Watching famous people all running for their lives in a disaster film was an indelible viewing experience for years. It comforted me knowing even THEY could avoid the natural and human-made forces that threaten us all, at least on film.
However, my view on disaster films did evolve into something a little more profound. Real-life is not as bad being on an Earth hurtling towards the sun, living the aftermath of a nuclear war, or caught in a swarm of killer bees with Oscar-winning legends who should have known better.
Despite the plethora of pretenders to the disaster film throne, the holy trinity of The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake, and The Towering Inferno reign supreme for reasons that have much to do with their hammy star casts, sprawling narratives, and varying degrees of special effects. I decided to focus on films that eschewed camp or offered a more grounded reality to the term “disaster.” With tongue firmly placed in cheek, too, here are a few of my favorite disaster epics for your viewing pleasure.
The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)
Directed by Val Guest
Cast: Edward Judd, Leo McKern, Janet Munro
Streaming on Prime Video
Released in 1961 and considered a science-fiction masterpiece today, what I love most about The Day the Earth Caught Fire is that it puts a relatable human face on the prospect of catastrophe. A group of Londoners deal with the unthinkable: recent US and Russian nuclear tests succeed in changing the Earth’s orbit, propelling it towards the sun. The sight of an alcoholic newsman seeking redemption in covering the story of a lifetime is heroic in many ways. He’s awakened from his self-pitying slumber to deal with an uncertain future for all humankind.
The groundbreaking special effects do not pull you out of the story. Instead, they illustrate the rising threat in a severe, not camp, manner. Things get toasty as it reaches a defiantly ambiguous final act to make its era-defining point. The ending shots were altered for US audiences to offer a glimmer of hope with a telling sound effect. Watch it and decide which proves the more gratifying conclusion. Either way, it is a memorable viewing experience.
Directed by Mick Jackson
Cast: Karen Meagher, Reece Dinsdale
Streaming on Kanopy and Prime Video
Leave it to the Brits to conjure up TWO realistic and terrifying realizations of nuclear war ever aired on television. In 1966, the BBC approved the production of The War Game, a mock-documentary chronicling the effects of a nuclear attack. The network was so horrified at the result; it pulled the film from broadcast. The War Game did receive a limited theatrical release in the UK and a film festival run, even earning a 1967 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature Film. However, it did not air publicly until 1985, paired with a showing of the acclaimed 1984 telefilm Threads.
The prospect of a US/Soviet nuclear war was all-too-real in the 1980s, creating a nervous tension that is still palpable. US audiences who didn’t possess an opinion on nuclear weapons’ stockpiling sure as hell had something to think about when the ABC network unleashed director Nicholas Meyer’s The Day After in 1983. The following year, the BBC aimed not to shy away from a nuclear exchange’s hard truths on British soil, resulting in the harrowing and devastating Threads.
A generation remains marked by both films as Threads did air in the US. Its relentless vision of a Soviet attack on Britain and its effects on two Sheffield families hurts to watch at times. What separates Threads from The Day After is that it takes viewers on a journey that lasts over a decade beyond the initial attack. Along with writer Barry Hines, Director Jackson does not hold back on depicting the visual impact or veracity of what awaits humankind after a nuclear war. The final image will stay with you for a long time. Grim and shattering, it remains a television milestone that has lost none of its power or relevance.
The Swarm (1978)
Directed by Irwin Allen
Cast: Michael Caine, Katharine Ross, Richard Widmark, Richard Chamberlain, Olivia de Havilland, Slim Pickens, and Henry Fonda
Rent/Purchase on Prime Video, iTunes, YouTube
Okay, after witnessing the end of the world as we know it with Threads, take a break and laugh your ass off with The Swarm. Director Irwin Allen thought he could do NO wrong after scoring back to back hits with The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. Like Icarus, he came crashing back to Earth thanks to the killer bees of The Swarm. Like many fans of the genre, I raced to the cinema with every new Airport sequel, The Cassandra Crossing, Rollercoaster, Avalanche, all of them B-movies at best, sure. But when it came time to watch a “Bee” movie where they wreak havoc all over southern Texas, we knew the genre’s most successful master of disaster had jumped the hive.
Names, names, names, fill out this massive ensemble cast of Turner Classic Movie tributes, some of whom show up for a scene or two and then disappear. Most of the cast feels the sting or gets offed without a second thought. The effects are beyond belief at times, especially when you think about audiences embraced such landmark films as Star Wars and Superman had already been released. And can someone explain how Michael Caine knew precisely when to show up at the first attack on a military base? Some characters question it, but the answer is never really established, which drove me crazy then and now. Incredibly, The Swarm earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Costume Design, too! Allen wouldn’t let the failure of The Swarm get him down, though. Fans of the genre did scope out Beyond the Poseidon Adventure; the release of When Time Ran Out pretty much proved prophetic for Allen and the genre for a long while.
Directed by George Seaton
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Jean Seberg, Jacqueline Bisset, George Kennedy, and Helen Hayes
Rent/Purchase on Prime Video, iTunes, YouTube
So how did this genre take flight in the first place, you ask? We’d had versions of planes in distress before, but you can blame the success of Airport in 1970. Based on Arthur Hailey’s best-seller, the film adaptation gave the disaster film a hearty launch with this Oscar-nominated box office titan.
All you had to do after Airport was cast a bunch of screen legends and hope one of them would earn an Academy Award as the great Helen Hayes did with this morality tale with wings. A snowstorm, overworked husbands, shrew wives, philandering pilots, pregnant flight attendants, and one deranged bomber proved the right mix, though. All dressed by the great Edith Head; producer Ross Hunter made a mint with this glittering swill. So much so, Universal kept going back to the hangar for three more films! Bless. And I went to each one with excitement, until The Concorde: Airport ’79 grounded the franchise for good. Still, you never forget your “first” disaster film, and the original Airport and The Poseidon Adventure remain my truest loves.
Directed by Ric Roman Waugh
Cast: Gerard Butler, Morena Baccarin, and Scott Glenn
Premieres on December 18 on VOD, followed by HBOMax
What about the disaster films of today? Well, bless Roland Emmerich for keeping the Irwin Allen spirit alive with such films as 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow, which coined the term “disaster porn” for their extensive and bludgeoning film effects.
In 1997, Mick Jackson of Threads fame would score a minor hit with Volcano, which had its magma muted by Dante’s Peak, released earlier that year, and became a family favorite for reasons you won’t believe. Let’s not forget the dueling comet dramas Deep Impact and Armageddon from 1998. Personally, the 1996 hit Twister continues to reverberate as strongly as the 1970s classics for the same reasons. An able cast and corkscrew dialogue is essential for the genre to make an impact.
Still, its characters’ humanity is one ingredient that is always short-changed by the massive resources put into the effects. That is why I am looking forward to upcoming Greenland with Gerard Butler. The film seems like it puts an equal premium on the emotional impact of the disaster on its ensemble players, not just their impending doom’s visuals elements. Disaster films with a message will always get me in front of a screen, reaffirming the thought that it can’t be worse for us in real life? Right? Well, maybe not these days.