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Weekend Roundtable: What a Disaster!

One of the great joys of being a filmmaker, especially a filmmaker fortunate enough to play around with a big budget production, is to create an elaborate movie world and then tear it to the ground in spectacularly destructive fashion. Making a disaster movie essentially gives a director the opportunity to return to his childhood playroom, where he can stack his building blocks as high as possible and then delight in glee as he makes those towers crumble. This week, unapologetic hack Paul W.S. Anderson recreates the historical tragedy of the destruction of Pompeii in glitzy and gaudy digital 3D. For today’s Roundtable, we look back at some other best and worst examples of the disaster genre.

Brian Hoss

Best:Dante’s Peak‘ nails two important disaster movie elements right off the bat: a believable premise and effective casting. Pirece Brosnan prophesies an impending disaster, and Linda Hamilton acts as the center of a family that the audience can care about. The peaceful mountain community is established and then destroyed in multiple horrific but believable ways. I’ve always thought that the movie carried some subliminal truck advertising, as Brosnan seems able to face off with lava, acid and gravity with no more than a pick-up or Suburban.

Worst: While there are probably worse disaster movies, ‘The Day After Tomorrow‘ is a soggy mess. By the time Dennis Quaid walks to New York to rescue his book-burning son, it’s hard not to personally dislike Roland Emmerich.

Luke Hickman

Worst: Many of the disaster movies that I grew up with seemed so amazing at the time, but when watched as an adult look pretty cheesy. Case in point: ‘Twister‘. I re-watched on cable not long ago and couldn’t believe it was the same movie I obsessed over as a young teenager.

Best: However, I watched and unapologetically enjoyed ‘2012‘ as an adult, and it’s been just as absurdly fun with repeat viewings. I love how over the top the movie is: outrunning volcanoes in RVs and earthquakes in limousines; driving a limo through a collapsing skyscraper; taxiing an airplane down a crumbling runway and lifting off just before the world dissolves; and who can forget the revelation of the “arks.” What we thought would be spaceships were really giant barges! And thank heaven for John Cusack starring in it. I die laughing every time I hear him yell “Get in the fucking car!” to a pair of kids. Hilarious!

Shannon Nutt

Best: Both the acting and the production values may appear cheesy by today’s standards (although this movie did win two Oscars, one for visual effects), but I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for ‘Earthquake‘, the 1974 disaster film about the “big one” hitting Los Angeles. Like many big budget movies of its day, this one had a cast of thousands (or at least dozens), including Moses himself, Charlton Heston. This is one of my earliest movie memories (I must have seen this November 1974 flick pretty late in its run or during a re-release, since I’m pretty sure my first movie was 1975’s ‘Race with the Devil’), and I recall a big fuss being made over the sound in the theater. ‘Earthquake’ featured Universal’s “Sensurround,” which was just a fancy name for bass that was pumped up so loud it peeled the paint off the theater walls and left your ears ringing for days.

Worst: Director Roland Emmerich has become the modern-day king of disaster flicks, and none are more over-the-top or as ridiculously silly as ‘2012‘. I don’t even necessarily have a problem with the hammy acting in this movie (it hasn’t prevented me from still enjoying ‘Earthquake’); it’s the lack of believability of some of the visual effects sequences. For example, look at the scene early in the movie where the character played by John Cusack escapes Los Angeles in his limo. Yes, the visuals are fun, but the realism is laughably bad. It would be more believable if he just drove through a volcanic eruption or a nuclear explosion. The movie is filled with such sequences, and after sitting through two or three of them, you start rooting for the disaster and against the characters.

Mike Attebery

Worst: The worst disaster movie I can think of is ‘Volcano‘. I don’t think there’s really even much of a typical volcano in ‘Volcano’. It’s more of an oozing lump. I haven’t seen the whole mess since it was in the theater, so I can only imagine that moments like Tommy Lee Jones dangling over a cheap volcano-on-highway effect have only gotten lamer in the past 17 years. Ho-oooooly cow! How can it be that long already?

Josh Zyber

Best: As much as you can fault its shallow script, superficial characters and the hackneyed love story that drives its plot, ‘Titanic‘ is nevertheless a very smart movie. James Cameron was savvy enough to fuse the emotional appeal of a weepy romance with plenty of hardcore destruction spectacle to attract both male and female audiences in droves. It’s no accident that this held the record as the highest-grossing movie of all time for a dozen years (until Cameron topped himself with ‘Avatar’). When the production went over budget and behind schedule, industry naysayers scoffed that the film was as doomed as its subject matter, but James Cameron knew exactly what he was doing. While I have issues with many aspects of it and certainly never felt that it was the best film of 1997, I can’t deny that ‘Titanic’ is populist entertainment of the highest order. Unlike its historical counterpart, this ship stays afloat.

Worst: Since the heyday of Irwin Allen, Hollywood has taken it for granted that audiences expect and want disaster movies to be dumb. Really dumb. I’ve never understood the correlation, but it’s undeniably tied to the genre. Movies that are knowingly dumb, such as Allen’s or Roland Emmerich’s, are obnoxious enough, but movies that think they’re smarter than they actually are make me want to gouge my eyes out. As far as that goes, ‘Twister‘ is one of the dumbest fucking movies I’ve ever seen in my life and really made me question my will to live in a world that would produce such garbage, and in which audiences would enthusiastically make a blockbuster out of it. For fuck’s sake, our heroes survive the strongest tornado in recorded history by lashing a belt to a broken piece of rusty pipe sticking out of the ground. Even as the wind tears houses and buildings to pieces around them, they’re perfectly fine riding it out, never in any danger of being hit by debris. Don’t even get me started on how the “good” storm chasers drive the white trucks and the “bad” storm chasers drive the black trucks. Why are there good and bad storm chasers at all? They’re all idiots! This movie has two future Oscar winners in the cast and a screenplay credited to Michael Crichton. There’s no excuse for it to be this awful.

What are some of your favorite (or least favorite) disaster movies? Tell us in the Comments.

37 comments

  1. Kenneth Nation

    What exactly was dumb about Poseidon Adventure or Towering Inferno? I’ll watch these films from time to time, but never want to see the 90s or present disaster films ever again.

    • Ian W

      Yeah, I’d say those films are more campy than dumb, but its telling you’re mind didn’t automatically think of such Allen classics as FIRE!, FLOOD!, THE SWARM, or his magnum opus WHEN TIME RAN OUT.

      • Kenneth Nation

        Didn’t think of them because they were awful films. Irwin Allen did not have directorial skills despite what he may have thought. The first two were his best for the reason he didn’t direct, other than action scenes in Inferno.

  2. The Bob

    Best: Dante’s Peak

    Worst (by far): Twister…I’m an amature meteorologist now for 50+ years and I was so disappointed in this movie…a tornado that lasts for hours??? A pickup truck picked up by a tornado and looks like it’s right off the showroom floor??? Steven S. should be ashamed to have his name associated with this film, he’s done so many good films.

    • Rolltide1018

      Yes, tornados can last hours. The April 27 2011 tornado that hit Tuscaloosa and Birmingham last an hour. The record was set in 1925 by a tornado that traveld 300 miles across 3 states and last 3 1/2 hours. There are many unbelievable things about Twister but, long lasting tornados is not one of them.

      • William Henley

        Agreed. Now most, if they hit the ground, are only on the ground for a few minutes, but the tornado itself can last a lot longer than it is actually on the ground for, and can touch down multiple times. It’s unusual, but not unheard of, for these to last an hour or more.

        Also keep in mind that multiple tornados can be formed by the same storm.

        The unpredictability of tornados COULD pick up a truck and deposit it somewhere else and have it look like very little damage has been done to it. Once again, it is unusual, but not unheard of.

        If anything, the movie was a bunch of unusual events happening together, but it is plausible. For people who have never been through a tornado or witnessed one or what it can do, the movie may seem far-fetched, but it is actually pretty well done. I would rank it up there as one of the better Disaster movies as far as natual disaster is concerned. What hurt this movie was a weak script and poor acting.

  3. NJScorpio

    ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ is one of my most rewatched movies, and one of the first films I bought (and immediately rewatched) on Blu-Ray. It’s my go-to example of a bad movie that I love.

    Sure, the science isn’t right, and the casting isn’t perfect, but there are many enjoyable scenes. In fact, I’d LOVE to see this with a 3D conversion.

  4. Paul A

    Armageddon has to be my favorite disaster film of all time. Sure it is cheesy. Yes, Liv Tyler is absolutely annoying. Yes, the premise is downright ridiculous. But…the CGI is first rate. The supporting roles (Steve Buscemi, Owen Wilson, William Fichtner, Billy Bob…) are masterful. I can watch this movie over and over again. And, I won’t apologize one bit! I wish Criterion could get the rights back so we can get the directors cut version available in, not only Blu-ray, but at least anamorphic widescreen!

    A close runner-up would be The Towering Inferno and Airport!

  5. I pretty much hate disaster movies in general unless it involves giant lizards, apes, robots , or aliens being the cause of it. That being said, I kind of like The Day After Tomorrow. Really hated the Poseidon remake, and 2012 sucked pretty bad for me too, just fast forwarded to all cool cgi parts.

  6. Scott H

    Volcano is the worst, and most stupid. Tommy Lee Jones playing a director of emergency management and he has to ask what magma is. Rolled my eyes at that line. As far as asteroid movies go, I find Armageddon more enjoyable then deep impact. Armageddon is fun, while deep impact is more sentimental and serious in tone.

  7. Timcharger

    HDD needs to put on a video or transcript of the lunch room shouting matches between Luke Hickman and Shannon Nutt over the film 2012.

    That sounds that a must-read blog to me.

    —–

    Twister is a guilt pleasure of mine. The aural experience is second to none.

  8. Timcharger

    Josh: “Movies that are knowingly dumb, such as Allen’s or Roland Emmerich’s, are obnoxious enough, but movies that think they’re smarter than they actually are make me want to gouge my eyes out.”

    Josh, but why do you think Twister thinks it’s a “smart” film?

    The “we got cows” scene. That pretty much proves Twister knows it’s dumb.

    Plus Twister has a Philip Hoffman doing his best Jeff Spicoli. You must agree that has some redeeming value.

  9. Chris

    When was the last time you actually watched Twister? I gave it a shot last summer ond holy shit it has not aged well man. It’s embarrassingly dated, it’s one of those movies that actually makes you cringe on the inside. The characters are cliches of cliches, the chemistry be tween the two leads is non-existant….it’s just plain bad.

  10. WORST: Deep Impact, personally I wanted the meteor to land on Tea Leoni’s head. I even hated the movie more than Armageddon which shocked me.

    BEST: Aliens, Ripley trapped on the planet with a nuclear bomb just about to vapourise her

  11. FilmGal

    Worst: Twister. I hated it from day one. Never understood the apparent love for this movie by most people. But most of the others on the worst list are on my worst list too.

    Best: The Poseidon Adventure. Well acted by Hackman and crew. I love this movie and can watch it over and over again.

  12. Eric

    I don’t know if it truly qualifies, but I’d like to put a vote in for The Perfect Storm for best disaster flick. While it is occurring on a much smaller scale, I love the acting performances. I still think it holds up on repeat viewings, and it is the film where Mark Walberg stopped being Marky Mark to me and actually graduated to an actor.

  13. Worst: I defy anyone here to watch “When Time Ran Out” and not think it’s the worst disaster movie of all time.

    Best: The Towering Inferno has always impressed me – despite many of it’s (numerous) flaws.

    • Peter Whitney

      Amen to that. When Time Ran Out was so bad, and the cast so talented. And all I can think of right now is Pat Morita falling into the lava (SPOILER).

  14. Peter Whitney

    The worst hands down is When Time Ran Out. Volcano while not a classic was better than Dante’s Peak… And I’d rather watch Volcano ten times straight than When Time Ran Out once. Same with Twister. Everything about When Time Ran Out was bad (except the cast), and it wasn’t even so bad it’s good. It wasn’t fun in a MST3K way.

    On a scientific level Deep Impact was great, but the best disaster movie I think is a toss up between Earthquake and Towering Inferno.

  15. Worst? I’m surprised no one has mentioned Armageddon, directed by Michael Bay, whose filmmaking was ADD before it was even in vogue (average shot length in Armageddon: 1.5 seconds). You’ve got six weeks before a global killer asteroid (the size of Texas) ends life as we know it, and your very best solution is to hire a bunch of idiots off an oil rig, train them to be astronauts, and then have them land on the asteroid and drill deep enough to plant a nuclear bomb and blow the asteroid apart. The finished film contains so many factual errors NASA has used the film in management training programs.

    If there’s one watchable thing in the film, it’s Steve Buscemi, who gets the most out of lines such as “This place is like Dr. Seuss’s worst nightmare.”

    • Timcharger

      “The finished film contains so many factual errors NASA has used the film in management training programs.”

      That’s too funny.

      I also used the the film for a “the right one” training test. When a girl I dated, went silly crazy over Armageddon’s Aerosmith song and the love story between Affleck and Tyler [Liv, not Steven 🙂 ], I knew then that she couldn’t be “the right one”.

  16. Bill

    How about all those dubbed Japanese monster films of the 50s? (Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan). Would you classify them as the Best or the Worst?

  17. William Henley

    I think I am going to stretch the “disaster” movie genera a bit.

    Best: The Terminator movies and Wizard of Oz

    Worst: Return to Oz and Star Trek 4.

  18. Bryan

    I love disaster/end of the world movies. If Good or bad, I can pretty much tolerate all of them.

    I know most people tend to write it off as a bad B-movie, but I just love “The Core”. (even imported the UK Blu-Ray version!) I love the ridiculousness of them attempting to re-start the earth’s core in this bizarre (essentially untested) vehicle.

    And I know that I shouldn’t, but I also love “Poseidon” – the remake from a few years ago with Josh Lucas and Kurt Russell. Had the HD DVD and even got the Blu-Ray when it came out … (yes, I know I have a problem! 🙂 )

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