The best disaster movies – ranked by how disastrous they are

Just want to watch the world burn? We’ve got you covered…

At some point, hopefully a long, long way in the future, the world is going to come to an end. Maybe Earth will be taken out by a solar flare. Maybe we’ll all be drowned under a tidal wave. Maybe the moon will turn into a secret alien spaceship and start attacking us with killer bees. As Moonfall hits cinemas and adds that weirdly specific fear to a long list of other apocalypses to worry about, we rank the greatest disaster movies by just how much we hope they don’t actually ever happen…

10. ‘Twister’ (1996)

Tornados are ranked on the Fujita scale – from F1 (really windy) to F5 (say goodbye to your town). Jan de Bont’s classic bad weather thriller shows us what an F4 can do – flattening a big chunk of Oklahoma and sending cars, cows and barns flying through the air as a monster cone of wind whips across the open countryside. The killer storm eventually swells into an F5 in the finale but all we really see it do is patch up Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt’s marriage.

Certainty of death: You’ll be fine unless you’re a farm animal or a minor supporting character.

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9. ‘Volcano’ (1997)

1997 was the year of the volcano. Mere months after Pierce Brosnan tried to outrun molten lava and dodgy dialogue in Dante’s Peak, Tommy Lee Jones did the exact same thing in Volcano. Both movies have their strengths (and many, many weaknesses), but Volcano has the benefit of erupting right in the middle of downtown Los Angeles instead of a little combustible mountain town. Cue melting subway trains, lava flowing down Wilshire Boulevard and a big explosive showstopper that sees Jones blowing up skyscrapers to try and redirect the liquid fire into the sea.

Certainty of death: You’re in trouble if you live in LA – and if you can’t run faster than a really slow-moving river of lava.

8. ‘Armageddon’ (1998)

Despite its reputation, Michael Bay’s fist-in-the-mouth action epic isn’t really that bothered with showing too much destruction. A few New York landmarks take a peppering from an asteroid shower and Paris gets completely flattened by a CG mushroom cloud, but both scenes are over far quicker than any shot of Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck walking towards something/anything in slow-motion. Sent up into space to punch a big asteroid, Bruce’s team of plucky American roughnecks save all the non-French bits of the world before it does any real damage.

Certainty of death: 2.16 million Parisians get wiped out but that doesn’t stop a big triumphant Aerosmith ballad making it feel like a win.

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7. ‘San Andreas’ (2015)

The biggest recorded earthquake in history happened near Cañete, in Chile, in 1960 – measuring 9.5 on the Richter scale. Because The Rock always has to do everything a bit bigger, his own quake movie pushed things to 9.6 – showing us what would happen if LA and San Francisco were both shaken to rubble. And because a California-sinking earthquake isn’t enough of a challenge for Dwayne Johnson, he also has to fight a massive tsunami too. Half of the West Coast is under water by the end of the movie, but The Rock still comes up glistening.

Certainty of death: If the highest paid movie star in the world barely makes it out alive, the rest of LA and SF haven’t got a chance.

6. ‘Contagion’ (2011)

Director Steven Soderbergh got expert research from the World Health Organisation when he was planning his global virus thriller, but if he held out for a few more years he wouldn’t have had to bother. Watching Contagion today feels a bit too close to home after the last few years, but it’s interesting to see just how much the filmmakers got correct – right down to the conspiracy theorists who try and pretend it’s all a hoax. Thankfully, at least, Soderbergh’s “MEV-1” is fractionally more deadly than COVID-19 – spread to one in 12 people in the world with a 30 per cent mortality rate. Scary stuff.

Certainty of death: Stats in the film cite 26 million deaths – and coughs are much harder to avoid than asteroids and earthquakes.

5. ‘Deep Impact’ (1998)

Released the same year as Armageddon (the year of the asteroid came right after the year of the volcano), Deep Impact showed us what might happen in a world without Bruce Willis. When the same dumb “drilling into an asteroid” plan doesn’t work, a giant space rock splits into two and still mostly crashes into Earth – hitting the Atlantic and starting a mega-tsunami that covers the entire East Coast. Europe and Africa also get blitzed by the shock wave, but this is an American film about an American disaster, so we don’t really get to see that bit.

Certainty of death: Not great if you live within a few hundred miles of the Atlantic Ocean (and if you’re European or African you probably won’t even get an on-screen death).

4. ‘Independence Day’ (1996)

The film that kickstarted the modern disaster era gave us the money shot that launched a thousand CGI explosions – a flying saucer blowing up the White House in glorious slow-motion. The fact that the aliens in Independence Day destroyed the rest of Washington D.C. with the same death ray often gets forgotten; as does the fact that they liquified a dozen other capitals around the world at the exact same time. Entire cities might have loads of people in them, but famous tourist spots look a lot cooler when they blow up.

Certainty of death: Extremely high, especially since the aliens return again 20 years later, hypnotising the President and drilling holes into the Earth’s core.

3. ‘Greenland’ (2020)

Another decade, another giant comet. This time the Earth gets hit by a lot of little bits before the big rock strikes (one “tiny” fragment taking out Florida), giving us a small taste of everything we don’t actually get to see. Greenland might keep the focus on Gerard Butler’s family problems, but the film saves its real punches for the finale – showing footage of all the world’s capitals in ruins and 75 per cent of the population completely burned, choked and flattened. This is what happened to the dinosaurs (except they didn’t have a government bunker to hide in).

Certainty of death: You’ll be fine if you’re a politician, a doctor, an architect or Jeff Bezos. If not, you’ll be lucky to have your bones on display in a museum one day.

2. ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ (2004)

Perhaps the scariest of all disaster movies because it feels like the most believable, Roland Emmerich’s ice age epic shows us what might happen if global warming continues unchecked. First come the giant hailstones. Then the super-storm hurricanes, the tornados, tsunamis and rising sea levels. Temperatures drop enough to freeze helicopters in mid-air and a blanket of deadly snow covers what’s left of human civilisation. If that’s not enough, there are packs of killer wolves roaming around outside. We really should have listened to Greta Thunberg.

Certainty of death: You might make it if you live in a penthouse. And if you don’t mind staying inside it for the rest of your life, eating partially defrosted bits of your neighbours.

1. ‘2012’ (2009)

Roland Emmerich is the master of disaster because he made most of the films on this list, but he’d probably still earn that title if he only ever made 2012. Easily the biggest, loudest, most ridiculous (and most enjoyable) disaster epic ever made, Emmerich’s opus of destruction has everything. Yellowstone turns into a giant volcano. The entire West Coast of America sinks into the sea. A tsunami turns up that’s so huge it actually crashes over Mount Everest. Watching the movie on the big screen it’s impossible not to imagine Emmerich directing it like a composer – waving his arms for more fire, more floods, more explosions and more deaths. It took God seven days to create the world, but Emmerich blows it all up in 158 minutes.

Certainty of death: There are a few “arks” floating around to save the rich and powerful but, honestly, what’s the point?

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