The Best and Worst of Disaster Movies
In the last few years, we have seen a great resurgence in the number of disaster movies being produced. The end of 2017 gave us the risible CGI-snooze fest ‘Geostorm’ with Gerard Butler playing the world’s smartest scientist (that says it all), and the suspenseful fire-fighting film ‘Only the Brave’. Soon this year, we will see Dwayne Johnson and co. saving many a major city from three gargantuan-mutated zoo attractions in ‘Rampage’. Johnson’s 2015 film, ‘San Andreas’ will be getting an even bigger, planet-destroying sequel in the near-future as well.
To modern audiences, the disaster movie may be a very contemporary cinematic event, but the genre’s origins and high point go back to the 1970s. Many of the contemporary films are semi-remakes of original pieces, ‘San Andreas’ has a premise very similar to the 1974 epic ‘Earthquake’.
In celebration of the return of this bombastic genre, I’m going to list my personal best and worst disaster movies.
Beginning with the best …
The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
The Irwin Allen classic that defined the tropes of the genre. Although 1970’s ‘Airport’ sparked the popularity, it was this film that created everything we know and love about the disaster film. At midnight on New Year’s Eve the SS Poseidon, a luxury cruise liner, is struck by a 90 foot tidal wave and capsizes. Gene Hackman leads a cast of greats through the decks and to the hull in a bid for freedom, including Hollywood heavies Ernest Borgnine, Shelly Winters and Roddy McDowall. This is tension at its finest, you’ll never love being stressed more than this!
Airport 1975 (1974)
One of three big disaster box-office hits of 1974, the confusingly titled sequel to ‘Airport’ features Charlton Heston being dangled into the cockpit of a crippled 747, whilst his air-stewardess girlfriend played by Karen Black attempts to fly the huge plane. A pretty low-key story, but is executed well with fantastic aerial shots and some entertainingly-hammy acting. Easily the best of the franchise’s three sequels.
The Cassandra Crossing (1976)
A lesser-known and under appreciated flick, this British-Italian production features one of the most talented casts assembled for the time. Richard Harris, Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Sophia Loren and Martin Sheen are trapped aboard a train that has been infected with an unknown disease. The US military occupies the vehicle and directs it on its way over an old railway bridge that will collapse, sending all the passengers to their doom. One of the more bombastic plots to come out of the genre, the film creates terrific tension and features a great action-packed finale. Booed by critics on its release it has since faded into obscurity, sadly.
The Towering Inferno (1974)
This is as exciting as it gets. The world’s tallest building hosts its grand opening to over 200 guests … and the whole thing catches fire. Featuring a supporting cast of greats; Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, O.J. Simpson (before all of that), Robert Vaughn and William Holden. It is headlined by the two coolest actors who’ve ever lived, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, playing the fire chief and architect respectively. Another Irwin Allen flick, the film has everything; hundreds of explosions, rescue attempts that fail catastrophically at every turn, helicopters catching fire and finally a series of even bigger explosions to sort out the fire (it makes sense when you see it). The effects are terrific, made more exciting by John Williams’ soundtrack, and the performances are electrically charged. A film that seems to have improved better with age.
And now for the worst …
Airport ’77 (1977)
James Stewart is a wealthy art collector who owns a private 747 jumbo-jet (complete with a huge bar and piano, because why not?). A group of art thieves sneak aboard, and drug all the rich busy-bodies with the intent of stealing all the paintings on board. Then, the plane gets lost in fog over Bermuda Triangle and … *sigh* still keeping up? The plane crashes into the sea and sinks to the bottom, forcing pilot Jack Lemmon to swim to the surface and contact the US navy so they can bring the plane to the surface. Stupidity personified, but I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a lot of pleasure to be had from it, even if it is complete bilge!
The Swarm (1978)
The very definition of so bad its good. A swarm of African killer-bees rampages across the United States whilst Michael Caine and Richard Widmark attempt to stop their advance. Other famous stars shame themselves here, such as Olivia de Havilland, Henry Fonda and Richard Chamberlin. Another Irwin Allen picture which clunked critically and at the box-office, the film features nonsensical dialogue, over-the-top action sequences and a finale so unfathomably stupid it’ll kill a great number of your brain cells.
One of the last films in the original wave of disaster movies, ‘Meteor’ features Sean Connery as NASA’s top scientist (not quite as implausible as Butler, but not far off) who is called in by Karl Malden when a five-mile chunk of the comet Orpheus is sent hurtling to earth. The film mostly consists of the cast shouting at each other in the style of William Shatner, hammering home the need for Russia and the USA to come together in peace. Some action sequences were lifted from the equally rubbish ‘Avalanche’ (1978). The film is the original version of ‘Deep Impact’ (1997) featuring virtually the same plot, but despite how naff that film is, it doesn’t compare to the thick slice of ham that is ‘Meteor’.