Moviegoers have thrilled to disaster since the dawn of the silent film era. From the 1901 drama “Fire!” about a burning house to the 1928 epic “Noah’s Ark,” whose climactic flood scene drowned three actors, Hollywood has reveled in catastrophe from the very beginning. The genre exploded in popularity during the ‘70s with a string of blockbusters featuring all-star casts. Though the trend soon faded, the development of CGI effects brought it roaring back to life two decades later. The chaos continues on July 13 with the release of “Skyscraper,” about a framed man who must clear his name and rescue his family that’s trapped inside a building above the fire line. Here are 10 essential disaster movies, plus five that barely register on the Richter scale.
THE BEST: “In Old Chicago” (1937)
Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, this dramatization of the Great Chicago Fire was one of the most expensive films ever made at the time of its release. The soapy story follows the misadventures of the O’Leary family, who were blamed for starting a blaze that killed 300 people and left more than 100,000 Chicagoans homeless. A remarkable blend of special effects, including traveling mattes, detailed miniatures and full-scale destruction, helped to bring the fearsome inferno to life.
20th Century Fox/Kobal/REX/Shutt
THE BEST: “When Worlds Collide” (1951)
60 years before Lars von Trier sent a mysterious planet hurtling toward Earth in the elegiac disaster drama “Melancholia,” sci-fi filmmaker George Pal produced this Technicolor epic about a similar cosmic event threatening all of mankind. When two rogue stars are discovered to be on a collision course with our planet, the world’s greatest scientists must race against time to construct a rocket-powered Space Ark capable of saving a portion of humanity. Memorable for its disturbing images of capsized ocean liners floating amid skyscrapers, the film won a well-deserved Oscar for Best Special Effects.
THE BEST: “The Poseidon Adventure” (1972)
Legendary producer Irwin Allen earned the nickname “The Master of Disaster” by shepherding this Oscar-winning blockbuster to the screen. Based on Paul Gallico’s bestselling novel, the film traps a colorful collection of passengers aboard a doomed luxury liner on New Year’s Eve. Brimming with suspense, subplots and spectacular action sequences, “The Poseidon Adventure” established the template for the modern disaster genre. An enjoyably goofy sequel titled “Beyond the Poseidon Adventure” was released seven years later, but sank without a trace.
20th Century Fox/Kobal/REX/Shutt
THE BEST: “The Towering Inferno” (1974)
Irwin Allen set the box office ablaze once again with this gripping thriller about a fire that engulfs a San Francisco skyscraper. Amid dazzling pyrotechnics, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman fight to rescue an all-star cast, featuring Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire and O.J. Simpson. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, “The Towering Inferno” was Allen’s biggest hit by far. Though an official remake was never made, a 2012 South Korean film titled “The Tower” bears an uncanny resemblance to this disaster classic.
20th Century Fox/Warners/Kobal/R
THE BEST: “Earthquake” (1974)
The most pessimistic of the ‘70s disaster movies, this bluntly titled depiction of a cataclysmic quake stretches believability not in its scenes of destruction, but by casting 59-year old Lorne Greene as the father of 52-year old Ava Gardner. As if its nightmarish special effects weren’t enough, “Earthquake” was presented in Sensurround, a gimmicky audio process that literally shook theaters with low-frequency sound waves. In a cameo role, Walter Matthau is bizarrely credited as Walter Matuschanskayasky, a name he reportedly invented himself.
THE BEST: “Airport 1975” (1974)
When a mid-air collision kills the pilot and leaves a gaping hole in the cockpit, it’s up to plucky stewardess Karen Black to land a crippled jumbo jet filled with an odd assortment of character actors. Brilliantly spoofed in the comedy classic “Airplane!” this second entry in the high flying “Airport” franchise is an unabashedly entertaining addition to the genre. Though originally developed for television, executive producer Jennings Lang saw enough potential in the material to warrant a theatrical release. Pulling double duty, costars Charlton Heston and George Kennedy shot the film simultaneously with Universal’s other 1974 disaster movie, “Earthquake.”
THE BEST: “Twister” (1996)
Co-written by Michael Crichton and his wife, actress Anne-Marie Martin, this dynamically paced adventure about a team of high-tech storm chasers duked it out at the box office with rival disaster pic “Independence Day.” Although the human characters are thinly drawn, “Twister” gains points by giving each terrifying tornado a unique personality. Along with cutting-edge CGI effects, a Boeing 707 jet engine was used on set to generate the destructive winds, while an altered recording of a camel’s moan helped to create the sound of the storm.
THE BEST: “Titanic” (1997)
James Cameron’s Oscar-winning epic blends romance, melodrama and dazzling disaster sequences with a poignancy and power that’s truly spectacular. Though a slew of films have depicted the sinking of the ill-fated ocean liner over the years, Cameron’s painstaking research, old-fashioned storytelling and state-of-the-art special effects made “Titanic” an international phenomenon. A post-conversion to 3D in 2012 gave the movie’s vertiginous climax an immersive quality that trapped audiences aboard the doomed ship with the passengers.
20th Century Fox/Paramount/Kobal
THE BEST: “Volcano” (1997)
“The Coast is Toast!” exclaimed ads for this proudly cheesy disaster pic that found granite-faced Tommy Lee Jones battling a river of magma on L.A.’s famed Miracle Mile. While films like “The Day After Tomorrow,” “Deep Impact” and “Dante’s Peak” treated their cataclysms rather seriously, “Volcano” earns affection for its sheer absurdity and retro charm. Whether it’s the sight of glowing lava balls shooting from a crack on Wilshire Boulevard or a subplot involving a tiny dog standing firm against a molten blob, “Volcano” will make you erupt with intentional laughter.
THE BEST: “The Impossible” (2012)
Few disaster movies focus on the aftermath, and none do it with the urgency of this fictionalized account of the tsunami that devastated Thailand and Indonesia in 2004. Naomi Watts earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actress playing a mother of three whose holiday in Khao Lak becomes a fight for survival when an earthquake in the Indian Ocean triggers an apocalyptic tidal wave. Tracking the injured survivors as they painfully navigate their way across a surreal landscape of destruction, “The Impossible” never loses sight of the human tragedy that claimed the lives of more than 228,000 people.
THE WORST: “Avalanche” (1978)
The only thing colder than the snow that annihilates the cast of “Avalanche” is the frigid romance between costars Rock Hudson and Mia Farrow. Produced by Roger Corman and shot at a ski resort in Durango, Colorado, this box office disaster takes an ice age to get to the action. When it finally arrives, the special effects consist of a superimposed cloud and a handful of Styrofoam boulders. The following year’s disaster pic “Meteor,” which includes an avalanche of its own, was a cinematic masterpiece by comparison.
THE WORST: “Hurricane” (1979)
Though she survived “Avalanche” with her career intact, Mia Farrow rolled the dice once again in this soggy disaster movie set on the island of Pago Pago. Farrow stars as an American painter who romances a young Samoan, much to the displeasure of her father, played by Jason Robards. After suffering through this interminable soap opera, the climactic hurricane is barely a tempest in a teapot. Producer Dino de Laurentiis originally hired Roman Polanski to direct, but had to replace the French fugitive when he was briefly sent to prison. Lucky him.
THE WORST: “The Man Who Saw Tomorrow” (1981)
Orson Welles hosted this dubious documentary about the French soothsayer Nostradamus. When not focused on Welles gravely intoning mumbo-jumbo into the camera, the film cobbles together an endless array of stock clips and poorly shot re-enactments that depict the coming apocalypse. Though the disaster footage is somewhat effective, juxtaposing it with horrific scenes of real-life assassinations and Nazi atrocities makes sitting through “The Man Who Saw Tomorrow” an unpleasant experience.
THE WORST: “The Core” (2003)
Stealing a page from Michael Bay’s superior “Armageddon,” this sluggishly paced thriller about a team of dull scientists traveling to the center of the Earth in a giant drill makes up for in muddy CGI what it lacks in originality. Six years later, Roland Emmerich’s Mayan-themed disasterpalooza “2012” covered similar ground with far more passion. Lacking depth, “The Core” is utterly hollow.
THE WORST: “Poseidon” (2006)
Despite a solid cast, this soulless retread of Irwin Allen’s classic adventure pales in comparison to the original. Having previously helmed the character-based disaster drama “The Perfect Storm,” director Wolfgang Petersen struggles to draw attention away from the stock passengers on yet another sinking ship. The main problem lies in how wholly unnecessary the film feels. From its carbon-copy tidal wave to its by-the-numbers climax, “Poseidon” is a titanic misfire.