You know who doesn’t have a problem with climate change denial? Hollywood. Today marks the release of Geostorm, a Gerard Butler vehicle about a near-distant future in which humans have built a control system to combat extreme weather conditions wrought by climate change, but it gets hacked and so Butler has to fly into space to stop some sinister human from wreaking havoc on earth via tsunamis and public-art-sized hail balls like a villainous Jeff Koons.
This is just one in a long line of films that remind us not only is nature our fiercest adversary, it is very likely to become extremely adversarial, extremely soon, mostly because humans are amoral idiots about the planet which hosts us. And it’s in these films that average Americans can witness cautionary tales about how we treat the environment even as the newly installed administration moves to strike mere mention of climate change from official missives. Additionally, natural disaster films are extremely fun to watch, full of action and camp and, in the last decades, big-budget CGI visuals that play into the existential thrill of imagining the awesome ways humanity is sure to be wiped out.
As enthusiastic fans of these types of films, and to celebrate Geostorm which we are certain is going to be high cinema, the Jezebel staff has compiled a list of the disaster movies we most recommend you watch. Our criteria was somewhat loose; while weather-related themes took precedence, it was undeniable that plagues are also natural disasters, and so why would we shunt scientific fact in service to the vague methodology of a list we invented? The point here is that it’s Mother Nature’s revenge, and we revel in witnessing it on the big screen. Consider this list disaster preparedness training... or... actually, don’t.
Pompeii is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, but it is also an important artifact of history, most notably of the time that Kit Harington tried and failed to transition from Game of Thrones heartthrob to big-time action movie star with the exact same haircut. I don’t remember an enormous amount about this movie except that I really disliked it, but, to be fair, this might have also had something to do with the fact that I took a very strong edible beforehand and over the course of the film decided that all my friends hated me.
Here’s what I do remember, and sorry for the spoilers but nobody cares: the movie takes place in Pompeii, the jewel of the Roman Empire. Everybody knows how this story ends so the main plot questions are: Will the main characters get out? And will anybody have sex? (SPOILER: no and no.) Kit Harington plays a sexy gladiator who wears like, shredded crop tops, and he has a crush on “Cassia,” a princess or noble or whatever played by Emily Browning, who is usually a great actress but what could she do with this script? At one point Kit Harington tames Cassia’s white horse, which is really the sexual peak of the film, and eventually the volcano explodes (okay, maybe that’s the sexual peak of the film?) and because Kit Harington was like, swordfighting with a bad Roman guy, he and Cassia were too stupid to leave so they made out until they were overtaken by the flames and frozen forever in a loving embrace. At which point I asked my friend Ethan if everyone was mad at me and he laughed and said yes and I said “Really????” —Ellie Shechet
San Andreas (2015)
As a natural disaster movie connoisseur, believe me when I say that this film is the best the genre has to offer, not least of which is due to the motivating presence of national hero THE ROCK. A soothsaying look at what will happen once the San Andreas Fault finally gets buck and dumps Cali into the Pacific Ocean, this film is somewhat light on the technicalities of plot development and heavy on breathtaking disaster scenes in which THE ROCK, who happens to be a helicopter pilot, goes around saving people, including his daughter and estranged wife (there’s a divorce subplot, in case you needed this film to double down on the rift symbolism). High stakes but campy, this is absolutely one of the best movies that came out in 2015; it’s not really a spoiler to tell you that it ends with THE ROCK looking out onto the destroyed Golden Gate Bridge as a huge American flag happens to unfurl and saying, “Now, we build.” I’m still not sure if that was meant to be propaganda or satire of propaganda, but the fact that I can’t decide is a testament to the genius of San Andreas. —Julianne Escobedo Shepherd
Remember when we were all totally freaked out that the Mayans had predicted the world as we know it would come to a screeching halt in 2012? Unfortunately, it did not, but at least we can pretend by watching this masterpiece of a John Cusack movie about the total destruction of Earth via the magnetic shift of the poles, which also features Woody Harrelson as an Alex Jones-style kook broadcasting conspiracy theories from an RV at the top of a volcano in Yellowstone, and Danny Glover as the deeply concerned US president. Mostly, though, this film will make you appreciate the special effects industry for the beautiful dreamweavers they are. —JES
The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
Disaster films appeal to me foremost because of their promise of either incredible or incredibly bad special effects and scenes of widespread panic. I’ve particularly been drawn to the bad but silly ones that dramatize the laws of science. Top on my list is Day After Tomorrow, which goes full-force with its message about how climate change threatens to destroy the world and kill many people. (This was in 2004, which should tell you how timeless the movie is.)
In it, Dennis Quaid plays a stressed out paleoclimatologist named Jack who tries to warn the government about a destructive storm system that’s about to cause extreme weather patterns and usher the world into a second ICE AGE! This is real. But nobody believes him! It happens anyway! Floods! Tsunamis! Snow! Total destruction. Alarmingly, the storm leads to the phenomenon of “flash freezing,” which means everything and everyone is frozen upon impact.
For a large part of the movie, Jack’s son—played by a young Jake Gyllenhaal—is trapped in a frozen library with Emmy Rossum and a bunch of strangers who disagree about whether to continue taking shelter in the library or risk leaving. This is the stuff I love: panicked decision-making brought on by the unstoppable force that is weather. I like to imagine what I would do in these scenarios and which primal emotions would kick in first, should Manhattan begin to flood or an ice storm hit Brooklyn—fight, cry or try to run very fast? These conditions, at the moment, seem more probable than ever and so perhaps not as comical as I like. —Clover Hope
Another favorite of mine, this takes place on a train that travels around the world carrying the survivors of a climate disaster, including a beautifully rugged Chris Evans, who leads a resistance against the rich. Plenty of lessons here about the nature of social hierarchy and corruption in apocalyptic conditions. Consider it a wintry dystopian Charles Dickens tale for our times. —CH
Most of these Films are about when nature gets really, really big. But what about when it gets really, really small—too small, even, to see with your eyes? That’s where Contagion comes in, the 2011 “medical thriller-disaster film” from Steven Soderberg that explores one of my great fears of being murdered by a global, rapidly spreading airborne virus. According to the CDC, while Nipah and Influenza can’t combine like they do in the movie, the scenario is plausible in a number of different ways, but I won’t mention them here, because I don’t want to be accused of being a spoiler. Anyway, this gets a 10/10 from me because thrillers where Gwyneth Paltrow gets killed (a petite spoiler there) are, for some reason, mostly great (not because of her dying! Just coincidentally!), and because this movie is the reason I wash my hands every time I get off a subway. —Joanna Rothkopf
The Birds (1963)
You might not think of The Birds as a natural disaster movie because it doesn’t really fit the modern mold. There’s no muscle-y hunk that saves the city from waves the height of skyscrapers or tornadoes. There’s no breathtaking CGI. It’s a movie about birds, people. Birds that want to murder! And while that might not seem terrifying at first, even though Alfred Hitchcock directed it and it’s based on a Daphne du Maurier story, I assure you it holds up. I hadn’t seen The Birds in years until recently I caught some of it on television and was shocked at how gruesome some scenes were, especially by 1963 standards. And because we share the Earth with birds, I don’t know, EVERY DAY, watching them almost pick apart a woman to death on screen is horrible. Now I’m kind to birds forever, even the “rats of the sky” we call pigeons. - Hazel Cills
Dante’s Peak (1997)
Every time I set foot in a hot tub, sinking my body to be gently boiled like bucatini, I think of this iconic scene from Dante’s Peak, a charming disaster film about volcanologists warning anyone who will listen that the big mountain’s about to blow. I’m not sure if a actual volcanic eruption would be early as dramatic as depicted in this movie—my understanding is that lava moves slowly, but I’m eager for a scientist to tell me otherwise—but everything about this film has made me extremely wary of volcanos. That means Hawaii is out and Moana, another movie about volcanos but for children, is more traumatic than it should be for an adult, but every time I want to think about a young Pierce Brosnan in a safari shirt and sensible shoes trying to save a town from destruction, I hunt this down and settle in. -Megan Reynolds
Independence Day (1996)
Independence Day is the greatest natural disaster movie.
“But Kelly—that’s about aliens!” you say. Exactly! It’s a story about the ultimate invasive species, come to consume us like pythons decimating the small mammals of the Florida Everglades. Aliens are the manifestation of our anxieties about being planet-trashing apex predators, because what if we were suddenly booted from the top of the food chain? (Metaphorically speaking, of course—I assume aliens eat microbial goo.)
Anyway, lasers blow up several American landmarks, Jeff Goldblum is rude and hot, Bill Pullman gives a rousing speech that culminates in the name of the movie, and Will Smith punches an alien in the face and informs it, “Welcome to EARTH.” What more could you want in a summer blockbuster? —Kelly Faircloth
28 Days Later (2002)
We debated whether or not Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later could be considered a disaster flick, and I argue that it is because it’s about (accidental) bioterrorism and a rapidly spreading virus. The movie begins with a group of animal rights activists kindly attempting to release tortured chimps from a lab, only to discover that the animals have been intentionally infected with something that turns them into shells of rage and pure adrenalin. Bad news! It spreads to people! Cut to 28 days later and a bike messenger (Cillian Murphy) wakes up emaciated after a monthlong coma only to find that London he knows no longer exists. The movie has great performances by Murphy, Naomie Harris, Brendan Gleeson, and Christopher Eccleston and the story—which at times leaves you asking if the uninfected are the real monsters—is chilling and as realistic a depiction of a zombie dystopia could possibly be (at least pre-Walking Dead). —Madeleine Davies
An unexpected alien attack on New York City is captured on the camera of a group of young adults whose night began as a nice going away party and ends with running for their lives as the city is destroyed around them. I watched this the night before I moved to New York, which was a terrible choice, but at least it features my beloved Lizzy Caplan. —MD
The Planet of the Apes remakes (Rise, 2011; Dawn, 2014; War, 2017)
I was highly skeptical of the recent Planet of the Apes trilogy. Burned too many times by Hollywood, I was convinced the films would be without heart, devoted to the continued destruction and misinformation of our closest animal relatives.
How wrong I was.
I have come to believe that these films are the best of our time. Devoted to showing how much man’s meddling with nature, however well-intentioned it may be at times, can lead to its own destruction, I’m convinced there’s no action movie more committed to teaching its audience a larger lesson about humanity. The few issues I have—why, if the apes are forming a new society, do their women remain in the caretaker role? Can’t they start thinking outside the box? Or is this a larger lesson about all cultures falling into the same traps?—fall by the wayside at the tender and incredible performances of humans who are acting with humans who will later be CGIed to look like apes.
You may not consider these films “natural” disaster. But how much more natural can you get than humans making grave, horrible scientific decisions that end up causing widespread contagion? I’ve been saving War, the last in this part of the series, because I don’t want it to be over. But if the apes teach us anything, it’s that it all ends eventually. —Kate Dries
In 1912, a poor little rich girl named Rose boards the Titanic, an “unsinkable” luxury cruise liner, with her mother and mean older fiancé. Aboard she meets a happy-go-lucky third class peasant named Jack who teaches her how to live... then dies after the Titanic hits an iceberg and sinks.
Pro tip: If you don’t want this to be a disaster movie because you prefer a romance that transcends social and financial class while taking you to a real party, get in a time machine to the late ’90s and only watch tape one, not tape two, as I did. For more information, visit titanic.jezebel.com. —MD