Your Top Three is a series here at Movies.com where we choose a topic and you give us your top three picks.
Disaster movies can become dated very fast. Their whole concept is to provide the latest, greatest spectacle achieved with the most up-to-date effects technology, and every new generation of Hollywood producers aims to up the ante. It makes sense that with each wave of entries into the genre, most notably in the 1930s, 1970s and 1990s, we’ve gotten a lot of the same stories whether remake or not, and whether true story or not.
Every few decades we get another release depicting the sinking of the Titanic or a major astronomical collision or alien invasion or, in the case of what we’re seeing this year, the tales of Pompeii, Noah’s Ark and the attack of Godzilla — yes monster movies tend to be disaster movies as much as those involving historical and natural events.
But if the reviews of Pompeii are any indication, the new breed isn’t always an improvement on the old. I didn’t think people cared so much about the 1970s disaster movies until I saw the results of today’s discussion poll. But I am not surprised to see the love for those made in the 1990s, when practical effects were still predominantly used for this genre, just before the less scarier looking CGI disasters took over.
Of course, some use the new tools for good, as we saw with the tsunamis achieved in Hereafter and The Impossible and as we’ll hopefully see with the dependable directors Darren Aronofsky (Noah) and Gareth Edwards (Godzilla). Meanwhile, others are intentionally going for the ridiculous and cheesy, a la Sharknado, or the ridiculous and hilarious, a la This Is the End.
Here are my top three disaster movies:
1. The Poseidon Adventure (1972) - Even if it does have some dated elements, the strength of this movie is that it focuses on the characters more than the disaster and in doing so set a great precedent for the ensemble-driven disaster movie. When I think of what I love about it, intimate and emotionally centered scenes, particularly one with Shelley Winters, come to mind rather than the tsunami, the capsizing of the ship, the flooding, the fires, etc. As for the CG-heavy remakes, I can’t even get very far into them.
2. San Francisco (1936) - My go-to 1930s disaster movie used to be King Kong, and that’s worth mentioning for how its effects are cetainly dated yet stlil have a lot of charm and recognizable craft to them. Now I like to champion this MGM picture starring Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy and depicting the real 1906 catastrophe that detroyed much of the Bay Area, partly because it’s barely on people’s radar with the genre (it’s not even on Wikipedia’s otherwise comprehensive list of disaster films) and partly because the climactic earthquake sequence, which reportedly was codirected by none other than D.W. Griffith, is still pretty incredible to watch almost 80 years later. It’s also an early example of the disaster movie centered firstly on a love story, a la Titanic and Pompeii.
3. The War of the Worlds (2005) - I’m one of the only people who loves Steven Spielberg’s version of the classic H.G. Wells sci-fi novel all the way through the sudden and very convenient and all-too-happy ending. It’s basically a depiction of an armageddon nightmare come to life as vividly as I’ve seen outside of my subconscious. Until Gravity it was the closest I’d had to a panic attack, enjoyable due to the thrill, at the movies.
Honorable Mention: The War Game (1965) - Because it’s not often that you get to see a realistically speculated nuclear armageddon in the form of an Oscar-winning documentary.
Your Picks (the top five being The Poseideon Adventure,The Towering Inferno and a tie for third with Armageddon, Deep Impact and Titanic):
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