About the author: When he’s not out skiing the Utah powder, Greg Jensen is a writer and blogger for Comcast.USDirect.com – home to Comcast Cable Deals.
Over the last century there have been several waves of disaster movies pitting Mankind against all sorts of natural forces, aliens, terrorists and even giant worms living under the Earth’s surface. With only so many ways to end the world, disaster movies tend to explore similar themes and they tend to arrive in waves on the heels of real-life disasters. One of the most prominent themes in disaster movies is man vs. nature. The totally awesome power of tsunamis, earthquakes, and tornadoes to not only endanger, but completely overrun and eradicate civilization fascinates us collectively.
As the threat of some sort of legitimate Earth-ending natural disaster becomes more real, natural disaster movies give us something important. They give us a way to conceive of, and face the possibility of, such realities in the safety of a movie theater or living room. Natural, and all disaster, movies give us a cathartic chance to confront harsh realities.
So in light of the Tsunami in Japan, and the soon to arrive next wave of disaster movies, here are my completely unscientific and biased top ten man versus nature Movies of the last 20 years.
1 The Day After Tomorrow
This movie places a simple father/son narrative in the middle of a cataclysmic super freeze that hits the entire northern hemisphere. This was the first serious disaster movie released after 9/11, receiving a lot of conflicted reviews due to the generous destruction scenes set in New York. What redeems this movie, for the naysayers, is the fact that those scenes are treated with a lot of sincerity and sensibility that you don’t get from earlier Emmerich films (Independence Day and Godzilla). There is something very knowing in the message of this movie. The effect of The Day After Tomorrow was to proclaim that a national disaster doesn’t have to end disaster films with a hopeful, albeit it irreverent, move towards normalcy.
2 The Perfect Storm
One of the best ways to dramatize the man vs. nature struggle is to make us care about both the man, and the natural event. The Perfect Storm pits George Clooney and Mark Walhberg against some epic CGI waves. This movie is a little slow to launch, with fisherman down on their luck, looking for a good catch, but as the storm systems come together, so does the movie. The Perfect Storm is a movie that has a lot of cliché moments that get washed out (pardon the pun) by incredible visual effects.
3 Armageddon/Deep Impact
While no two movies about a life threatening asteroid hitting the earth could be more different, in my mind Armageddon and Deep Impact are essentially the same movies, just packaged differently for different audiences. Both of these movies are indulgent, Armageddon because of the overblown and over-the-top aspect to pretty much everything, and Deep Impact because of how long and drawn out it is. With these two, which both came out in 1998, you get both sides of the coin. Armageddon, whose action takes place over 18 days, gives you the shoot from the hip, Hail-Mary, “Oh my god what are we going to do” feelings of sudden doom. Deep Impact, which follows a wider cast over a much longer period of time, lets you experience more on an existential, not “what are we going to do” but “how are we going to deal?”
4 Dante’s Peak
While full of the usual plot holes and clichés, Dante’s Peak does an unbelievable job of distracting you from them. The man vs. nature theme gets personal as the movie begins 4 years in the past where Peirce Brosnan’s girlfriend is killed while the two of them are escaping a volcanic eruption. Brosnan’s character, who is an eminent volcanologist, goes to a town beneath Dante’s peak to warn them of an impending eruption. The eruption comes fast, and everyone is caught unprepared. For the time the effects are really good, with realistic lava and falling ash. Rather than impress you with how realistic they are, the effects are used to cultivate a sense of helplessness that hangs over the whole movie. Dante’s Peak also has one of my favorite pickup truck vs. natural disaster moments.
As much as I would have liked to keep this one off my list, and believe me I would have, there really is no better example of nature brutally overcoming man than Titanic. Now mind you, to get to the good disaster moments (and they look great) you have to sit through a lot of awkward romance and thinly veiled disdain for last century class dynamics. The Titanic (the ship not the movie) was the largest vessel built at the time. There was certainly a fair amount of contempt for the ocean in building such a large and unsafe ship. And in the end, the ocean showed them! The moral of Titanic? Love may overcome class and social distinctions, but it’s still no match for the sea.
This is one of two movies that might cause some contention, and I’ll admit I used to have a thing for Helen Hunt. But of all the disaster movies that double as romance movies, I think that this one succeeds the best. Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton begin the movie about to divorce. Paxton’s character even brings his new lady friend along at the beginning of the excitement. But somewhere between raining tractors, flying cows and an evil team of competing storm chasers, they rekindle their love. The visuals aren’t much by today’s standards, but Twister was the movie that brought disaster films back into mainstream Hollywood, starting a now 15 yearlong whirlwind of disaster movies. Twister stands as a monument to attraction to destructive forces, be they blonde Hollywood actresses or horrible tornadoes.
A 10.5 earthquake hits the US west coast. A good portion of the US and Canada falls into the ocean and Kim Delany and Fred Ward have to deal with aftershocks and resultant tsunamis. It’s nice to see the west coast having a go at some havoc. This is also one of the only movies I am aware of that features an earthquake as a key player in a train chase. This made for TV movie has amazingly bad science (like the idea that underground nukes can meld tectonic plates together), famously bad dialogue and great pacing. How can you resist a classic fight against time, nuclear warheads, mass evacuation and things getting sucked into the ground?
8 The Core
Natural disaster movies love pitting the size of the problem against the spirit, intellect and determination of man. And what more hopeless predicament could there be than the Earth’s core ceasing to spin? Taking a cue from the asteroid movies of the late 90’s the solution to this problem is obvious- Lets nuke the Earth’s core! It’s sort of like a defibrillator, but with nukes. What is a pretty terrible idea in principle is actually held together pretty well by a great cast, most of whom have Oscar nods, though none of them for The Core.
This is my other movie people are going to hate me for putting on here. Both a critical and financial failure, this movie is finally getting the attention it deserved back in 1995. Costner invested in large oil-separating centrifuges during the filming, and he is now lending them to BP and the US to help clean up the Gulf Coast disaster. At the time people were still in love with Field of Dreams and Dances With Wolves, and so Waterworld never had a chance of getting ‘cult’ attention. In retrospect, however, there is just enough camp and absurdity mixed with a somewhat probable catastrophic change in the Earth’s climate to make Waterworld one for the ages. Give it another try, and remember to laugh this time.
My second Roland Emmerich movie on this list! I wanted to bookend this list with a perspective on German-inspired catastrophe 5 years after The Day After Tomorrow. Where this movie wins is the diversity of destruction. Based on a Mayan prediction that the world will end, this movie takes one disaster, solar flares boiling the core of the Earth, and uses it to cause many. We are treated to monster earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and avalanches—all of which are pretty seamless and uninterrupted by emotional overtones. What could be better than unending, mind blowing global distraction? Oh yeah, and some arcs and political stuff involving the preservation of the human species. Whereas The Day After Tomorrow had specific overtones of overcoming and persevering, the overarching idea in 2012 is starting over. 2012 keeps true to the prediction the Earth, as least as we know it, will end. But at least there are hand chosen people to start the whole crazy process all over again.