Geostorm came out this weekend and features all the conventions of the natural disaster genre — harried scientists, extreme weather, reasonable warnings that no one listens to. But how does it rank in comparison to its fellow natural disaster films?
(Spoiler alert: Not well.)
I know, I know — “best natural disaster films” seems like a bit of an oxymoron since, well, about 90% of them aren’t what you’d call great movies by any stretch of the imagination.
However, they are often movies that are a lot of fun to watch on the big screen.
You get to watch as tornadoes or earthquakes or blizzards — or sometimes all three at once — ravage the planet, and get drawn into the almost superhero-esque type actions of the protagonists as they fight their way to higher ground or the last lifeboat or a secret bunker.
No, these movies aren’t going to give you any insight into the human condition; at most, they’ll give you an hour and a half where you get to turn off your brain and lose yourself in a world of heart-pounding action, really cool special effects and likable heroes.
Given all that’s going on in the world, I think that’s a pretty good use of time.
For the purposes of this article, I’m only counting films that include a natural, somewhat plausible, of-this-earth disaster. That means no Sharknado-esque films, no meteor narratives (sorry Armageddon and Deep Impact fans), no plague films (which I feel occupy their own sub-genre), and no generic post-apocalyptic movies (which I’ll be writing about next week!).
Natural disaster films often have two distinct paths that they take, story-wise. They’re either filled with spectacle and mass destruction on a worldwide scale and its impact on civilization at large, or they’re smaller stories that center on a specific natural disaster with a tight focus on a core group of survivors.
A movie with a name as big and loud and completely ridiculous as Geostorm should’ve been the first kind of a film, but instead it tried — unsuccessfully — to be the second kind of film.
This meant it was just kind of…boring, which is the worst thing a natural disaster movie can be.
Rather than focusing on the spectacle of a geostorm, the movie instead thought it was a better idea to center itself around the poorly rendered and wholly uninteresting relationship between Gerard Butler and his younger brother, played by Jim Sturgess.
On the plus side, it’s obvious that this movie had a substantial budget to devote to its big natural disaster scenes, and the ones that we get in the film — mostly at the beginning and toward the end, as we move closer and closer to a geostorm — are truly awesome to behold.
In addition to what I already mentioned, another one of the problems with Geostorm is the fact that it just had too much plot and none of it was very interesting.
Having too much plot is certainly not something that we can accuse 2012 of.
This is a disaster movie that knows why you’re watching it and does its best to lean into the spectacle of it all — and on that aspect it absolutely delivers. You witness the big earthquake the sinks L.A., the eruption of the Yellowstone volcano, a tsunami that reaches the tops of the Himalayas. It is a veritable buffet of natural disaster-y goodness.
However, the lack of an interesting plot or any kind of real character development keeps it from being higher on this list.
Spectacle and special effects are great — and important in this genre — but I’d at least like to care a little bit about what happens to the characters, and this movie just couldn’t make me do that.
8. ‘San Andreas’
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and a natural disaster film — two of my all-time favorite things.
This movie absolutely knows what it had when it paired the two, as we get to see The Rock do all sorts of really cool action scenes, including: tearing a car door off with his bare hands in the first 10 minutes while rescuing a trapped teen, rescuing his estranged wife by helicopter as a building collapses underneath her, and The Rock racing a boat to the top of a cresting tsunami wave.
We also get to witness three different earthquakes that level two different cities and a megatsunami that destroys the Golden Gate Bridge.
The movie does a great job with the sheer volume of its natural disaster scenes, and the human-centered story is helpfully buoyed by The Rock’s natural charisma.
Unfortunately, the Rock is almost myopically focused on saving his daughter, which, while being a convention of the genre and something I don’t fault his character for, was done to the exclusion of helping the people around him as well. It’s that fact that keeps this movie from being higher on the list.
A volcano erupts in the middle of Los Angeles — what more do you need to know?
It also features actual lava bombs bursting from the La Brea Tar Pits and the image of lava flowing freely down Wilshire Boulevard, which are not bad for a natural disaster film.
The story centers around Tommy Lee Jones working to re-route lava flows to the ocean, while also working to evacuate trapped civilians with all the gruffness and charisma you might expect from a Tommy Lee Jones character.
This movie is kind of a halfway point between a natural disaster spectacle film and natural disaster human drama. It doesn’t do either of them particularly well, but it still has enough cool scenes and alright characters to be worth watching when it comes on TNT every once in a while.
6. ‘Into the Storm’
This is the first movie on the list which focuses on a rather plausible and specific natural disaster in one place rather than widespread, apocalyptic destruction.
It does a pretty okay job of it too, making us care about Richard Armitage’s vice principal character and his relationship with his two sons — at least enough to engage us in the storytelling.
I was less interested in the meteorologist and storm chasers arc, mostly because they weren’t interesting characters and — admittedly — because none of them looked like Richard Armitage.
The tornados and the destruction were pretty well handled too, though I felt like this is where the found footage format was limiting as I wanted to see more widespread destruction and havoc. It’s an all right human drama and an alright natural disaster movie, and as good as the effects are, it doesn’t quite match up to the other tornado-centered drama on this list.
5. ‘The Perfect Storm’
Given the relatively big names in the cast, you might expect this disaster drama film to have more compelling characters than it ends up having.
That’s not to say the characters aren’t engaging or interesting — in fact, I’d say that none of the leads can be accused of phoning it in. I suppose the best way I’d put it is that they all did the most they could with the script that they were given.
The real star here is the storm — the driving rain and the cresting waves so intense and realistic looking that you can almost feel yourself getting battered by them.
The story of a last-ditch fishing expedition that turns into an all out battle against an incredible — might I say, perfect — storm is better for each of its individual parts than as a movie as a whole. Still, those parts are fantastic to watch and give you a real sense of the fury and power of the ocean, and just how small mankind really is in the face of its dominance.
4. ‘Dante’s Peak’
Ah, the superior volcano movie.
This movie is basically about James Bond and Sarah Conner surviving a volcanic eruption, and yes, it is just as ridiculous and as awesome as that sounds.
It features a flood, dozens of different scenes of people outrunning lava flows, a truly spectacular volcano eruption and a particularly gruesome yet oddly emotional scene where a grandmother basically boils to death in an acid lake.
But really, what else do you need to know except that it’s about James Bond and Sarah Conner surviving a volcanic eruption?
3. ‘The Wave’
An argument could probably be made for this film being objectively better than either two or one in this countdown, and I would certainly accept that argument.
This 2016 Norweigan film about a tsunami that wipes the tourist attraction town Geiranger off the literal map is a stellar example of how to combine great storytelling with a natural disaster film.
However, as you can probably tell, I like the spectacle inherent in natural disaster films — even in these smaller, more human-centered dramas. As great as the movie making and storytelling is in this movie, you can also tell that it probably only had the money in its $6 million budget for one super effects-heavy scene.
It certainly made good use of it, with the scene of the tsunami roaring through the mountains and up a row of stalled cars on a road being a fantastic use of special effects. But after that scene, the movie then goes on to walk through the aftermath of the disaster.
As a natural disaster movie buff, I want a bit more when it comes to my disasters.
However, if you’re not a natural disaster buff and aren’t interested in seeing ridiculous amounts of buildings collapsing, then this movie will likely be the best for you on this list.
It’s also currently on Netflix, though it is unfortunately the dubbed version. If you’re able to, I highly suggest watching the subtitled version!
2. ‘Day After Tomorrow’
I genuinely and unabashedly love this ridiculous movie.
I watch it every single time it’s on television and I compare almost every other natural disaster film to it. As ridiculous as this movie is, I actually think that Director Roland Emmerich did a pretty damn good job of balancing the human drama with outlandish spectacle (it’s just too bad he couldn’t replicate that same balance in his follow-up disaster film, 2012).
In line with the conventions of the genre, exceptionally likable Dennis Quaid plays some sort of climate-related scientist who gets wind early on that a major climate shift is imminent. Of course, no one listens to him — until the disaster is staring the world right in the face.
Of course, by the time that’s happening, Quaid is embarking on his own personal quest across a now arctic New York City to save his son, Jake Gyllenhaal, who’s holed up in a library burning books to stay warm. It’s a narrative that does a good job of making us care both about the smaller, human drama and the widespread effects of the disasters.
And in terms of spectacle-laden disaster movies, this one is the gold standard. There’s a giant hailstorm that wrecks Japan, a tsunami that demolishes New York City, a rash of tornadoes that destroy Los Angeles.
And of course, the most iconic of all natural disaster film scenes — Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal outrunning an actual will-freeze-you-where-you-stand cold front.
If Day After Tomorrow is the best example of a spectacle-laden disaster film, then Twister is the best example of human drama disaster film.
This extremely popular 1996 film about a group of storm chasers trying to perfect a new data-gathering system is both a visual feast (though keep in mind that it was made over 20 years ago, and not all the effects have aged gracefully) and an exciting human drama.
It features tornadoes galore, with cars, houses, livestock and people being sucked up into the howling winds, never to be seen again. For someone who love spectacle, this human drama is rife with it.
Likewise, the storyline of Helen Hunt’s underfunded stormchasing team going against a much wealthier, better equipped one is surprisingly engaging and has us rooting for the underdog.
Add to that the more intimate narrative of Helen Hunt’s character being forced to work with her estranged/ex-husband played by Bill Paxton and you’ve got a movie that basically hits all my favorite things. A natural disaster movie with a former lovers-to-enemies-to-friends-to-lovers-again romantic storyline? There’s no way this movie could be anything but number one on my list.
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