Total Recall

10 Disastrous Disaster Movies

With San Andreas hitting theaters, we look back at some of cinema's most ill-advised catastrophe flicks.

by | May 27, 2015 | Comments

This weekend’s San Andreas imagines a devastating earthquake that tears a gash of horrific ruin through California — and plops Dwayne Johnson in the middle of the action as a heroic helicopter pilot who must brave statewide chaos in order to find his estranged daughter. It’s a good old-fashioned disaster movie, in other words, and while we’d never doubt the Rock’s ability to kick maximum butt in any cinematic setting, we can’t help but be reminded of the many times other talented folks have tried (and often failed) to thrill audiences with tales of epic mayhem and destruction, which is exactly why we’ve dedicated this week’s list to some of the worst entries in the genre. Head for cover, folks — it’s time for an all-disaster edition of Total Recall!

Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979) 0%

It arrived seven years after The Poseidon Adventure, but this utterly unnecessary sequel picked up pretty much right where the original left off — and roughly retraced the Poseidon plot in the bargain, too. Starring Michael Caine as a tugboat captain who wants to salvage the shipwreck’s cargo, Sally Field as Caine’s passenger, and Telly Savalas as the leader of a group of Greek sailors who have their own reasons for wanting to board the Poseidon, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure mustered barely a fraction of its predecessor’s box office grosses and none of its critical acclaim, adding up to one of the more bruising late-’70s blows to the sinking career of Irwin Allen, the legendary producer-director known as the “Master of Disaster.” For Roger Ebert, the whole thing was ridiculous, but not ridiculous enough to be any fun. “What did we really, sincerely, expect anyway,” he wondered, “from a movie in which Karl Malden plays a character named ‘Wilbur,’ and Slim Pickens plays a character named ‘Tex?'”

The Concorde… Airport ’79 (1979) 14%

The original Airport helped begin the all-star disaster movie craze in 1970, so it’s perhaps only fitting that the fourth installment in the Airport series, 1979’s The Concorde…Airport ’79, helped heap stale popcorn upon its grave. Featuring franchise mainstay George Kennedy as Captain Joe Petroni — surrounded by a marvelously ’70s ensemble that included Eddie Albert, John Davidson, and Charo — this masterpiece of unintentional hilarity hinges on a plot involving the dastardly efforts of a corrupt arms dealer (Robert Wagner) to ruin the supersonic jet’s goodwill mission. It all ends with an emergency landing on a ski slope in the Alps, but first, any number of ludicrous lines and plot points provoke guffaws, including the infamous moment in which Kennedy’s character fires a flare gun out of the Concorde’s cockpit window. “Until the snowbound finale,” sighed Janet Maslin for the New York Times, “most of the film’s interest lies in watching the actors and wondering what they’re doing here.”

Daylight (1996) 25%

Take a car full of diamond thieves speeding away from the cops, put them in a tunnel where a truck just happens to be transporting illegally dumped toxic waste barrels, and you’ve got yourself a disaster that threatens to turn the evening commute into a life-threatening ordeal for dozens of innocent New Yorkers. Fortunately, Sylvester Stallone is on the scene — a former EMT who just happens to be behind the wheel of a cab that just happens to be at the mouth of the tunnel when it collapses. Assorted derring-do ensues, but as far as many critics were concerned, Daylight lacked the relatable characters and taut thrills that might have made it a superior disaster flick — or the campy fun that could have given viewers a few good laughs. “Alas, the movie can’t trim its metaphoric bulk,” lamented Rob Nelson of the Boston Phoenix. “Before long, daylight represents the viewer’s reward for surviving this ordeal.”

Earthquake (1974) 40%

San Andreas rattles California in 3D — and 41 years ago, director Mark Robson unleashed Earthquake, which sent the residents of Los Angeles (including Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, and Richard Roundtree) screaming through the streets in thrilling, booty-rattling Sensurround sound. Although the critical returns weren’t exactly (ahem) earth-shaking, Earthquake racked up roughly $80 million, and it isn’t hard to see why: Provided you can pull it off relatively realistically, there are few things more legitimately horrifying than the earth beneath one’s feet suddenly deciding to stop sitting still. Alas, while the results may have added up to B-movie magic for viewers who just want a little popcorn mayhem, most critics agreed with the Greenwich Village Gazette’s Eric Lurio, who called it “a masterpiece of bad moviemaking.”

The Happening (2008) 18%

It may have fewer scenes of epic destruction (and more Mark Wahlberg) than other entries in the genre, but M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening is still a disaster movie at heart — only instead of a volcano, tidal wave, meteor, or horrific insect attack threatening to doom humanity, it’s an entire planet full of pissed-off trees. The movie’s Tomatometer can attest to the fact that it wasn’t executed brilliantly, but there’s the germ of a decent idea in The Happening; sadly, like other recent Shyamalan efforts, it fell woefully short of the sum of its parts. “Shyamalan seems to have lost his sense of the fine line between the disturbingly grotesque and the outright ridiculous,” observed Philip Marchand for the Toronto Star. “The film even seems to be a parody of the scientific method.”

Hard Rain (1997) 28%

Half disaster movie, half heist thriller, and complete waterlogged mess, 1997’s Hard Rain stars Christian Slater (coming off the $150 million Broken Arrow) as an armored car driver stuck in a torrential downpour — and a fight to the death against the violent criminal (Morgan Freeman) who’s willing to do whatever it takes to get his hands on Slater’s multimillion-dollar cargo. In theory, injecting the staid disaster-movie formula with some cops ‘n’ robbers thrills might have made Hard Rain something special, but on the screen, as Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman wearily observed, “The flood rises, the night grows murky, and it becomes clear that the more water there is on screen, the less room there is for anything of interest to happen.”

Meteor (1979) 5%

Near the peak of Cold War paranoia, only one thing could have been big enough to unite the U.S. and the Soviet Union: A meteor hurtling toward Earth, condemning capitalists and communists alike to certain doom. That’s the idea behind 1979’s aptly titled Meteor, starring Sean Connery as a U.S. scientist forced to team up with a Soviet counterpart (Brian Keith) in a last-ditch effort to stave off extinction by nuking the bejeezus out of the giant space rock on a collision course with mankind. In spite of its talented cast (which also included Martin Landau and Natalie Wood, as well as Peter Fonda as the President) and a reported $18 million budget, the results are almost uniformly cheesy and inept (although it did earn an Oscar nomination for Best Sound). “See it,” warned Time Out’s Tom Milne, “on peril of death by boredom.”

Poseidon (2006) 33%

The original Poseidon Adventure may not be high art, but it does what it sets out to do, and does it exceptionally well. In theory, remaking it for modern audiences should have been as simple as putting an odd assortment of stars on a ship, capsizing the darn thing, and adding a fresh coat of CG special effects — alas, 2006’s Poseidon had little to offer beyond the sight of Kurt Russell and Richard Dreyfuss dog-paddle their way through 99 minutes of PG-13 peril. Calling the result “Titanic without the metaphors, the class-consciousness, the love story, or anything resembling a theme,” the A.V. Club’s Scott Tobias grumbled, “Poseidon invests so little in its screenplay that it might as well be an episode of The Love Boat gone horribly awry.”

The Swarm (1978) 11%

Often pegged by pundits as the beginning of the end for the ’70s disaster epic boom, The Swarm found Irwin Allen bringing to bear his (hitherto quite successful) knack for large-scale cinematic chaos upon Arthur Herzog’s novel about the panicked efforts of a military general (Richard Widmark) and a scientist (Michael Caine) to save the world from a plague of killer bees. It’s kind of a cool idea — who hasn’t worried about getting stung by a ticked-off insect at some point? — but Allen sadly failed to surmount the challenge of making his fuzzy little antagonists seem all that scary. “When Mr. Allen films large numbers of bees from afar, they look like clouds of nutmeg or, sometimes, like peculiarly chunky smog; up close, they suggest a naturalist’s documentary about habits of the hive,” mused Janet Maslin for the New York Times. “[He] might just as well have devoted his talents to man-eating goldfish, poodles on the rampage or carnivorous canaries.”


When Time Ran Out (1980) 0%

With 1980’s When Time Ran Out, the Irwin Allen finally unleashed a disaster film big enough to destroy his own career. This ensemble-driven effort, featuring an eclectic assortment of stars that includes Paul Newman and William Holden (reunited after starring together in Allen’s Towering Inferno) as well as Jacqueline Bisset, Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons, Burgess Meredith, and Pat Morita, centers on the molten fury that’s about to be unleashed on a Pacific island resort by a volcano — and while watching that unfold onscreen may sound like great fun, Time doesn’t deliver. Arguably the only portion of the film’s $20 million budget that wasn’t woefully misappropriated was Newman’s salary, which the reluctant star reportedly used to found Newman’s Own. “The eruption, when it finally comes, is a wonderfully cheesy amalgam of wobbly back projection, bathtub tidal wave and scared expressions from the cast,” observed Adrian Turner for Radio Times. “It’s not as hilariously awful as Swarm or Meteor, though, which is a pity.”

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  • Fxgentleman

    I am a fan of the disaster genre and as such I would agree that there has been a number of poorly made films to hit the screen over the years. However, it is worth noting there have been far more made for television, most appearing on the Scifi Channel. Among the best films made in my humble opinion was the Poseidon Adventure and the Towering Inferno. Having seen all of the films on the list, I agree Beyond the Poseidon Adventure and When Time Ran out are among the worst, no question. I don’t consider Hard Rain to be a true disaster film and as such it should not be on the list. I would however disagree that Daylight and Earthquake should be on such a list. At their core disaster films can be cheesy at times. A good disaster film has to have compelling characters and an interesting and plausible disaster, which I felt both had. One film not on this list which should be is Ablaze made in 2001. The film is blatantly a poor ripoff of another less than stellar disaster film from 1979 called City on Fire. The movie is essentially a carbon copy of the earlier film using much of the same plot and some of the same scenes.

    • Jason Dominguez

      I agree with you on Earthquake. It was one of the disaster film classics of the 1970s along with Airport, The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno.

  • leonnn1

    Well I know that this review is just your opinion, but for me it just sucks poorly as you portraied those movies…

    • FoxyMoustache

      Look at the Rotten Tomato Ratings too. It wasn’t an anomaly of an opinion. The films were definite stinkers.

      • leonnn1

        if you say so.

  • paskuniag

    Can’t forget “Empire of the Ants,” a modestly budgeted film that was also an embarrassment for the actors who were in it, and “Food of the Gods,” ditto. Both featured players who were too old or too unknown to be in A pictures.

    • Fair Dinkum

      I have a hard time thinking of either “Empire of the Ants” or “Food of the Gods” as A pictures. Both of them were clearly very low budget.

  • Dan Creagan

    Hard Rain, Daylight and The Happening were all critically panned but I watched them to the end and they were OK. Not classics but not offensively stupid like the other examples. RT doesn’t always indicate whether a picture is good so I’m happy with going against the grain. The other seven were certainly good for the list. I’m sure there are more but my mind refuses to recall them… professional help would be needed.

    • Acerbat

      I respect your opinion, but The Happening was actually offensively stupid.

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