Films whose plots revolve around something huge, horrible, and natural heading towards the protagonists, and their reactions to it.
About half have the main characters trying to stop the disaster somehow, while the other half have them simply trying to survive. In both varieties, viewers are introduced to large casts that exist solely to be killed off in various ways by the disaster and its side effects. Meteors, tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanoes, and catastrophic climate change are among the popular subjects. People who watch these movies are typically Just Here for Godzilla
The genre became incredibly popular in The Seventies
, with Irwin Allen
became (in)famous for making a number of these movies. Eventually, like all trends in Hollywood, it burned itself out, finally being killed when Airplane!
tore into the genre. Modern special effects helped revive the disaster movie in The Nineties
, until certain events made scenes of cataclysmic destruction rather insensitive
. This aversion swiftly passed
and especially kaiju
movies tend to be very similar in tone to disaster movies, with their focus on destruction.
Not to be confused with the Seltzer and Friedberg movie of the same name
, although that was
technically a disaster movie, being that it was the only film they made that bombed in theaters.
Common tropes found in this genre include:
- All-Star Cast: For some reason, disaster movies are like magnets for A and B-list actors.
- For audiences back then it was genuinely surprising to see big name actors that one assumed were safe die horrific deaths onscreen, as opposed to just the extras(see the trope below).
- Anyone Can Die
- Apocalypse Wow
- Big Dam Plot
- Cassandra Truth often times one or more of the protagonists know about the impending catastrophe, sometimes even know how to prevent it, but are often either a)laughed at/ignored or b)silenced with threats, see Designated Antagonist below
- Designated Villain / Hate Sink / Villainy-Free Villain: The real conflict is the disaster, but writers don't seem to want this film without an outright bastard, who will often receive a Karmic Death.
- Developing Doomed Characters
- Eight Deadly Words: If the characters in question are especially dull or annoying, the audience may decide that "I don't care what happens to these people."
- Doomed Contrarian: See above.
- Harsher in Hindsight: Applies to some examples in the aftermath of subsequent Real Life disasters. May tread on Too Soon if the timing is poor.
- Hollywood Science: After all, you can't let little things like the laws of physics get in the way of some awesome destruction.
- Infant Immortality: For some reason, a lot of these movies show a baby getting killed, just in case we've ceased to give a fuck by this point.
- Just Here for Godzilla
- Made-for-TV Movie: Since the advent of video tape, TV production has often been cheaper than film. This allows more budget for the All-Star Cast and Stuff Blowing Up. Sometimes called the Movie of the Week or Million Dollar Movie.
- Monumental Damage: Because The White House getting blown up is a lot more awesome than your neighbor's house getting blown up. Unless you really hate your neighbour...
- Nightmare Fuel: One wonders why none of these movies ever get mentioned when anyone makes a list of the scariest movies of all time, considering how much they work off of common fears like acrophobia and claustrophobia.
- No Antagonist: The main conflict in these films is caused by a natural disaster, so unless the film adds additional human adversaries to overcome (who often fall in the Designated Villain category), there are effectively no antagonists.
- One-Word Title: It seems to be popular for the title to be just the name of whatever's trying to kill the heroes i.e. Earthquake, Avalanche, Volcano, Twister, Meteor, etc.
- Outrun the Fireball: Often many times in a single movie. Substitute "tidal wave", "fault line", "lava flow", Wave Motion Gun, etc. for fireball as necessary.
- Popularity Polynomial: Disaster movies went through Deader Than Disco status twice — the first time being after the genre burned itself out in the late '70s, and the second being the result of 9/11. The 2004 tsunami didn't help either.
- Primal Fear: If you're claustrophobic, acrophobic, pyrophobic, or any number of other phobias, you will not have a good time.
- Red Shirt
- Relationship-Salvaging Disaster: What better way to integrate the obligatory romantic subplot into a story about a disaster?
- Ripped from the Headlines: Releases of these films tend to coincide with real life disasters (give or take six months depending on severity of destruction or death tolls)
- Rule of Cool: See Hollywood Science.
- Scenery Gorn
- Spreading Disaster Map Graphic
- Stuff Blowing Up: The whole point.
- Summer Blockbuster: With the budgets that most disaster movies have, it's only natural that they're released in the summer.
- Token Romance: Most common with films released in The Nineties and onward, and very often involves the protagonist's prior unspecified divorce or an upcoming unspecified divorce. It is assumed that their issues get resolved shortly after the film ends.
- Unintentional Period Piece: The films shot in The Seventies are replete with groovy fashions and set designs. Films from The Nineties are also heading into this.
- Visual Effects of Awesome (or Special Effect Failure if done wrong)
- Deluge (1933): One of the Ur Examples, making this trope Older Than They Think. Most of the film was thought to be lost, save for a scene of New York getting destroyed by earthquakes and tidal waves. In the late 1980s, however, a complete print dubbed in Italian was discovered in a film archive. One scene, showing the Statue of Liberty getting hit by a tidal wave, would be copied over seventy years later by Deep Impact and The Day After Tomorrow.
- San Francisco (1936): Another early example, decipting the historical 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. Stars Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald and Spencer Tracy.
- The High and the Mighty (1954): An Unbuilt Trope example of the genre. Starred John Wayne, who was also co-producer. Its plot, about a plane that suffers engine failure on a flight from Honolulu to San Francisco, would later be copied by Airport.
- A Night to Remember (1958): An accurate portrayal of the doomed RMS Titanic; perhaps the Trope Codifier and served as the inspiration for James Cameron's Titanic.
- The Last Voyage (1960)
- Airport (1970): The Trope Codifier. Started the first boom of disaster films in the '70s. Starred Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, George Kennedy and Jacqueline Bisset. Had three sequels, each one progressively worse (but still successful... at least, until the fourth one finally killed the series).
- The Poseidon Adventure (1972): An ocean liner is capsized by a giant wave. The first of Irwin Allen's disaster movies. Starred Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters, and Leslie Nielsen in an earlynote role. Had a bad sequel in 1979, and was remade in 2006 as Poseidon.
- Short Walk To Daylight (1972): A TV movie, where an earthquake strikes New York and a group of passengers in a subway, led by a cop played by James Brolin, must try to find their way back to the streets above after realizing nobody will be looking for them. Quite well liked despite being rather obscure, with a low budget, and notable for taking place entirely underground.
- Nihon Chinbotsu (Japan Sinks) (1973): Arguably the most successful Japanese disaster film ever, it was followed up by a highly subpar remake in 2006. Subjected to a particularly bad Importation Expansion when it was released in the US. Based on a book by the great sci-fi novelist Sakyo Komatsu, who sadly is mostly known in the Anglosphere for the numerous Shout Outs he gets in work by Osamu Tezuka. See below for its plot.
- The Towering Inferno (1974): The world's tallest skyscraper is built in San Francisco, but on the day of its dedication, it catches fire, trapping partygoers on the top floors. The second of Irwin Allen's disaster movies, and often considered to be one of the best. Starred Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, and Faye Dunaway.
- Earthquake (1974): An earthquake destroys Los Angeles. Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, and Lorne Greene try to survive. This was the first of a handful of '70s films to use Sensurround, a special surround sound system with a powerful bass line. When the city started to rumble, crumble, and tumble, the bass kicked in to literally shake up audiences.
- The Last Days Of Planet Earth (1974): Japanese movie. Earth goes through a disaster gauntlet, ranging from mutant slugs to city-engulfing fire-storms, to the sky filling with green shit. Notable for depicting Nostradamus as Japanese. Not kidding.
- The Hindenburg (1975): Why did this Real Life disaster happen? The fictional story chronicles the possibility that it was sabotage. A rare case of a Disaster Movie that holds off on the actual disaster until the finale. Notable for the sets being extremely loyal to the real Hindenburg, to the extent that the spectacular, dreamlike airship steals the show.
- The Cassandra Crossing (1976): A terrorist infected with plague is on a train, so the authorities send it in the directon of a bridge too weak to support it. Can the passengers who don't succumb to the illness save themselves?
- The Swarm (1978): In another Irwin Allen effort, killer bees attack Texas. Yeah. It was around this point that the genre began dying out.
- Avalanche (1978): Exactly What It Says on the Tin.
- Meteor (1979): A bunch of nukes built by Sean Connery and Brian Keith versus a giant asteroid. Not as cool as it sounds, sadly.
- Hurricane (1979): A remake of a 1937 John Ford film tells a tropical tale of young lovers whose romance is threatened first by the girl's father, then by the titular storm.
- When Time Ran Out (1980): A volcano in the South Pacific threatens a resort, an oil rig, and a volcano observatory. The final nail in the coffin for the first cycle of disaster films, and Irwin Allen's final theatrically-released film. Even the cast (which included Paul Newman, Jacqueline Bisset, and William Holden) hated it.
- Airplane! (1980): The Parody of the disaster genre. So effective, it made it nearly impossible for disaster movies to be taken seriously for another thirteen years.
- The ZAZ team is also responsible for an earlier and much more brief parody of the Disaster genre with "That's Armageddon!", a segment of The Kentucky Fried Movie.
- The Day After (1983): A very different sort of disaster movie, which is the reason it was able to escape Airplane!'s shadow. It was a TV movie about nuclear war between the USA and the USSR. It, along with its British equivalent, was effective enough at showing the result of a nuclear war that it is widely credited (by, among other people, Ronald Reagan) for inspiring the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987.
- Twister (1996): Tornadoes in Oklahoma. Helped to revive interest in disaster films, with help from...
- Independence Day (1996): Aliens blow up the White House, among other things. This film turned Will Smith into a superstar.
- Mars Attacks!! (1996): A parody of '50s Alien Invasion films, which overlapped into the disaster genre. Directed by Tim Burton, and starred Jack Nicholson, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan, and Sarah Jessica Parker, with early roles by Jack Black and Natalie Portman. Had the misfortune of arriving a few months after Independence Day, and barely made back its budget.
- Dantes Peak (1997): A volcano erupts in the Pacific Northwest. Surprisingly for a disaster flick, it was notable for its relative scientific accuracy. Starred Pierce Brosnan and Linda Hamilton. Dueled with...
- Volcano (1997): A volcano erupts in Los Angeles. Not so notable for scientific accuracy. Starred Tommy Lee Jones.
- Daylight (1997): The Holland Tunnel floods following an explosion, and Sylvester Stallone goes in to save the people trapped.
- Titanic (1997): What happens when you combine a disaster movie with a Chick Flick. The latest in a long line of films about the Titanic disaster.
- Armageddon (1998): An asteroid the size of Texas is headed for Earth, and our only hope is Bruce Willis and his team of deep core oil drillers. Makes Volcano look like a scientific documentary. Directed by Michael Bay. Dueled with...
- Deep Impact (1998), the comparative Dante's Peak of this particular duel.
- Earthquake In New York (1998): A two-part TV movie about a major quake in a place no one expects.
- The Core (2003): Earth's core stops rotating thanks to a top-secret military project Gone Horribly Wrong, eliminating Earth's magnetic field and causing it to get hit by solar storms. Aaron Eckhart and Hilary Swank go down into Earth's interior to restart the core with nuclear bombs. Makes Armageddon look like Volcano. Or something.
- 10.5 (2004): An NBC Mini Series about massive earthquakes destroying the West Coast. Its 2006 sequel, 10.5 Apocalypse, had a massive fault line opening up in the Midwest and splitting North America in half.
- The Day After Tomorrow (2004): Global Warming destroys the world. Starred Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal.
- Category 6: Day of Destruction (2004): Another Mini Series, this one from CBS and starring Randy Quaid and Brian Dennehy. A massive storm (which is, for some reason, referred to as a hurricane) develops over Chicago and destroys it. Its release just six months after The Day After Tomorrow must be a coincidence.
- Category 7: The End of the World (2005): The sequel to the above. The storm from the original moves east and destroys New York and Washington, while similar storms destroy Paris and Egypt. Meanwhile, a televangelist and his wife exploit the storms to gain new converts. Starred Gina Gershon as the head of FEMA, as well as Shannen Doherty, James Brolin, and a returning Randy Quaid.
- Nihon Chinbotsu (Japan Sinks) (2006): Exactly What It Says on the Tin. A remake of the highest grossing disaster film Japan ever produced, it flopped compared to the 1973 original. Earthquakes and volcanoes destroy Japan and cause it to sink into the ocean. A Japanese production, it was notable for actually exploring the consequences of such a disaster with more than just passing reference.
- Snakes on a Plane (2006): An Affectionate Parody of Airport and its ilk. Was subject to Memetic Mutation even before its release, thanks to the fact that it starred Samuel L. Jackson.
- Flood (2007): A British film based on a 2002 novel by Richard Doyle, it followed a the events of a flood caused by storm surge from the North Sea that overwhelms the Thames Barrier, flooding London.
- Disaster Movie (2008): A Shallow Parody of...erm, movies with cool-looking trailers? Despite its name, it had almost nothing to do with disaster films. Then again, what more would you expect from Seltzer and Friedberg?
- 2012 (2009): The Mayan prophecies of The End of the World as We Know It start coming true. Lots of stuff blows up. An aircraft carrier crushes the White House and St. Peter's dome imitates a bowling ball.
- Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 (2009): A disaster Anime. Pretty much Exactly What It Says on the Tin: a story about an 8.0 earthquake in Tokyo, though with a surprising focus on human drama and emergency procedures rather than spectacle. Harsher in Hindsight after 2011.
- Many Sci Fi Channel Original Movies tend to be disaster flicks. Why they go for the genre with such a meager special effects budget is unknown, but it may have to do with Canadian and German tax credits.
- The major networks often did this in the 1970's and '80's, but with better budgets and stars. Mystery Science Theater 3000 did a few of these in their time as a local access show, including SST: Death Flight and Superdome.
- Word of God maintains that The Dark Knight Rises mixes this in with a Superhero film due to the sheer scope of Bane's plot to destroy Gotham.
- Real Life documentary Nine Eleven: It's actually not that far off - a film crew embedded with the fire department responding to a minor call just happens to capture an incredibly destructive terrorist act and follows the firefighters into harms way, recording the whole time. In the end, despite thousands dying, the entire main cast survives. If you wrote a movie with that plot you'd have fanboys telling you it's unrealistic.
- The Impossible was based on a real-life disaster (the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami) but instead of spectacle, the film is driven by the film's performances and the story of a family fighting to see each other again (which was based on a true story, by the way).
- Gravity is about orbital cascade failure (the destruction of a satellite leads to Disaster Dominoes as each piece of debris impacts other satellites and space stations) with a Minimalist Cast of two astronauts trying to survive it.