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 films 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 film or return to our families with a newfound sense of purpose. These pictures are full of action and if you crave more action films, 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.
What are the best disaster movies of all time?
- The Wave
- The Poseidon Adventure
- The Day After Tomorrow
- The Towering Inferno
- Independence Day
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 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.
Doomed: Best science fiction movies
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.
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?
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.
The walking dead: Best zombie movies
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.
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. 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.
Real-life tragedy: Best movies based on true stories
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.
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 aliens?
Alien invasion! Best alien movies
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.