Nothing thrills in quite the same way as a good disaster film, able to keep you on edge for the entire runtime as it ratchets up your anxiety and fear and tension to levels that get your palms drenched.
Most disaster movies have characters at odds with nature, which is itself a unique experience in cinema. Sure, it can become clichéd and even ridiculous at times, but when a filmmaker hits the right blend of cinematic spices, there are few genres as appealing for audiences.
Of course, disaster movies aren’t always about survival against the elements. Sometimes, the challenge might be against a corrupt system that teeters on the edge of catastrophic failure, with only a few people recognizing the full impact it would have on society.
Here are our picks for the best modern disaster movies that have come out in recent years, spanning the spectrum of disasters.
8. Arctic (2018)
Summarizing Arctic in one word is easy: brutal.
The story follows the journey of a stranded pilot who witnesses a helicopter crash and pulls the sole surviving woman from the wreckage, bringing her back to his camp.
As the woman’s injuries worsen, he manages to find a map in the wreckage—and attempts to hitch together a makeshift sleigh so he can walk the pair out of the brutal cold.
The arduous escape as he drags her with him comes across the screen with a force that few films have achieved. Mads Mikkelsen’s towering performance, even with sparse dialogue, showcases the human struggle and culminates in an intense ending that doesn’t relent.
7. The Big Short (2015)
Here’s a disaster movie that centers on a catastrophic event that isn’t one you can see looming over the horizon, but it’s still as real and as devastating as any burning building or force of nature.
The Big Short features a handful of analysts who understand that the US housing market is about to go bust—and so they bet against the system.
The film becomes a true disaster piece when Mark Baum attends a meeting to discuss how the market for insuring CDOs (Credit Debt Obligations) is a rod that will collapse the world economy, opening his eyes to the reality of what’s about to happen.
The film is multilayered with several smart performances by its cast, including Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Jeremy Strong, Brad Pitt, and Ryan Gosling, who all help showcase the avarice that led to the 2008 market crash. It’s a disaster that hits as close to home as any.
6. Don’t Look Up (2021)
Adam McKay’s movie about the divisive politics of our current era (and how misinformation spreads through the human population quicker than any disease) is a flawed masterpiece that greatly entertains.
When two scientists discover that an asteroid is heading straight for Earth—the kind of asteroid that would end all of mankind—they attempt to tell the world about it… only to be met with doubters and conspiracy theorists and opportunistic politicians.
The stacked cast (led by Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Jonah Hill, Cate Blanchett, and Meryl Streep) all deliver riotous performances that never feel too far away from reality.
5. Flight (2012)
Denzel Washington’s Captain Whip Whitaker is an airline pilot, a drunk, and a compulsive liar who saves an airplane full of people from certain death by attempting an unorthodox emergency landing in a field.
The film’s initial crash sequence is heart-racing filmmaking by Robert Zemeckis, after which the movie turns into an investigation into the sobriety of Captain Whitaker, who’s publicly hailed as a hero.
The initial disaster comes very quickly, but the rest of the movie showcases the real impending disaster: Whitaker’s substance abuse problem and if he can get out of his self-destructive cycle.
4. Gravity (2013)
When astronaut Dr. Ryan Stone becomes the sole survivor of an accident in space, it sparks the Kessler Effect—in which space debris invades Earth’s orbit and collides with everything until no more satellites remain as the debris carries on spinning around the Earth.
So, stranded in space, she must find a way back down to Earth before the debris passes by again and wipes her out. Gravity is a film of pure suspense as the audience watches her struggle through every moment of her journey—even at times when she’s given up hope.
As her time to find another capsule shortens, with the debris orbiting the Earth and quickly approaching her, Stone’s story unfolds as audiences tightly grip their seats and hope she makes it back alive.
3. The Grey (2011)
Initially described as “Liam Neeson fights a wolf,” The Grey is a far more profound movie than many expected when first watching it.
When a plane carrying arctic workers crashes, it leaves many dead and only a few alive. Those survivors must make their way out of the frozen tundra, all while being pursued by ravenous wolves.
The film is tense with every passing moment as the humans are slowly culled from the group one-by-one until barely any remain.
Neeson’s performance as John Ottway is dogged and tough, but beneath the rough exterior is the gentle nature of a character who shines. Even up to the very final shot, the movie remains a mystery—one that stays with you long after the credits start rolling.
2. The Impossible (2012)
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The Impossible is a retelling of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami disaster (“Boxing Day Tsunami”) that killed hundreds of thousands in more than a dozen different countries. The based-on-a-true-story film follows the tale of two parents and their children who are separated by the catastrophe.
As Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts’ characters haul themselves to safety and through the rescue effort that saved their lives, their search for one another becomes the film’s crux.
While Watts as mother slowly succumbs to her injuries, McGregor as father pushes to find his family. Her ultimate fate is a white-knuckling ride for the audience that keeps eyes glued to the screen and offers hope in the gravest of situations, which is what any great disaster film does.
1. The Martian (2015)
Ridley Scott’s incredible sci-fi film about an astronaut who ends up stranded completely alone on Mars is funny, heartbreaking, and searingly intense.
After a dust storm renders Matt Damon’s Mark Watney separated from his crew and incommunicative after being hit by shrapnel, he wakes up to find himself alone on Mars. His crew, who believe that he’s dead, have evacuated the planet and started heading back to Earth.
Watney finds himself in a race against time and limited resources—first to figure out a way to establish safe shelter, then to somehow signal to NASA that he’s still alive, then to survive long enough for rescue.