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Disaster movies
Photograph: Time Out

33 great disaster movies that’ll have you running for cover

From monster ’quakes to killer comets, film apocalypses to enjoy in your underground bunker

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Matthew Singer
Contributor
Phil de Semlyen
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Alongside the horror genre, disaster movies are cinema’s way of reflecting our deepest fears back at us. And unlike horror, where the peril can be contained or is even existential, the threat in this oeuvre is often limitless – there’s nothing like the future of the entire planet hanging in the balance to have you shifting uncomfortably in your easychair.

Their heyday came in the ’70s where audiences inured of Vietnam, Watergate and economic woes were hungry for a more escapist breed of catastrophe and super-producers like Irwin ‘the Master of Disaster’ Allen were on hand to provide it. Roland Emmerich picked up the flaming baton a couple of decades later, finding new and inventive ways to reduce the planet to toast.

And as Netflix’s meme-spawning eco-tastrophe flick
Don't Look Up proves, our appetite for destruction has hardly waned. In putting together this list, we stuck to the natural definition of ‘disasters’ – earthquakes and asteroids and, uh, geostorms, rather than rampaging kaiju and invading aliens. Here are 33 classics of the genre that register 11 on the cinematic Richter Scale. 

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Best Disaster Movies

  • Film
  • Science fiction

Disaster type: Stranded in space

Notable destruction: George Clooney

Something like ‘Castaway in Space’, Alfonso Cuarón’s follow-up to his dystopian masterpiece Children of Men resembles a high-stress video game more than a movie. Sandra Bullock assumes the Tom Hanks role, spending nearly the whole runtime alone, in space, as an astronaut whose craft is destroyed in a debris shower, forcing her to improvise a way back home. (George Clooney, as her wisecracking partner who may or may not be a figment of her imagination, is basically her Wilson.) So it’s a small-scale disaster – admittedly, a weird thing to say about a movie that cost more to make than some countries’ actual space programs – but a disaster all the same. And in terms of sheer, sweaty-palmed tension, it outdoes just about every other movie on this list. You’ll need to remind yourself to breathe.  

  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Disaster type: Nautical

Notable destruction: The SS Poseidon 

The DeMille of demolition, producer Irwin Allen had a well-thumbed playbook for his ’70s disaster epics – big stars tussling with even bigger catastrophes – and it peaked with this timeless lazy-day telly staple that uses a tsunami to upturn a cruise liner upside down like a bath toy and invites its surviving A-listers to escape. The upside-down’ness of the scenario adds an ingenious layer of disorientation, planting you into the soggy shoes of Gene Hackman, Shelley Winters, Ernest Borgnine et al as they clamber, scramble and swim across a variety of unrecognisable obstacles to reach the ship’s hull. Crucially, the script gives its stellar cast plenty of character work to build the emotional stakes – fearlessly killing off half of them en route to the top. Well, bottom. 

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  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Disaster type: Full-on apocalypse

Notable destruction: Everything

Roland Emmerich already destroyed half the planet with 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow, and a mere five years later, he returned to finish the job. Capitalising on the proliferation of the theorised ‘Mayan apocalypse’ in the year of the title, Emmerich does away with all pretence of a message, environmentalist or otherwise, coming up with some hooey about neutrinos rapidly warming the earth’s core, and just lets ’er rip: LA is swallowed by an earthquake, tidal waves drown Washington and India, the Hawaiian Islands are consumed by volcanic magma. If it’s not the greatest disaster movie of all time, it’s certainly the most thorough.

  • Film
  • Drama

Disaster type: Shipwreck

Notable destruction: A very big boat

Titanic became the highest-grossing movie of all time on the basis of the tragic love story at its centre – or, perhaps more accurately, because of millions of teenage girls’ tragic love of Leonardo DiCaprio. But when that very big boat crashes into that very big iceberg, it becomes clear what James Cameron is really in this for: reconstructing, in exacting detail, the most famous maritime disaster in history. Whatever you think about the rest of the film, that aspect is an awesome spectacle, a protracted symphony of rushing water, crashing plates, collapsing funnels and slipping, sliding, flying bodies. RIP that dude who falls, like, a billion feet into a huge propeller, sending his body spinning like a pinwheel into the icy water below. You’re the real MVP.

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  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Disaster type: Plane crash

Notable destruction: One would-be terrorist, Burt Lancaster’s blood pressure

An ambitious all-star production that ushered in cinema’s Disaster Era, it’s hard to say if this blockbuster adaptation of the bestselling Arthur Hailey potboiler is technically a ‘good’ movie or not, but it sure is a spectacle. Burt Lancaster plays the manager of an airport near Chicago dealing with complications both personal (his wife is divorcing him) and professional (a blizzard has paralysed the airport). His day only gets worse when a disturbed passenger blows a hole in an airliner mid-flight, very much pissing off the pilot, Dean Martin. It’s a soap opera blown apart by chaos, which would become the template for every big-budget disaster flick to follow – as well as, of course, the immortal spoof, Airplane!

  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Disaster type: Flaming skyscraper

Notable destruction: The top floors of a brand-new tower

Another Irwin Allen slam-dunk to follow The Poseidon Adventure, this one has a skyscraper standing in for the ship but all the other elements in place: human error caused by greed resulting in a catastrophic accident that forces a variety of good-looking Hollywood types to endure life-threatening scenarios. Here it’s Paul Newman and Steve McQueen to the rescue as an architect and firefighter forced into action when a San Fran skyscraper catches alight. When they’d finished arguing over top billing on the film’s poster, this dream pairing put the fire itself in the shade and provide an old-school Hollywood lustre to distract from the film’s flaws – including some cardboard cutout villainy from Richard Chamberlain and Robert Wagner. 

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  • Film

Disaster type: Tornado

Notable destruction: A drive-in movie theatre, a barn, several vehicles and one poor cow

Effects-wise, Twister is to tornados as Jurassic Park is to dinosaurs. Utilising a mix of high-level practical effects and then-cutting-edge CGI, ’90s action maestro Jan de Bont drops audiences into the centre of the storm – and it still looks great almost three decades later. Sure, the characters are an afterthought, but Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton do what they can as a bickering, newly divorced storm-chasing couple who need the thrill of nearly getting sucked into a massive cyclone to realise they still love each other. Romance isn’t what you’re here for, though: it’s the meteorological event of the title – and of course, the famous flying cow.

  • Film
  • Thrillers

Disaster type: Virus

Notable destruction: 26 million immune systems, one Chinese rainforest

Streaming audiences rediscovered Steven Soderbergh’s pandemic procedural in the early days of Covid, as if the film might hold some clues as to what was heading humanity’s way. It’s not as ridiculous as it sounds. Compared to, say, Outbreak or 1980’s Virus, Contagion approaches the then-hypothetical notion of a deadly, rapidly spreading respiratory virus with a realism bordering on the cold and clinical. Of course, it didn’t completely predict the future – who could’ve anticipated the intense politicisation of strips of cloth that go over your face? – but it remains a frightening cine-memorial to what we’ve all gone through, and a glimpse of how much worse it could have been. 

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  • Film
  • Drama

In 1991, the phrase ‘a perfect storm’ became not just a figurative statement, as two weather systems converged over the Atlantic Ocean and wreaked havoc on the Northeastern United States. In Das Boot director Wolfgang Petersen’s maritime thriller, based on the Sebastian Junger book, a group of desperate fishermen find themselves at sea in the midst of the chaos, battling 100-foot waves in an attempt to get back to shore. It’s a dad movie, for sure, but a surprisingly compelling one, featuring tense performances from a cadre of not-yet-superstar acting talent including George Clooney, John C Reilly and John Hawkes. Oh, and Mark Wahlberg is there, too.

  • Film
  • Comedy

Disaster type: Commercial airliner

Notable destruction: A airport terminal window

A disaster movie on helium, the Zucker brothers’ comedy classic throws absolutely everything at the wall – and virtually all of its sticks in its spoofing of 1957 drama Zero Hour! and to a lesser extent, 1970’s Airport. There’s smarts wherever you look among all the silliness, especially in reinventing jobbing character actor Leslie Nielsen (once the captain in The Poseidon Adventure) as a deadpan comedy genius and a quote-a-second script. But it works just by faithfully borrowing Zero Hour!’s beats and characters – the dodgy fish option, the stressed-out air traffic controller, the traumatised airforce pilot (also called Ted Stryker) – and playing them for laughs. There’s a reason it’s number two on this list.

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  • Film
  • Drama

Disaster type: Climate

Notable destruction: Tokyo (massive hail storm), Los Angeles (tornados), Manhattan (tsunami followed by instant deep-freeze)

By the turn of the millennium, Roland Emmerich had already levelled New York in Godzilla and ‘sploded the White House in Independence Day, but the German demolitionist-auteur certified his credentials as Hollywood’s master of disaster with this piece of environmental catastro-fiction. Climate change is portrayed not as a gradual degradation of the earth but an instantaneous cataclysm, in which a series of superstorms converge and plunge the northern hemisphere into a new ice age. It’s ridiculous, of course, but it plays on very real anxieties about the health of the planet, even including a climate-denying Dick Cheney stand-in as Vice President. It’s definitely no dumber than Don’t Look Up.

The Wave (2015)
Photograph: MUBI

12. The Wave (2015)

Disaster type: Tsunami

Notable destruction: The Norwegian village of Geiranger

No, it’s not about Fenway Park collapsing during the seventh-inning stretch. In the tradition of Earthquake and Volcano, this Norwegian thriller is about exactly what the title says: a big-ass tidal wave, caused by a massive avalanche, coming to wreck a small town on Norway’s coast. Director Roar Uthaug indulges in several disaster cliches, but also manages to upend them with a story that actually cares about its characters – namely, the family of the geologist who sounds the alarm on the town’s impending doom. But that doesn’t mean Uthaug downplays the effects. Quite the contrary: when the titular tsunami hits, it’s jaw-dropping.

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A Night to Remember (1958)
  • Film

Disaster type: Shipwreck

Notable destruction: A very big boat…this time in black and white

Forty years before Titanic, underrated visionary Roy Ward Baker (Quatermass and the Pit) dramatised history’s greatest maritime disaster, and for a budget that probably wouldn’t even cover the catering aboard James Cameron’s submarine. (It was still, at the time, the most expensive British film ever made.) It’s a straightforward recreation compared to the more famous cinematic depiction, but Baker was no less obsessive in getting the details right. Want to watch a very big boat sink without the distraction of Jack, Rose and Billy Zane? This is the disaster flick for you.

  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Disaster type: Giant asteroid

Notable destruction: Mexico City, Paris, Sydney, the entire state of Florida 

Estranged dads are frequently the human centre of most disaster movies, but it’s usually just a superficial narrative ploy. Few films are really interested in the question of ‘Who do you want to be with at the end of the world?’ Surprisingly, that’s one thing this Gerard Butler vehicle does rather well. An asteroid is heading toward earth, and Butler battles to reunite with his family in – you guessed it – Greenland, where there are rumoured to be underground bunkers available for select survivors. It goes low on spectacle and high on emotion, and it’s the rare instance in this kind of film where you won’t particularly miss the over-the-top destruction. 

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San Andreas (2015)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Disaster type: Earthquake

Notable destruction: Hoover Dam, Golden Gate Bridge, Kylie Minogue

In which Dwayne Johnson goes mano a mano with his toughest opponent yet: California’s San Andreas Fault. When the Big One finally hits, it quite literally tears the state apart, obliterating both Los Angeles and San Francisco and everything in between. Will helicopter pilot Raymond Gaines (Johnson) be able to rescue both his estranged wife (Carla Gugino) and their daughter (Alexandra Daddario), despite them being in two different cities nearly 400 miles apart on that fateful day? We won’t spoil anything. Just know that the American Geosciences Institute described the scope of the destruction depicted in the movie as a ‘geologic absurdity’, which is how you know it’s awesome. 

The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)
Photograph: Universal Pictures

16. The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)

Disaster type: Apocalypse

Notable destruction: The entire planet… possibly

‘Global warming’ was decades away from entering the common lexicon when British director Val Guest made this movie about a planet on the brink of overheating. Granted, the cause isn’t precisely environmental degradation, but it is mankind’s fault: nuclear tests have sent the earth spinning off its axis and hurtling toward the sun. It sounds goofy, but the premise is handled with grave seriousness and a distinctly English disposition. The end result, however ambiguous the conclusion, is a whole lot more modern than you might imagine from ’60s sci-fi.

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  • Film

Disaster type: Virus

Notable destruction: A village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a room full of cinemagoers

As with Contagion, this ’90s disease thriller experienced a surge of interest in the early days of COVID-19. But where Steven Soderbergh took pains to show what might really happen in the event of a global pandemic, often to the detriment of his characters, director Wolfgang Petersen took the opposite approach. No one would call Outbreak ‘prescient’: sure, there was that moment when Ebola cases spiked in the US but as far we know the government never considered firebombing towns to contain it. But Petersen makes better use of his A-list cast, including Dustin Hoffman as a virologist racing to find a cure and Morgan Freeman as a general conflicted about the idea of killing American citizens as a form of immunology.

  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Disaster type: Earthquake

Notable destruction: Mulholland Dam, a freeway overpass

One of the pillars of the ’70s disaster boom, Earthquake sends Charleton Heston running through the rubble of Los Angeles in the aftermath of the Big One – it hits 9.9 on the Richter Scale – to save both his estranged wife (Ava Gardner) and his mistress (Geneviève Bujold). (Man, the ‘70s were wild.) It’s big budget schlock, but it predicted a lot of schlock with even bigger budgets that would arrive in later decades. And the effects - well disguised models, for the most part - are inspired for the time period. Forty years later, San Andreas would crank up the levels of tectonic destruction, but you really can’t beat an elevator full of people plunging to its doom then sending cartoon blood flying at the screen. 

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  • Film

Disaster type: Volcano

Notable destruction: Wilshire Boulevard, the La Brea Tar Pits, character actor John Carroll Lynch

The year 1997 offers not one, but two movies about dormant volcanoes erupting without warning, but only one of them was about a subterranean magma monster suddenly erupting in the middle of Los Angeles. This gives Volcano a slight edge over Dante’s Peak in our book. Leaving aside the questionable injection of racial politics, the curious interpretation of LA geography or Tommy Lee Jones as the director of the Office of Emergency Management romancing seismologist Anne Heche – the image of lava rolling down Wilshire Boulevard is inspired enough to make this an instant ‘watch ’til the end when you catch it on cable’ classic. 

  • Film
  • Science fiction

Disaster type: Giant asteroid

Notable destruction: Two space shuttles, a space station, Singapore

The Volcano to Deep Impact’s Dante’s Peak, Michael Bay’s Armageddon is widely regarded as the lesser of the two ‘massive asteroid heading for earth’ movies released in 1998. But it looms larger in the imagination because of its sheer, unabashed ridiculousness. A hunk of rock ‘the size of Texas’ is on a collision course with the planet, and the best idea the US government can come up with to stop it is to send Bruce Willis and a motley crew of oil drillers into space to blow the thing up from the inside. Push aside the romantic subplot between Liv Tyler and babyfaced Ben Affleck, though, and you’ve got Willis, Owen Wilson, super horndog Steve Buscemi and President Billy Bob Thornton, all of whom are well aware how absurd this whole situation is, and deliver their lines accordingly.

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The Impossible (2012)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Disaster type: Tsunami

Notable destruction: A Thailand beach resort

Right off the bat, yes, it’s weird to make a movie about the tsunami that levelled Thailand in 2004 as experienced by a well-off English family who happened to be vacationing there at the time. That said, The Impossible, by Spanish director J A Bayona, is uncommonly emotional for a disaster flick, owing much to its A-list cast, including Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts and a very young Tom Holland as their preteen son. And while the focus is on the Europeans, the screenplay underscores the innate compassion of humans in crisis, and in that way honours the resolve of the actual indigenous population who didn’t have the luxury of getting airlifted back home.

Deepwater Horizon (2016)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Disaster type: Oil spill

Notable destruction: An offshore drilling unit, many seagulls 

Peter Berg, master of the serious-minded, reality-based action-thriller, was the ideal director to helm a movie about the 2016 oil rig explosion off the US Gulf Coast that caused the worst oil spill in American history – an event you wouldn’t necessarily think would lend itself to a white-knuckle thrill ride. Smartly, Berg emphasises the corporate cost-cutting of energy monolith BP that presaged the accident, lending an undercurrent of righteous anger to all the big, fiery explosions that threaten the life of star Mark Wahlberg and his perpetually furrowed brow. Not much time is spent on the environmental impact of the disaster, but the human toll is handled better than you might expect.

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  • Film
  • Action and adventure

The other volcano movie of 1997, this one takes itself a bit more seriously than Volcano, but nonetheless features a heroic grandmother getting her legs burned off in a lake of sulfuric acid and Pierce Brosnan hightailing it down a mountain in a beat-up truck. The then-007 is a volcanologist still reeling from the flaming-rock-based death of his fiancée when he arrives in a small Pacific Northwest town to investigate a nearby stratovolcano. When the mountain inevitably blows its top, he must protect the town’s mayor (Linda Hamilton) from suffering a similar fate. It’s a basic disaster movie premise, but what it lacks in lava destroying LA landmarks it makes up for with a spectacular eruption, and the near-escapes are genuinely exciting.

  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Disaster type: Giant asteroid

Notable destruction: Everything

Like Volcano and Dante’s Peak, Mimi Leder’s touchy-feely take on the ‘big space rock coming to wipe out the earth’ genre will forever be linked to Michael Bay’s Armageddon, which came out the same year. Most remember Deep Impact as the superior film, but it really comes down to personal preference: do you like your big space-rock movies loud and dumb or melodramatic and sentimental? If the latter sounds more appealing, well, you should probably just watch Greenland with Gerard Butler. But Leder, who initially made her name in the ’90s directing ER, still proves herself adept at framing high emotional drama in tense situations. Plus, this is the movie that inaugurated Morgan Freeman as US President, so it’s got that going for it.

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  • Film
  • Science fiction

Disaster type: Apocalyptic

Notable destruction: The Roman Colosseum, the Golden Gate Bridge, the floor of the Pacific Ocean

Certain movies seem designed solely to piss off the scientific community, and to that end, Jon Amiel’s The Core succeeds wildly. (A panel of brainiacs once voted it the most scientifically inaccurate movie ever made.) It’s basically a subterranean Armageddon, involving a ragtag crew of scientists sent to the literal centre of the earth on a mission to ‘restart’ the planet’s failing molten core using nuclear bombs. Even the dumbest guy in your geology class will call bullshit on basically every major plot point. But Amiel, and a cast that includes Stanley Tucci, Aaron Eckhart, Delroy Lindo and Hilary Swank, all seem in on the joke, to the point of damn near winking at the camera the whole time.

  • Film
  • Thrillers

Disaster type: Flood

Notable destruction: a small-town church, a small-town jail, a small town

Part disaster movie, part heist flick, this ’90s actioner doesn’t quite live up to the potential of that ingenious combination, but it gets a lot of points for effort. Morgan Freeman plays the leader of a criminal gang who, in the midst of a near-biblical rainstorm in small-town Indiana, hatches a plot to rob $3 million from an armoured truck driven by Christian Slater. John Woo was initially slated to direct but dropped out to do Face/Off – probably a wise choice – but his replacement, Mikael Salomon, makes good use of his skills as a former cinematographer to create a movie which, if nothing else, feels credibly waterlogged.

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  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Disaster type: Runaway train

Notable destruction: One engineer on the verge of retirement

A freight train loaded with dangerous chemicals has gone rogue and is heading toward a small town in Pennsylvania, and it’s up to Chris Pine and Denzel Washington to stop it before it derails and goes ‘kaboom’. Unstoppable is the last film by the late Tony Scott, and it sends the action auteur out on a high note, keeping an unrelentingly frenetic pace and featuring Denzel going full ham and chomping down on every line.

  • Film

Disaster type: Virus

Notable destruction: Virtually all of humanity

Despite the title, this American-Japanese co-production is only half about a deadly disease. When a man-made biological weapon is accidentally unleashed upon the world, nearly the entire human population is wiped out, with the exception of 855 people stationed in Antarctica. Years later, as the survivors attempt to rebuild, a massive earthquake threatens to set off the world’s nuclear arsenal. Tough break. It’s a bit of an obscurity now, but Virus was, at one point, the most expensive movie in Japanese history. And its cast is still a head-turner: how many other movies include both George Kennedy and Sonny Chiba? Not nearly enough.

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Only the Brave (2017)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Disaster type: Wildfire

Notable destruction: The town of Yarnell, Arizona; multiple firefighters

It’s based on the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a crew of firefighters who died fighting a massive wildfire in Arizona in 2013, although its plot sounds suspiciously similar to Smoke Jumpers, the fake movie from Entourage. Director Joseph Kosinski (Top Gun: Maverick) does an admirable job paying homage to some truly heroic individuals, with a serious-minded tone that manages to be both visually compelling and emotional without feeling manipulative.

  • Film
  • Horror

Disaster type: Hurricane, alligator infestation
Notable destruction: Part of Florida, several innocent bystanders

A B-movie horror with a vague environmental message, Crawl unleashes a Category 5 hurricane on Florida, followed by a luggage-emporium’s worth of alligators on Kaya Scodelario and Barry Pepper when they get stuck in their fast-submerging home. Sure, it’s technically a sploshy monster movie rather than a disaster film, but the beats here are the same: a father-daughter duo battling mother nature in a frantic quest for survival. The dual threat of gale and ‘gators works to ramp up the peril, too – as the eye of the storm shifts, additional scaly terrors are unleashed. You won’t even mind that much about the obviously CGI’ed alligators.

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Krakatoa, East of Java (1969)
Photograph: Cinerama Releasing Corporation

31. Krakatoa, East of Java (1969)

Disaster type: Volcano

Notable destruction: A large chunk of Indonesia

In the disaster genre, it often seems like the screenplay only exists to justify the effects. In this case, that’s literally true: the producers filmed the climatic volcanic eruption before the script was even finished. As such, Krakatoa is remembered almost entirely for its visuals – well, and the purposeful geographical misalignment of the title. But hey, it is quite the explosion, particularly for the time period. It also inspired a song on the first B-52’s album. There are much worse legacies than that.   

  • Film
  • Science fiction

Disaster type: A geostorm 

Notable destruction: Mumbai (tornadoes), Moscow (heatwave) and Dubai (megatsunami)

What if you built a machine to prevent global warming? And then what if that machine was used for evil? All will be well, as long as you’ve also got Gerard Butler’s grizzled satellite designer on hand to rush to the rescue. At least, that’s the conclusion of this high-concept mix of eco disaster movie, political thriller and deeply silly sci-fi, which tanked at the box office and had critics comparing it unfavourably with Sharknado. But it still remains a handy option for when your brain needs some apocalyptic escapism and it can’t handle the nuance and sophistication of, say, 2012. It’s directed by Roland Emmerich’s old screenwriter, Dean Devlin, so you know what to expect: big CG spectacle and at least one cute dog to survive whatever nature can throw at it. 

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  • Film

Disaster type: Apocalypse

Notable destruction: A subway train, an airliner, everything else

Not even Nicolas Cage can fight fate. That’s the lesson of Alex Proyas’s unfairly maligned apocalyptic sci-fi flick in which Cage plays an MIT astrophysics professor who stumbles upon signs and wonders that portent the end of the world. The Aussie director summons all sorts of troubling visions of an unavoidable global catastrophe, if not always that much narrative sense, in a film that taps into post-millennial environment anxiety in all sorts of prescient ways. The ending is thunderously silly but Cage’s brand of fidgety everyman energy is in its element as a scientist deals with flaming deer, crashing planes and enough cryptic clues to stump a supersleuth. 

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