August 23, 2013

The 10 BEST (and 10 worst) DISASTER MOVIES

I’ve loved disaster movies ever since my parents dumped me off at the Southgate Quad to catch The Towering Inferno during a matinee when I was eleven years old. Until then, all I really ever saw was Disney stuff. This was my first ‘grown-up’ movie, where people actually died and all kinds of shit exploded. It was awesome, and I caught every disaster movie that came along afterwards. Good or bad, I did ‘em all. They essentially had the same plot, but I didn’t care, so long as a lot of stuff got destroyed and those characters who deserved to die usually did.

Even now, it is still my favorite genre. Its brief comeback in the mid 90s was especially cool (since I had assumed Airplane! killed-off the genre for good). I admit most disaster movies are kinda dumb - no one’s gonna confuse them for documentaries - but who cares? They’re fun, even the aggressively bad ones. Show me someone who didn’t enjoy The Towering Inferno and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t enjoy breathing. That being said, the following is a list of some of the best, and worst, movies of the genre I love.

THE BEST (in ascending order):

10. INDEPENDENCE DAY - Aliens arrive in giant flying saucers to kick our asses. The only movie to feature a dog outrun a rolling fireball, or Will Smith as a macho pilot able to expertly operate an alien space craft mere minutes after climbing into the cockpit for the first time. But who cares about plausibility when the White House gets wasted? And what does it take to destroy this vicious alien race? A laptop. It’s nice to know Apple software is compatible with everything, including alien technology.

"Of course I'm phoning-it-in.
I'm Charlton-fucking-Heston." 
9. EARTHQUAKE - L.A. gets wasted by the big one. Lorne Greene plays Ava Gardener’s father (he must have conceived her when he was eight), while Charlton Heston turns in the last decent performance of his career. Although the special effects are mostly terrific, watch for a cattle truck which flies off a bridge and no cows topple out! This one earns extra points for killing off a majority of the cast, and features Greene roaring at some female co-stars, “Take off your pantyhose, dammit!”  Too bad he never said that on Bonanza.

8. 2012 - In the real world, I am a middle school teacher, and a few of my more intellectually-challenged students thought this was more than a movie…it was a prediction. That aside, this could be the epoch of all disaster movies, one which kills off 99% of the human race yet still manages to tack on a happy ending. And who knew John Cusack, playing a failed writer, possessed such superhuman abilities as outrunning a volcanic eruption, steering a sports car off a crashing cargo plane and escaping a massive earthquake in a limo? The funniest movie since Twilight.

7. THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW - I’m convinced director Roland Emmerich once had a really bad experience in New York. Maybe he was mugged, or bet on the Knicks and lost a bundle. At any rate, this movie marks the third time (after ID4 and Godzilla) he totally destroys The Big Apple. The science presented may not be credible, but it is his least-dumb film.

"What the hell have I said about
you calling me Shirley?"
6. THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE - If you’ve ever wanted to check-out Shelly Winters’ giant underpants, Red Buttons bashfully confirm his use forVitamin E (while semi-pining for a teenage girl), Stella Stevens explaining to her dim husband where suppositories go and an obnoxious kid whose death you‘ll pray for, look no further. That aside, this is the first true disaster movie as we’ve come to know the genre (though some like to credit Airport, but it's more of a soap opera). This has some godawful dialogue, especially in the first 30 minutes, but it’s suspenseful, violent and features special effects which still hold up well today.

5. THE SWARM  - Killer bees! So deadly they can cause people to hallucinate, passenger trains to careen off cliffs and nuclear power plants to meltdown! Michael Caine plays a sunflower seed-scarfing entomologist placed in charge of killing them (he’s also placed in charge of delivering some of the goofiest lines in disaster movie history). Richard Widmark is the standard military man who exists to deny there’s a problem (even though people are dying by the thousands) and suspects Caine has some secret agenda (!). Sure, The Swarm was one of the biggest nails in the 70’s disaster coffin, but it is just too wonderfully awful not to be included, and has the distinction of being one of the few to kill-off its obligatory obnoxious child character.

4. TITANIC - Sure, it made Leonardo DiCaprio a star. Sure, lots of teenage girls swooned and cried. Sure, it only gets interesting once the ship starts sinking. Sure, it’s corny. Sure, it made us all undure “My Heart Will Go On" long after we'd rather kill someone than hear it again. Sure, it’s proof James Cameron is second only to George Lucas as a master of dumb dialogue. But it is the only disaster movie to win a Best Picture Oscar, and though it’s hip for retro-haters to scoff at it now, Titanic is still a hell of a lot of fun.

"Come I look like a killer to you?"
3. THE CASSANDRA CROSSING - There's a deadly disease onboard a loaded passenger train! The government’s solution...crash the train, of course. Ava Gardner’s back from Earthquake for another round of all-star mayhem, this time cavorting with boy-toy Martin Sheen (yes, you'll throw-up in your mouth a bit). Sofia Loren adds luster just by showing up. Richard Harris takes his role seriously. Bad guy Burt Lancaster looks perpetually constipated. The climactic train wreck is phony but fun…it reminds me of the time as a kid when I blew up all my Hot Wheels and train sets with firecrackers. Bonus: O.J. Simpson saves a little girl. How could this guy be a murderer?

2. DEEP IMPACT  - I knew I was gonna love Deep Impact ten minutes into it, when an astronomer, upon discovering a comet is on a collision course toward Earth, rushes from his observatory to warn authorities. Speeding down the mountain in his jeep, he’s involved in a fatal, fiery accident while fumbling with his cell phone. The incident doesn’t really have much baring on the story, but let that be a lesson to all you assholes yakking on your phones when you should be watching the road!

"You know, you're right.
Your eyes are bluer than Steve's."
1. THE TOWERING INFERNO  - This is still the Gone with the Wind of the disaster genre. The world’s tallest building goes up in flames, along with a lot of aging actors in leisure suits. Tons of people die, including characters you either manage care about or totally despise. This is also the last movie where Steve McQueen manages to come off being cool. The last disaster movie to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (losing to The Godfather, Part II) until Titanic twenty years later. Bonus: O.J. Simpson saves a kitty. Again, how could he be a murderer?

THE WORST (in descending order):

1. ARMAGEDDON - Apparently edited with the intention of triggering seizures, this two-and-a-half hour assault on the senses is mind-numbing. It strives for some Titanic-inspired sentimentality (Ben Affleck & Liv Tyler using animal crackers as foreplay...Yeech), but fails because uber-macho director Michael Bay is more in love with his ham-fisted MTV approach to nearly every scene in the movie, including the action sequences. I’ll bet the special effects guys were a little pissed so much of their hard work was probably left on the cutting room floor. On the plus side, it’s better than Transformers (then again, so are YouTube videos of poo flinging monkeys).

Respected Swedish star Bibi Andersson deserves 
hazard pay for this scene.
2. THE CONCORDE: AIRPORT ’79  - Check out George Kennedy, piloting the fastest plane in the world, who opens the cockpit window to shoot a flare without getting his arm torn off, or the gorge-stirring  moment when he engages in post-coital pillow talk with a hooker. Because we love you, George, we sincerely hope this hard-earned paycheck bought you a bitchin’ beach house. The “Corn”corde (the fourth & last in the franchise) is as unintentionally funny as The Swarm. The difference is I’m convinced Irwin Allen was at-least trying to make a good movie. I don’t think anyone at Universal (who’d do the same disservice to the Jaws franchise) gave a shit…just trying to squeeze a few more drops of blood from this dying turnip.

3. METEOR - Made back when Sean Connery must have really needed the money (he quit being James Bond to do this crap?). The story may predate Armageddon and Deep Impact by twenty years, but even though this film was American-International Pictures’ big-budget attempt to compete with the major studios, it is still rife with stock footage, crappy FX and dialogue so bad it makes The Poseidon Adventure sound like it was written by David Mamet. However, it’s still better than Armageddon, and did inspire a totally bitchin' pinball game.

4. Any disaster movie to premiere on the SyFy Channel - Just because you can produce CGI effects cheaper than using miniatures doesn’t mean you should, especially when they look about as convincing as video game graphics. About once a month, SyFy trucks out a plethora of shitty and phony-looking apocalyptic crap, usually starring one of the younger & dumber Baldwin Brothers, some guy named Dean or a former 80’s pop tart. Most of these movies are only worth watching if you can’t find your remote.

"Hell, yeah, I'm doin' this for the paycheck!"
5. POSEIDON  - What’s worse that a bad disaster movie? A boring one. This is a high-tech remake of The Poseidon Adventure, and gone is the daffy dialogue and silly characters. However, as corny as the first movie may be, at least it was exciting and we cared about the characters. In this one, we don’t give a damn about anyone, to the point where star Kurt Russell makes the ultimate sacrifice to save his daughter and we end-up going, “Okay, another one dead.” Even though its CGI effects are impressive, they really aren’t any better than the traditional effects from the first one. This is one of the few disaster movies where I walked away thinking, “so what?”

6. BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE - What can you say about a sequel where the only good scenes are lifted directly from the original? Only a snake oil salesman like Irwin Allen could throw together a sequel to a film that didn’t leave the door open for one. Cheap to the extreme, this looks like it was mostly filmed on one or two sets, and every single “money” shot consists of the underwater explosions from the first movie. Considering the cast, either Allen was a huckstering genius on the level of PT Barnum, or Michael Caine, Sally Field, Telly Savalas, Karl Malden and Shirley Jones all had massive gambling debts to pay off.

7. WHEN TIME RAN OUT - Irwin Allen’s last hurrah, yet he still had a bit of the old huckster in him, coaxing the likes of Paul Newman, Jacqueline Bisset and William Holden to sign-up for this idiotic tale of an angry Pacific island volcano and the dolts who stupidly remain nearby. Hell, considering the big stars Allen still managed to continue acquiring (long after the disaster genre became a joke), maybe it wasn’t because of gambling debts after all. Maybe they personally owed him money, or he was simply too much like that loveable old man in everyone’s family who tells the same dumb joke at every reunion, yet we offer a courtesy laugh just to make him happy.

8. Any made-for-TV disaster movie produced in the 70s to capitalize on the genre’s popularity at the time - There were a ton of them…Smash-Up on Interstate Five, Terror on the 40th Floor, The Night the Bridge Fell Down, Fire!, Flood!, SST: Death Flight, etc. They were all cheaply-made junk, mostly featuring TV actors we recognized but would never pay good money to see in theaters. On an ultimately sad note, some of these movies were produced by Irwin Allen himself, Hollywood’s once-proud “Master of Disaster.”

"Tell me again why I refused an Oscar for Patton?" 
9. THE HINDENBURG - How do you stretch a 30-second historical event into a two-hour film? Simply suggest the dirigible’s untimely death was  the result of a massive conspiracy, then throw in George C. Scott to make it respectable (I still can’t believe he agreed to do this). And even though you’ve managed to land a director with the clout of Robert Wise, how do you shave the budget? Easy…when it comes time to show some big-ass onscreen mayhem, revert to the same newsreel footage everyone on the planet has seen a jillion times. Then you can use your cost-cutting measures to your advantage by ballyhooing your “authentic” footage in promotional campaigns. Sure, everyone will fall asleep, since you’ve made arguably the most boring disaster movie of all time, but they still paid to see it, didn’t they?

10. BLACK SUNDAY - I need to preface this by saying Black Sunday is actually a terrific film, probably more timely & relevant now than when it was when released in the 70s. It was also director John Frankenheimer’s last decent film for the next twenty years (he was rescued by Ronin). A focused, suspenseful and intense tale of an impending terrorist attack on American soil, it was nonetheless stupidly promoted as yet-another mindless disaster movie. I was duped into seeing it back in '77 for that reason, hoping for Towering Inferno-like mayhem, only to be totally let-down by the lackluster special effects, which didn’t rear their ugly heads until the last ten minutes. While the visuals are admittedly terrible, the film was never about destruction to begin with. Hence, the advertising campaign by Paramount, while understandable, was akin to promoting Animal House as a serious study of alcoholism.

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