The 14 Best Natural Disaster Movies That Are Actually Great

Natural disasters come in many forms, but the best ones share one thing: a thrilling, dramatic tale with real stakes that matter.
The 14 Best Natural Disaster Movies That Are Actually Great

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Natural disaster movies have a reputation for being... well, terrible. Too many of them are all action and zero character, propped up by cheap thrills and expensive actors without much substance.

But that doesn't mean there aren't some excellent disaster flicks out there! You know, ones that build a connection between us and the story so that when that world comes crashing down, we actually care!

Lots of natural disaster films are fine enough to be enjoyable on a sheer entertainment level, but here are the best natural disaster movies that offer much more depth, character, and significance.

14. The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

Directed by Ronald Neame

Starring Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters

Action, Adventure, Drama (1h 57m)

7.1 on IMDb80% on RT

There was a small flurry of star-studded disaster flicks during the 1970s, including Earthquake, Airport, and The Poseidon Adventure. That last one was actually pretty good and still holds up.

Adapted from Paul Gallico's 1969 novel, Ronald Neame's action-drama is an exercise in showmanship, depicting a luxury liner that gets flipped over by a towering tidal wave.

Critics of the time enjoyed the excitement and SFX of The Poseidon Adventure while still acknowledging it as a hollow, formulaic spectacle. Modern viewers might still agree with that, but the film has cemented itself as a cult classic that's really fun and memorable.

13. The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

Directed by Roland Emmerich

Starring Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal, Emmy Rossum

Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi (2h 4m)

6.5 on IMDb45% on RT

The Day After Tomorrow brags a starry-eyed cast, but what Hollywood film doesn't these days? Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal play a father-son duo who can only contact each other via payphone after they're separated during a freezing-cold storm.

Luckily, the father is a paleoclimatologist who can give his son survival tips while trapped inside a New York library. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is slugging through skull-sized hail, superstorms, tornadoes, and the threat of another ice age.

It's basically all kinds of natural disasters wrapped into one, with Jake Gyllenhaal running around to the iconic backdrop of a damaged Statue of Liberty. What's not to love?

12. The Towering Inferno (1974)

Directed by John Guillermin

Starring Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden

Action, Drama, Thriller (2h 45m)

7.0 on IMDb68% on RT

Here we have another enjoyable disaster film from the 1970s: The Towering Inferno, which boasts even bigger names than the aforementioned The Poseidon Adventure.

Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, and O. J. Simpson are trapped inside a fancy high-rise building—actually, then-tallest building in the world—when a fire breaks out.

This is arguably a man-made catastrophe, but fire itself is a natural element, so I'm including it. Plus, the fact that it stars Steve McQueen and Paul Newman makes it that much more worthy of a mention.

Buckle in for three hours of crazy stunts, boiling-hot tension, and nightmarish grandeur that reeled in one of the year's highest box office returns and even a few Oscars, too!

11. Force Majeure (2014)

Directed by Ruben Östlund

Starring Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Clara Wettergren

Comedy, Drama (2h)

7.2 on IMDb93% on RT

For most parents who are caught in a crisis, the drive for self-preservation is often overridden by a desire to save their kids. Parents will instinctively brave all kinds of risks if it means saving their children.

But in Force Majeure, this doesn't apply to Tomas (played by Johannes Kuhnke), who lunges for his own safety in the face of an avalanche and leaves his wife and kids to perish on the deck.

Except, they don't perish... and now Tomas must face the consequences of sacrificing his family to save his own skin.

Force Majeure is a Swedish black-comedy that's cold to the touch and has no qualms with making us feel uncomfortable, which is the confident hallmark of a great movie!

10. Only the Brave (2017)

Directed by Joseph Kosinski

Starring Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jeff Bridges

Action, Biography, Drama (2h 14m)

7.6 on IMDb87% on RT

What's scarier than a bear running straight at you? How about a bear that's on fire? In Only the Brave, the grizzly isn't the only thing that's lit like a Christmas tree. There's an entire forest of actual trees writhing in flames across 41,000 acres in Cave Creek, Arizona.

Miles Teller plays the fire-fighting heroin addict who's trying to prove himself, while Josh Brolin is the superintendent voice-of-reason who's trying to get his crew certified to save the town.

"It's gonna feel like the end of the world," Eric Marsh (played by Josh Brolin) warns... and for some of them, it just might be. Joseph Kosinski brings the true story of this mass wildfire—and, more importantly, the fighters—to screens with honor and humility.

9. Deep Impact (1998)

Directed by Mimi Leder

Starring Robert Duvall, Téa Leoni, Elijah Wood

Action, Drama, Sci-Fi (2h)

6.2 on IMDb45% on RT

Deep Impact is an iconic 90s movie that gives you everything you could want from a disaster flick: action, emotion, sympathy, believability, thrills, special effects, and superstars.

Elijah Wood plays Leo Biederman, an amateur astronomer who spots an extinction-level comet flying towards Earth. Captain Spurgeon Tanner (played by Robert Duvall) is sent on a nuclear mission to stop it.

Meanwhile, a journalist named Jenny Lerner (played by Téa Leoni) is investigating the events amidst a media frenzy, and US President Tom Beck (played by Morgan Freeman) administers a lottery for who will be reserved spots in Missouri's underground survival camps.

8. Don't Look Up (2021)

Directed by Adam McKay

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep

Comedy, Drama, Sci-Fi (2h 18m)

7.2 on IMDb55% on RT

Adam McKay's Don't Look Up goes beyond just disaster thrills. In a post-COVID world, McKay uses the medium of cinema to relay a potent social commentary, much like he did with The Big Short.

The message of Don't Look Up is barely concealed by a thin metaphoric veil, where the slogan "Don't Look Up" (as in, at the meteor headed for Earth; as in, don't believe it's real) represents our suspicious, foolish, distracted society that loves conspiracy theories.

Sex scandals, memes, and anti-believers—reminiscent of anti-vaxxers—take the stage when a scientist leaks the extinction news to the media. But socio-political allegories aside, Don't Look Up is also just a great apocalyptic satire with an extensive cast.

7. Twister (1996)

Directed by Jan de Bont

Starring Helen Hunt, Bill Paxton, Cary Elwes

Action, Adventure, Thriller (1h 53m)

6.5 on IMDb63% on RT

Why is Twister so famous? Isn't it like every other weatherworn emergency movie? Yes... and no.

The 1990s were a revolutionary decade for special effects (see Jurassic Park, Titanic, The Matrix), and although Twister looks average by today's standards, it was mind-blowing upon release. DVD release, too! The first of its kind, alongside Mars Attacks.

Ever heard of storm chasers? They're basically extreme weather enthusiasts who drive towards tornadoes in Oklahoma for research purposes, and they make Twister the thriller that it is. Helen Hunt, Bill Paxton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Alan Ruck star.

6. The Impossible (2012)

Directed by J. A. Bayona

Starring Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland

Drama, History, Thriller (1h 54m)

7.5 on IMDb82% on RT

Strap yourselves in because this one's a heart-wrencher! Few things incite as much terror as a tsunami that's heading right in your direction. We try not to think about it when we're holidaying on tropical beaches.

But for the Bennett family in The Impossible, they have no choice but to think about it as a sky-high wave crushes their Thailand resort.

The power of J. A. Bayona's drama comes not just from blood-pumping action scenes and the desperate search for torn-apart family members (including a 14-year-old Tom Holland in his acting debut), but the fact that it's based on a true story.

Roughly 230,000 people died in the tragic 2004 earthquake-tsunami—such was the magnitude of this natural calamity.

5. Contagion (2011)

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Starring Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne

Drama, Thriller (1h 46m)

6.8 on IMDb85% on RT

There are no wildfires or tornadoes in Contagion, but the threat is still very much present—and it spreads into a global epidemic.

A novel bat-borne virus ends up ricocheting through the world with a 30% mortality rate, and a hyper-linked ensemble of characters (played by the likes of Kate Winslet, Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Marion Cotillard, and Bryan Cranston) face off against it.

Sadly, society didn't really learn the lessons of research and scientific funding from Steven Soderbergh's medical drama when it came to our own real-life pandemic (even despite a surge of views putting Contagion into the top 10 most streamed movies during lockdown).

4. The Birds (1963)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Starring Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Jessica Tandy

Drama, Horror, Mystery (1h 59m)

7.6 on IMDb94% on RT

Natural disasters always call to mind crazy weather conditions, but nature exists in more forms than just rain, wind, and fire. Animals also count, as we see in Alfred Hitchcock's thrilling classic The Birds, in which birds flock together to attack humans.

Inspired by the real-life account of birds swarming in Capitola, 1961, The Birds depicts a sudden increase in crows and sparrows dotting a small Californian town.

Black birds have long been seen as creepy omens associated with all things horror and Halloween, so imagine how much worse it is when hundreds of them peck at you in a frenzy. All those wings and beaks with no escape...

It sounds silly on paper, but Alfred Hitchcock makes them terrifying. It's enough to make one of the characters catatonic from trauma!

3. Sunshine (2007)

Directed by Danny Boyle

Starring Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, Chris Evans

Sci-Fi, Thriller (1h 47m)

7.2 on IMDb76% on RT

Instead of a sudden freak incident, Sunshine features a slow-and-gradual decline into extinction. Earth is freezing over, but we don't see any frosted Statue of Liberty symbolizing the end times in this one.

Director Danny Boyle keeps us cooped up with the crew on board Icarus II, who are heading towards the dying sun in hopes of reigniting it with a mirrored stellar bomb.

In real life, our sun will indeed fade out sometime—but not for another few billion years. Clearly influenced by films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien, Sunshine proposes that this chilly inevitability will occur in the year 2057, and it's up to Cillian Murphy to save us all.

2. Titanic (1997)

Directed by James Cameron

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane

Drama, Romance (3h 14m)

7.9 on IMDb88% on RT

You could argue it was the crew's fault for not seeing the iceberg that sank the Titanic, but you could also argue it's a natural catastrophe... because icebergs are, well, natural.

Plus, scientists have suggested that wave breaks and water mirages were the real reasons why it wasn't spotted earlier. Regardless, the RMS Titanic ocean liner famously sank in 1912, killing almost 1,500 people.

Even more famous is James Cameron's epic drama that takes place on the legendary ship, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as class-divided lovers who must survive drowning and freezing to death in the sea without enough lifeboats to save them.

1. Interstellar (2014)

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain

Adventure, Drama, Sci-Fi (2h 49m)

8.7 on IMDb73% on RT

The characters in Interstellar face an uncertain future: it's too hot and dry out in the barren deserts of Colorado where drought and dust storms ravage the remaining farmlands. Due to ecocide, the remnants of humanity are left clawing to grow what they can.

Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, the NASA pilot who's sent into space to locate a new home planet for humans. Unfortunately, thanks to the laws of time dilation in space, Cooper's kids grow up into adults within the span of just a few hours for Cooper.

It wouldn't be a Christopher Nolan film without some time-bending involved, and the inclusion of all this only serves to magnify the costs paid by Cooper as he searches for a way to save humanity.