The Best Movie Ever: Disasters

The Best Disaster Movie Ever

Welcome back to The Best Movie Ever, where every week we give a stiff middle finger to "Top 10" lists everywhere by forcing CraveOnline's film critics – William "Bibbs" Bibbiani, Witney Seibold, Fred Topel and Brian Formo – to pick the very best movies ever made in a particular genre, by a particular director, in a certain genre or for a specific occasion. This week, we blow the lid off Paul W.S. Anderson's Pompeii by asking the age-old question: when the mountains fall, when the cities crumble, what would you pick for The Best Disaster Movie Ever? (We'll also let you, the reader, vote for your favorites below.)

Joining us this week is Movies.com film critic Dave White, also of the awesome website Linoleum Knife and the also-awesome Linoleum Knife podcast, and a frequent guest on CraveOnline's own weekly iTunes audio download, The B-Movies Podcast. We'll let Dave brave the elements first.

What say you, Dave White? What is The Best Disaster Movie Ever…?

Dave White:

The Poseidon Adventure

When it’s time to talk about The Poseidon Adventure, the conversation usually locates itself at the intersection of stunts, suspense and visual thrills, the place where we marvel at human beings acting underwater, falling into fire or giant glass skylights. There are astonishing practical effects and wild camera moves to admire, the ones that trick your eyes into believing that an entire soundstage is turning upside down and that a hundred extras are not, in fact, merely hurling themselves sideways, but truly dying before your eyes.

And if you pay close attention to Poseidon you’ll see how impeccably designed it is, how the frame’s details force a darkened, claustrophobia-inducing, two hour anxiety attack and how the sets seem to defy human movement, daring the actors not to sustain genuine injury. Then you’ll notice how the dwindling cast spends close to the entire running time in the same grimy, soaked costumes and how terrifying a shot of rising water can be. There are almost too many technical feats of strength to discuss at one time. Its spectacle is still spectacular and a direct line can be drawn from it to Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron was a Poseidon fan as a kid).

But without a soul there’s just a machine, which is where Poseidon really delivers. Ernest Borgnine bellowing “My Linda!” is its center, elevating the film beyond the soapiness of almost every other disaster movie. It surprises by forcing viewers into close contact with characters to love and worry over. Then it kills them, one by one. And when you think Shelly Winters’ valiant, Oscar-nominated death is the last one you’ll have to endure, the film shockingly pushes lovably salty ex-prostitute Stella Stevens into a pit of oily fire, crushing the spirit of her cop husband (Borgnine). When puny humans die in Earthquake or The Towering Inferno they’re just blips on the radar, but Poseidon remains memorable because it gives us characters worth remembering. And Borgnine’s howl of love and anguish is the indelible stamp of humanity in what otherwise could have been, in less caring hands, a cheesy funhouse of death. 

Witney Seibold:

The Poseidon Adventure 1972

When I think of the phrase “disaster films,” only one name comes to mind: Irwin Allen. The legendary TV producer behind hits like “Lost in Space,” “The Time Tunnel,” and “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” was also well-known for his string of big-budget disaster flicks from the 1970s, earning him the nickname of “The Master of Disaster.” The Irwin Allen formula was simple: Gather a large cast of recognizable celebrity actors, and thrust them all into the same disaster situation, each effected by it in a different way. We would then see the disaster from various perspectives, as each of the characters tried to survive it.

And the best of the Irwin canon – and hence the best disaster movie – is clearly and easily the 1972 hit The Poseidon Adventure. Dumb, clunky, pretty campy, and unabashedly artificial, The Poseidon Adventure stars Shelley Winters, Gene Hackman, Red Buttons, Ernest Borgnine, Leslie Nielsen, Stella Stevens and Roddy McDowall as passengers aboard an old ocean liner making its final run across the Atlantic when it is overturned by a tsunami, trapping everyone inside. Shenanigans ensue as the passengers must fight against gravity, an upturned ship, the elements, and flagging hope to survive. There are heart attacks, races against time, and an Oscar-winning song (“The Morning After”) in the mix as well.

Few films can define the words “chintzy” and “tacky” the way a shamelessly overblown film like The Poseidon Adventure can. This is a film that captures the gloriously cheesy melodrama of the genre at its ultimate peak. German filmmaker Roland Emmerich has been, in resent years, trying to recapture the Irwin Allen magic with films like The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, and he comes close in a few fleeting instances, but The Poseidon Adventure – as stupid as it is – set the standard.  

Brian Formo:

Airplane

I’ve not seen a disaster film that didn’t deserve at least some mockery. So for “Best Disaster Film” I have to go with Airplane! for skewering a very specific set of awful (and awfully successful) 70s disaster films: Airport.

That single line of blow that the elderly woman snorts approach to parody is why Airplane works so, so, so much better than all the other spoofs that came afterward. Instead of mocking a whole genre, the Zucker-Abrams-Zucker team attack a sub-genre. While they are able to cram a nubile (and nude) big-breasted woman into a shot of airborne panic, they don’t have to cram volcanoes or earthquakes in there, too. The jokes do come fast, Airplane! is actually propelled by a goofy story not just a series of film reference scenarios.That would be turbulence. Instead, they’re able to put all their gags in the overhead compartment and dump it all out in one big jostle.

The added bonus to Airplane! is that the ZAZ team followed a number of characters who didn’t notice that everything around them was a joke. Kinda like a real disaster movie, except Burt Lancaster, Jack Lemmon and Charlton Heston were never aware of the joke that was the Airport movies. George Kennedy must’ve gotten it, because, after being the only actor that starred in all four Airport films (and Earthquake), he later appeared in the ZAZ series Naked Gun.

Fred Topel:

Volcano

Most of the good disaster movies are about equal. The Poseidon Adventure, Towering Inferno, the more fun Airport sequels all have solid character development, a scary disaster and escalating dangers in the aftermath that make for an exciting adventure with those characters developed earlier. Even the Holland Tunnel Stallone rescue movie Daylight is underrated in that regard, but this one had a little something extra. Actually, a lot of something extra.
 
After the success of Twister in 1996, Hollywood raced to find the next natural disaster. Two studios picked volcanos, and Dante’s Peak actually beat Volcano into theaters. Dante’s was a more traditional approach though. A volcano erupts and everyone has to flee the lava. Volcano had some real balls. Not only did they place the volcano in Los Angeles, where it can cause more damage and make less sense, but it was not solely about escaping the volcano. It was about defeating the volcano. In your face, magma!
 
Scientist Dr. Amy Barnes (Anne Heche) discovers a volcano emerging under L.A., and when it finally erupts, it's up to her and head of Emergency Management Mike Roark (Tommy Lee Jones) to get the city to safety. There are a ton of subplots too where personal problems are exacerbated by the crisis of lava, including an A-hole bureaucrat sacrificing himself for the greater good by WALKING THROUGH LAVA. Great volcanic action in the big city, but ultimately Roark realizes that they can’t evacuate the whole city so he comes up with a plan to stop and freeze the lava. It makes no sense and using granite street barriers would not put up resistance to molten magma, but you know my movie rule. Because it’s awesome, it works. 
 
Volcano already had me at Tommy Lee Jones vs. lava, but my favorite part is the subtext. Yes, it’s about a natural disaster in Los Angeles, a city with many threats but volcanoes but being among them, but it’s all a metaphor for racism. When the ash falls form the sky at the end covering black, white, Latino and Asian characters, it’s observed, “They all look the same.” That’s right, folks. Volcano fixed racism. Now, I don’t know if everyone received the healing message of Volcano like I did, but just the fact that it went for it makes it the best disaster movie ever. Pompeii ain’t got nothin’ on this. 

 

William Bibbiani:

The Day After Tomorrow

I will never, ever, ever apologize for loving The Day After Tomorrow. Yes, it's stupid, and yes, it's preachy, but disaster movies are never about subtext. They're about annihilating subtext with all the destructive power of nature. The typical disaster movie sets the stage in a realistic world where people have everyday problems that seem incredibly important until the world turns upside down and the environment, natural or man-made, suddenly turns against them, placing those problems in sharp relief against a backdrop of pure survival. Roland Emmerich's 2004 blockbuster does the same thing, except it doesn't forgive mankind for being self-obsessed. Any lessons learned are learned too late. Screw you, humanity. You brought this on yourselves. The world was your Titanic.

A big "fuck you" in the face of climate change skeptics everywhere, The Day After Tomorrow (a.k.a. "We Didn't Listen!") embraces the condescending but perhaps justifiable conceit that all of the damage mankind has inflicted on the environment won't destroy the planet in a few millennia, or even a few centuries. It's going to happen – stick with me now – the day after tomorrow. The weather on planet Earth goes completely berserk, rocking Los Angeles with mega-tornadoes and plunging warmer climates into a new Ice Age. The images are ridiculous, albeit based loosely on future fact, and they are ridiculously beautiful through the melodramatic lens of Roland Emmerich (who really is good at this sort of thing).

The story of a father (Dennis Quaid), separated from his son (Jake Gyllenhaal), who must brave the icy tundras of New England to reunite his family is emotional enough thanks to a cast that either doesn't know or doesn't care how silly this whole thing is, but the raw force of Roland Emmerich's condescension is the real draw. The Day After Tomorrow is to climate change what Reefer Madness is to smoking pot, with the key difference being that it's got a semi-valid point. If using aerosol sprays, driving gas guzzlers and throwing away your plastic bags were going to doom the planet in your lifetime, and soon, you probably wouldn't do it. So Emmerich, who co-wrote the script, puts that sanctimonious and far-fetched scenario in front of you, forces Republicans to eat massive amounts of crow (Dick Cheney orders Americans to immigrate to Mexico – irony!), and makes a damned fun movie to boot. 

Yes, it's still really stupid. But that was the whole damned point.

The Best Disaster Movie Ever