Roland Emmerich’s sci-fi disaster movie Moonfall hits theaters this weekend and audiences are buzzing about the throwback quality it brings. Starring Halle Berry, Patrick Wilson, and Game of Thrones‘ John Bradley, the story is something ripped straight out of a ’90s disaster flick. When an unknown force knocks the moon off its orbit, it’s sent on a collision course with Earth. With the pending Apocalypse soon to obliterate the planet, it’s up to two astronauts and one wild card conspiracy theorist to team up and head to space in an attempt to save Earth. However, they soon discover that the moon is not what we thought it was and it upends everything.
While they’ve not been as popular or frequent as they were in their heyday of the 1990s through the 2000s, disaster movies–in particular, natural disaster movies–are always a great time. The spectacle of seeing an asteroid hurtling toward Earth or people trying to survive against nature finally turning on us on an extinction-level event has forever offered a splashy, over-the-top level of fun at the theater. Something about watching humanity come together to avert or survive Doomsday always gets us. To get in the mood for Moonfall crashing into theaters, we thought we’d round up some of the best natural disaster films of all time. But first, we’re setting some parameters around this. While there are some great movies involving alien invasions (hi, Independence Day) and pandemics (that’s you, Contagion), we’re sticking with the most natural of natural disasters. If it doesn’t come from the sky or from the Earth itself, it’s not on the list. Now read on and get your end times on.
For many people of a certain age (looking at you, ’90s kids), Armageddon is the first movie that comes to mind when thinking of disaster movies. Even if you haven’t seen it–and you really should see it–you probably know the premise by now: big asteroid, vulnerable planet, rag-tag team of heroes have to stop it. It’s one of Michael Bay’s earliest films (he’d only done Bad Boys and The Rock before it), and it shows. There’s tons of bombast, an eclectic group of characters, big explosions, and lots of occasionally off-color humor. It also boasts one hell of a cast. Led by Bruce Willis’ grizzled oil rigger Harry Stamper, it also stars a very young Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Billy Bob Thornton, Will Patton, Steve Buscemi, Owen Wilson, William Fichtner, Peter Stormare, Keith David, Jason Isaacs, and the late Michael Clarke Duncan. It also features one of the ’90s most earworm soundtrack songs with Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” and tons of quotable lines. Plus, it offers arguably the greatest commentary track of all time courtesy of Ben Affleck.
While certainly a smaller disaster in scope than most of the other movies on this list, Twister is a classic for a reason. Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton star as separated, storm-chasing couple racing to catch a category F5 tornado. Their plan is to launch their new technology to capture data into the heart of the twister–if they don’t die trying. Like other ’90s films, this has a great cast joining Hunt and Paxton, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Cary Elwes, and Jami Gertz. But Twister really sets itself apart with its VFX elevating the way tornados and storms were portrayed on screen, setting the standard moving forward. When the monster F5 tornado finally touches down, it’s truly a thing to behold: vast, intense, all-consuming, and utterly terrifying. The ’90s CGI still holds up today. Top it all off with one of the most memorable scenes involving a cow in movie history, and it more than earns its place on the all-time list.
Deep Impact (1998)
Mimi Leder’s Deep Impact often gets written off as “the Armageddon rip-off”; however, it actually was released two months before fellow asteroid disaster movie Armageddon. Unfortunately, it’s more personal story didn’t have quite the same broad appeal that Bay’s bombastic popcorn flick had, and it ended up grossing more than $200 million less at the box office. Still, those that dismiss it as a quality disaster movie are missing out on something great. The difference between it and Armageddon is in focus. Yes, both involve asteroids about to wipe out Earth, and yes, both involve teams heading to space to stop it. But Deep Impact sets itself apart in the far more human story it tells by envisioning what might happen if a government decided to start salvaging some of the population instead of saving it all. It’s all anchored by a sweet teenage love story between Elijah Wood’s Leo Biederman and Leelee Sobieski’s Sarah Hotchner. It may not have the pop culture relevance of its fellow 1998 asteroid movie today, but it’s no less worth a watch.
Dante’s Peak (1997)
What Twister did for CGI tornados, Dante’s Peak arguably did for CGI volcanos. The recent catastrophic explosion of the volcano in Tonga makes this movie and its supervolcano explosion eerily timely. At the time of its release, it bombed in theaters and was derided by critics, but in the years since, it’s grown something of a cult following as people have revisited it. Plus, it’s arguably the most scientifically sound of the ’90s disaster movies, with some grounded realism in its depiction of geology and how volcanos work. The concept of Dante’s Peak may not be as eye-popping as a wandering comet or the moon getting knocked off its axis, but that’s precisely what makes it so scary. A dormant volcano waking up and obliterating a mountain town isn’t hard to fathom, which makes the nightmare that follows all the more impactful. For our money, it also has one of the saddest deaths in any disaster movie, one with real human stakes. For a bit of action-thriller fun, you can’t go wrong with this one.
The Impossible (2012)
This one takes a very different angle from the other movies on this list, less visual spectacle and more gritty survival movie. The Impossible is based on the true story of María Belón and her family’s experience during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed almost 230,000 people in 14 countries. It’s anchored by two actors at the top of their game in Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, and a baby Tom Holland in his feature film debut. When they are injured and separated from each other when a devastating tsunami strikes without warning while they’re vacationing, the Bennett family struggles to survive in the chaos and make their way back to each other. Those looking for something a little different will find much to appreciate with the film and its focus on intimate human connections and the fight to survive, as well as a more hopeful message of the beauty of a community coming together in the aftermath of tragedy.
The Wandering Earth (2019)
Without question, The Wandering Earth has by far the most ridiculous premise on this list and that’s exactly what makes it so much fun. The Chinese film takes the concept of “What if the absolute worst happened?” and stretches it to the far reaches of incredulity. When the dying sun starts to expand and threatens to engulf the Earth, the world’s nations come together with a crazy plan: build thousands of enormous thrusters to move the Earth out of orbit and pilot it across space to the Alpha Centauri solar system. But the already bonkers premise is taken to yet another level when humanity also runs into the small issue of Jupiter’s massive gravity threatening to drag Earth into its orbit and send it crashing into the giant planet. Is it realistic? Absolutely not. Does it require a willing suspension of disbelief? Absolutely. But it’s its commitment to embracing its over-the-top premise and pushing it even further with complete earnestness that makes The Wandering Earth an incredibly entertaining movie. It doesn’t hurt that it has some of the most beautiful special effects in any disaster movie yet.
The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
At first glance, Moonfall director Roland Emmerich’s 2004 disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow seems absolutely ridiculous. And no doubt, it sort of is, as it revolves around the premise “What if we didn’t make a movie about one apocalyptic disaster, but all of them?” When the North Atlantic Ocean current is disrupted, it causes a cataclysmic chain of massive natural disasters including tsunamis, megastorms, massive hurricanes, violent hailstorms and more than half the Earth immediately plunging into a new Ice Age so cold that all life freezes after just a few minutes outside. It doesn’t do much to rewrite the disaster movie formula, but a game cast led by a young Jake Gyllenhaal and a grizzled Dennis Quaid, along with some truly spectacular special effects, make it one of the most quintessentially pure disaster-heavy disaster movies out there. A last fun fact to note while you watch: The Day After Tomorrow‘s opening flyover of Antarctica is considered the longest all-CG shot in film.
Technically, this is sort of a man-made disaster as much as it is a natural disaster. But considering it all started because of an iceberg, we’ll throw Titanic under the category of natural disaster movies. It’s hard to say anything about James Cameron’s magnum opus that hasn’t already been said, but that’s with reason. Titanic launched the career of Kate Winslet and vaulted Leonardo DiCaprio to new heights of stardom on its way to earning 11 Oscars. Eleven. That’s a record it shares with only two other movies in history, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and Ben-Hur, and it stands alone as the movie that holds the most Oscar nominations with 14. Titanic truly has everything: romance, action, tension, a villain to hate, spectacular practical and visual effects, James Horner’s incredible score, tragedy, thrills, joy, human drama, and even a tiny bit of humor. It brilliantly spends the first act as a love story, allowing the audience to become invested in the growing romance between Jack and Rose so that by the time the actual disaster strikes, the young lovers’ story feels incredibly real and personal. Titanic still holds up today as masterpiece of filmmaking and arguably always will. That said, don’t ask us to forgive Rose for letting Jack go. There was enough room on that door, Rose.
San Andreas (2015)
Sometimes, you just have a big, dumb disaster movie hole in your heart that only The Rock can fill, and that movie is San Andreas. The lion’s share of most notable disaster movies seems to go to asteroids, tsunamis and storms, or sometimes volcanos. But San Andreas revolves around the thing Angelenos and other Southern Californians have been preparing for for decades: the Big One. San Andreas takes that very real possibility but stretches it to the extreme, but that’s exactly what you expect and demand out of a Dwayne Johnson-led movie. Earthquakes are just part of life when living in California but it’s unlikely that the San Andreas Fault, sleeping giant that it is, would rupture so intensely that it would level California from Los Angeles to San Francisco and it definitely wouldn’t cause a megatsunami that levels the Golden Gate Bridge. Even so, the sheer spectacle of San Andreas and Dwayne Johnson’s megawatt, everyman charisma make it incredibly watchable and a great movie to pop on when you just want a romp.
Moonfall is in theaters on Friday, February 4.