Disaster Movies: Elements and Examples of the Genre

20th Century Fox

 

A disaster movie is a film in which a catastrophic event drives the narrative. During the disaster or in the aftermath, the main characters face conflict—with each other, with their environment, or both—as they try to survive. Disaster movies are typically set in major cities, where the destruction facing humanity can be demonstrated on a massive scale with visual effects.

Did You Know?

The highest-grossing disaster movie of all time is 1997's Titanic.

Origins of the Disaster Movie

In the early days of film, the special effects technology needed to represent catastrophic events did not yet exist. While Hollywood filmmakers learned how to create wind, rain, and snow effects by the end of the silent movie era, more complicated effects took additional time to develop.

These challenges did not prevent disaster films from being created as early as 1900. Film pioneer Walter R. Booth created The Last Days of Pompeii, a short film that depicts the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Ancient Rome. The Wind, from 1928, features a dust storm that was created by several aircraft propellers in a California desert. 1933's King Kong memorably features a giant gorilla rampaging through New York City in an early breakthrough for special effects.

Two essential examples of early disaster films are W. S. Van Dyke's San Francisco (1936), which depicts the 1906 San Francisco earthquake during its climax utilizing hydraulic platforms underneath the sets, and John Ford's The Hurricane (1937), a film set in the South Pacific that features a tumultuous hurricane during its climax created by special effects pioneer James Basevi.

Types of Disaster Movies

Disaster movies typically belong to the genres of thriller and action, but they can cross over into other genres, too. For example, the highest-grossing disaster movie of all time, 1997's Titanic, is a romance set during of the deadliest maritime disasters in history.

Within the disaster movie category, there are several popular sub-genres:

  • Natural disaster films feature "acts of God" like hurricanes, typhoons, tornadoes, tsunamis, and earthquakes.
  • Accidental disaster films feature unexpected problems arising from man-made technology or structures.
  • Extraterrestrial disaster films feature a threat arising from space, including alien invasions, meteors, or comets.
  • Monster disaster films feature one or more monsters that cause a path of destruction across a major city.
  • Apocalypse films feature a worldwide disaster that wipes out much of humanity; threats like zombies may also be featured.

Top Disaster Movies

From Godzilla to Titanic, these are some of the top disaster movies across a variety of genres.

Godzilla (1954)

Toho Company

Though Gojira (as it was known in its native Japan) was not the first giant monster movie, it is doubtlessly the most famous example of the genre. The massive Godzilla, a prehistoric beast awakened by nuclear radiation, has destroyed cities in three-dozen movies over 65 years and will continue to do so in future sequels as the longest-running film franchise in history.

Airport (1970)

Universal Pictures

This disaster film features an all-star cast (including Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin) and depicts an airport ravaged by a powerful snowstorm and the threat of a suicide bombing. Though Airport was a massive box office success and was followed by three sequels and many other disaster films in the 1970s, it is probably most famous for inspiring the 1980 parody Airplane!.

The Towering Inferno (1974)

Twentieth Century Fox & Warner Bros.

Following the all-star cast model of Airport, The Towering Inferno features Steve McQueen and Paul Newman and a host of other famous faces trapped in a San Francisco skyscraper when an electrical fire breaks out and engulfs the structure.

Independence Day (1996)

20th Century Fox

In this mid-1990s blockbuster, earth faces an alien invasion that destroys many of the planet's architectural landmarks in its opening assault. Humanity quickly has to learn to strike back at a massive alien force with superior technology. Independence Day was followed by a 2016 sequel, Independence Day: Resurgence.

Titanic (1997)

20th Century Fox

Though James Cameron's blockbuster is chiefly remembered for its endearing romance between Rose (Kate Winslet) and Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), the film's climax features a stunning depiction of the sinking of the luxury passenger liner in 1912.

Gravity (2013)

Warner Bros.

While most disaster movies feature large casts, Gravity features just two actors on screen. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney portray two astronauts who are stranded in space because of an accident caused by space debris, demonstrating that a smaller-scale disaster film doesn't mean fewer thrills. This internationally-acclaimed film won seven Oscars.