Disaster films you need to see before you die

For decades, Hollywood has derived blockbuster drama from natural disasters both real and imagined. From the all-star disaster movie classics of the '70s through the effects-driven spectacles of more recent decades, there's nothing quite like the thrill of watching things go horribly awry from the comfort of your couch or local cineplex. In the interest of saving you some time—since, as these films remind us, the clock is indeed ticking for us all—here's a look at some disaster films that simply can't be missed.

The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

2006's Poseidon was a regrettable remake of 1972's The Poseidon Adventure and should be ignored at all costs. However, the original, about a group of luxury liner passengers trapped in an upside-down vessel that's slowly but surely sinking, is well worth wading through. Anchored by Gene Hackman and Shelley Winters, the film presents a gripping look at what might happen to a group of well-off vacationers when a tidal wave capsizes their ship and leaves them scrambling for escape from a watery grave. Special effects have obviously evolved since then, but the patient pace and fully realized characters are increasingly rare among the modern crop of blockbuster action movies.

The Towering Inferno (1974)

Starring Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, and Fred Astaire, among others, the star-studded The Towering Inferno looks at the blazing drama that erupts after a structure dubbed the Glass Tower—championed as the world's tallest building—goes up in flames after an electrical circuit goes haywire during the Tower's dedication ceremony, leaving entire families trapped dozens of stories above the ground. Beneath the obvious appeal of The Towering Inferno's survival story is a cutting commentary on corporate greed and the true cost of the bottom line.

Alive (1993)

Inspired by a real-life Uruguayan rugby team who were stranded in the snow-capped Andes mountains after their small plane crashed, Alive is a chillingly raw depiction of the group's efforts to survive the accident—and the cruel climate where they were stranded. Based on Piers Paul Read's written account, the movie spares no bitter details about what these athletes had to do to crawl through each day until rescue arrived (for some). From the drawn-out suffering of gangrene and frostbite to their desperate decision to nourish themselves on the flesh of the fallen, the fact that it's based on a true story makes the cinematic experience that much more unsettling.

Outbreak (1995)

At a time when the spread of communicable diseases was a growing social concern, thanks in large part to the uncertainty surrounding AIDS, Wolfgang Petersen's Outbreak capitalized on those fears spectacularly. Thanks to its deadly virus going airborne and remaining undetectable until symptoms started presenting in infected patients, Outbreak made everyone a potential threat—and showcased the societal collapse and militaristic governmental oppression that could so easily unfold in the wake of such a threat. It wasn't the first film to explore such a viral threat (see also Warning Sign and The Crazies), but the climate of the film's release, combined with the breadth of its fictional disease's impact, made it a must-see.

Daylight (1996)

There's no denying the brawny action prowess of Sylvester Stallone in his prime, and Rob Cohen's Daylight offered a spectacular foundation for Sly the Savior at his best. Stallone starred as Kit Latura, a former EMS medic turned cab driver who decides to put himself in harm's way to help out whoever might be left alive inside the Holland Tunnel after a group of diamond thieves crash into a chemical waste truck, triggering an explosion that kills hundreds of motorists. It all adds up to an action-packed race against time—and the Hudson River—set in an eerie darkness.

Twister (1996)

Twister might be best remembered for its giant storms, but it's the film's superior acting and emotional subplots that made the movie such a standout. Sure, the dialogue can get a little silly, but for the most part, it does a terrific job of balancing human drama—like a dissolving marriage and a character's childhood trauma—against the effects-driven chaos audiences demand from a film about tornado chasers. It's still very easy to be swept up in, even decades later.

Dante's Peak (1997)

Audiences had their pick of volcano disaster dramas in 1997, with Dante's Peak and Volcano both erupting in quick succession at theaters. But whereas Volcano threatened the entire metropolitan area of Los Angeles, Dante's Peak benefited from a narrower focus, zooming in on a small town and letting viewers get to know and care about its characters. Additionally, Peak's hero relied on his scientific expertise, rather than sheer bravado; whereas Volcano leans heavily on ordinary action movie conventions to carry the plot along, Dante's Peak offers some upsettingly creative scenes of chaos that still hold up.

Titanic (1997)

Despite the well-documented history of what became of the "unsinkable" ocean liner and most of its passengers, James Cameron's Titanic was still a feat of filmmaking that sent audiences racing to the theaters—and its cast and crew sailing through awards season. Two decades later, there's still no denying the power of the picture, which was made thanks to some extremely innovative techniques on Cameron's part (including deep diving to get some up-close shots of the sunken vessel's grave). Whether or not you invest in the romantic arc of the two fictional leads, this historical drama offers an exciting, hauntingly realistic depiction of the ship's fateful first (and last) voyage.

Deep Impact (1998)

Let's just get this out of the way first: Mimi Leder's Deep Impact was, is, and always will be better than Michael Bay's Armageddon. Rather than relying on an ridiculous action thriller fantasy and sending cowboy oil drillers into space, Deep Impact actually relied on the expertise of scientists, and it shows. More importantly, the movie wasn't just about showcasing the heroism of a few astronauts, but focused on the scattered impact and personal sacrifices that could result from impending doom in various parts of the world. There are still some efforts to thwart the rock from colliding with Earth, of course, but the most memorable moments are grounded in the smaller-scale drama that holds the sci-fi action together.

The Perfect Storm (2000)

Oceanic survival movies have been hit or miss over the years, but Wolfgang Petersen's The Perfect Storm found smooth sailing at the box office with its gripping depiction of the real-life loss of a commercial fishing vessel known as the Andrea Gail during a catastrophic sea storm in 1991. Since that ship was never found, and communications with its captain were so sparse as to render most of the details surrounding its disappearance unknown, the storyline is almost completely embellished. But director Wolfgang Peterson, working from Sebastian Junger's nonfiction bestseller about the disaster, weaves between the characters at sea and the visual colossus of the tide, creating an unforgettable moviegoing experience.

The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

In the mid-aughts, as the conversation about climate change started to take on an especially ominous tone, Roland Emmerich's The Day After Tomorrow toyed with the idea that catastrophic ecological disaster could happen without any specific trigger. Of course, its timely premise notwithstanding, it's still an Emmerich picture—which is to say it's stuffed to the gills with global destruction fueled by cutting-edge special effects. It may not be the Casablanca of disaster epics, but it's hard to deny the sheer visual impact.

Contagion (2011)

If Outbreak was a reflection of the masses' fear of some dangerous virus coming out of nowhere to kill us all, then Contagion was Hollywood's answer to the growing concern that biological diseases might become weaponized—and that government's power to contain such a fallout would be severely inadequate. Though the sprawling, crowded canvas and cinematic devices used by Steven Soderbergh to interlink his all-star ensemble can seem a bit overwhelming at times, that style is consistent with the complex nature of the narrative, so it works.

The Impossible (2012)

The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 cost hundreds of thousands of human lives and leveled coastlines in over a dozen countries. Any movie that dared to cinematize this real-life disaster would have to deal with the story sensitively—and J.A. Bayona's The Impossible did just that, wading through the endless misery of the story to find a glimmering (albeit somewhat controversial) piece of hope in the Belon family, who defied the odds and managed to survive the storm. As with all the best disaster movies, the viewing experience can be grueling, but it pays inspiring dividends.

World War Z (2013)

Readers of the Max Brooks novel that inspired World War Z will tell you it diverged so significantly from the source material that it should've been given a different title. Still, it put a thrilling zombie spin on the disaster movie genre, with many of the usual ingredients—a plague-like virus that no one understands, global panic and governmental collapses, a family in crisis, a hero who repeatedly escapes death by mere inches—given extra urgency through the addition of swarming undead hordes.

The Wave (2015)

Plenty of disaster movies have used avalanches or tsunamis to fuel the action, but Roar Uthaug's The Wave stands out due to its stunning cinematography and its main characters' intensely affecting arc. Nothing about the movie is particularly groundbreaking, but its obedience to formula is easy to forgive thanks to Uthaug's visual style and a screenplay (written by John Kåre Raake and Harald Rosenløw-Eeg) that's driven as much by its relatable characters as it is by the titular catastrophe.