be ignoring all we have gathered on the Oppenheimer release date, the Fast and Furious 10 release date, and The Meg 2 release date.