In the 1960s and 1970s, the world seemed to be falling apart – cultural, social, economic and political upheavals imparted a general sense of gloom that pervaded everything, and the movies reflected that. In part, that was through gritty, independent films that presented a bleak view of the American landscape.
There was another side of Hollywood, though, which found a way to capture the discomfort and fear of the time and turn it into something spectacular: the disaster film. Starting with the huge success of the all-star Airport in 1970, movie producers discovered that putting movie stars in peril was big business.
Audiences couldn't get enough, which in part might be because by portraying the most terrifying and seemingly impossible concepts, then thrusting big movie stars into the roles of victims and survivors, the disaster films showed moviegoers that anything, even the end of the world, was theoretically survivable.
It's one of the reasons that in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, disaster movies seem oddly, unexpectedly comforting. "We like to find hope, and these movies do find hope," says Los Angeles-based psychotherapist Louise Bale, who specializes in helping clients work through trauma. "The hope is always in human resilience and in humanity coming together." Adding in big-name stars and big-budget productions actually helps audiences connect. "They start out glamorous, but the glamour gets stripped down and they become more like us. We can relate to that person, who looks a little more haggard than they did at the beginning of the movie."
Whether finding an impossible path through an overturned luxury liner or looking for the way out of a 138-story building, "On a psychological level, the stories help us know that that's what surviving looks like, and we root for these people because we know they are not helpless or hopeless."
Of course, coping with crisis isn't as simple as watching a disaster movie. But for many people, seeing movie stars beat impossible odds can be wonderfully cathartic. Whether you're unfamiliar with the disaster-movie genre, or you've always longed to board the S.S. Poseidon, here are four can't-miss disaster movies that will make you think, "Hey, if they can get through that horrible thing, so can I" – and that's a message we all could hear these days. Plus, as Bale notes, what we're experiencing is hard, unprecedented and downright scary at times, but not everyone wants to express those fears. "Maybe we're trying really hard right now not to look as scared as we feel, but if we watch something that's scary or very thrilling, we can say, 'Ah, I'm only feeling this way because the movie is so intense.' And that helps us work through our own emotions."
The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
The Poseidon Adventure (1972) Trailerwww.youtube.com
Get past the dated, hokey (but often funny) first 20 minutes and as soon as a giant tidal wave smacks into the grand luxury ship S.S. Poseidon this super-blockbuster, which grossed the adjusted-dollar equivalent of $515 million, holds up as one of the most riveting adventures ever put on film. Led by Gene Hackman as a disillusioned preacher and Ernest Borgnine as a gruff cop, a group of survivors have to find a way out of the ship, which has completely turned over. They've got just hours to do it, and The Poseidon Adventure consistently finds ways to capture the humanity of these scared, shell-shocked people even while the sets explode and fill with water all around them. Between they explosions, they create compelling, affecting characters, plus an undercurrent of real moral consequence; as they move deeper into the fiery ship that resembles hell, even the preacher isn't sure God is on their side. (Available on all streaming services for $4 to $5 rental.)
The Towering Inferno (1974)
The Towering Inferno Trailerwww.youtube.com
Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway and William Holden were all huge stars, but the movie's real star is the 138-story glass tower that's getting ready for its grand opening. If The Poseidon Adventure found some humanity in its giant cast of characters, The Towering Inferno seems more focused on the thrills themselves. It takes all those pretty people, locks them in a room 138 stories over San Francisco, and then lights the whole thing on fire. How they get down is the film's primary story, but why you'll watch is to see what happens when rich and powerful people find out they're in the same boat as everyone else. (Available on streaming services from $3.99 to $14 to own)
Earthquake (1974) Official Trailer #1 - Charlton Heston Movie HDwww.youtube.com
Also released in 1974, leading some to suggest a double-feature of this and Towering Inferno could be called "Shake and Bake," Earthquake plays a surprising amount of its story for laughs. It knows its campy and over-the-top, that it's an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach that's just a half-step above parody. It also looks at times like a made-for-TV movie. But none of that can diminish its success. Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, Genevieve Bujold, George Kennedy, Lorne Greene and Victoria Principal are the human stars, but you're here to see them crawl their way through a shattered Los Angeles, and on that the movie delivers. (Available on major streaming services for $3.99 to $4.99)
Deep Impact (1998)
Deep Impact - Trailerwww.youtube.com
Disaster movies lost their appeal for a while, but in 1998 came two end-of-the-world movies just around the time that some were predicting the new millennium would be the end of the world for everyone. Between Armageddon and Deep Impact, only one cares about the human element of its story, and director Mimi Leder's more gentle (yet still plenty crash-and-burn) approach to Deep Impact makes it the most lasting and affecting of the two films. It's about a comet that's hurtling toward Earth, and what happens when science discovers that the world really might end. The epic story never forgets the human scale – it's fascinating to watch these characters try to grasp the magnitude of what is happening. There's also Morgan Freeman as history's most pragmatic, kind-hearted and well-spoken president. (Available on all major streaming services for $4 to $5)
John Singh is a writer and entertainment-industry veteran who began his career as a newspaper journalist and has also worked at Disney, Lucasfilm Ltd., DreamWorks Animation and on a variety of films and TV series.
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