A disaster film is a film genre that has an impending or ongoing disaster (such as a damaged airliner, fire, shipwreck, an asteroid collision or natural calamities) as its subject. Along with showing the spectacular disaster, these films concentrate on the chaotic events surrounding the disaster, including efforts for survival, the effects upon individuals and families, and 'what-if' scenarios.
These films typically feature large casts of well-known actors and multiple plotlines, focusing on the characters' attempts to avert, escape or cope with the disaster and its aftermath. The genre had its greatest box office success during the 1970s with the release of Airport (1970), followed in quick succession by The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Earthquake (1974) and The Towering Inferno (1974).
The casts were generally made up of familiar character actors. Once the disaster begins in the film, the characters are usually confronted with human weaknesses, often falling in love and nearly almost always finding a bad guy to blame. In the '90s, a whole new style of disaster films hit the cinema, boasting increased CGI and big budgets. Letting go of the more character-centred human dramas of the '70s, films like Dante's Peak and Armageddon focused more on destruction.
Most disaster films have large-scale special effects (especially in the recent big budgeted films), huge casts of stars faced with the crisis and a persevering hero or heroine (Charlton Heston, Steve McQueen, etc.) called upon to lead the struggle against the threat, and many plot-lines affecting multiple characters. In many cases, the 'evil' or 'selfish' individuals are the first to succumb to the conflagration. 
Disasters have been the subject of film-goers' fascination since the time of silent film epics, and this interest continues to exist up to the present time.
Disaster themes are almost as old as the film medium itself. One of the earliest was Fire! (1901) made by James Williamson of England. The silent film portrayed a burning house and the firemen who arrive to quench the flames and rescue the inhabitants. Origins of the genre can also be found in Night and Ice (1912), about the sinking of the Titanic; Atlantis (1913), also about the Titanic; Noah's Ark (1928), the Biblical story of the great flood; Deluge (1933), about tidal waves devastating New York City; King Kong (1933), with a gigantic gorilla rampaging through New York City; and The Last Days of Pompeii (1935), dealing with the Mount Vesuvius volcanic eruption in 79 AD.
John Ford's The Hurricane (1937) concluded with the striking sequence of a tropical cyclone ripping through a fictional South Pacific island. The drama San Francisco (1936) depicted the historic 1906 San Francisco earthquake, while In Old Chicago (1937) recreated The Great Chicago Fire which burned through the city in 1871. Carol Reed's 1939 film, The Stars Look Down, examines a catastrophe at a coal mine in North-East England.
Inspired by the end of World War II and the beginning of the Atomic Age, Science fiction films of the 1950s, including When Worlds Collide (1953), The War of the Worlds (1953) and Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956), routinely used world disasters as plot elements. This trend would continue with The Deadly Mantis (1957), The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) and Crack in the World (1965). As in the silent film era, the sinking of the Titanic would continue to be a popular disaster with filmmakers and audiences alike. Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck starred in the 1953 20th Century Fox production Titanic, followed by the highly-regarded British film A Night to Remember in 1958. The British action/adventure film The Last Voyage (1960), while not about the Titanic disaster but a predecessor to The Poseidon Adventure, starred Robert Stack as a man desperately attempting to save his wife (Dorothy Malone) and child trapped in a sinking ocean liner. The film, concluding with the dramatic sinking of the ship, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.
Additional precursors to the popular disaster films of the 1970s include The High and the Mighty (1954), starring John Wayne and Robert Stack as pilots of a crippled airplane attempting to cross the ocean; Zero Hour! (1957), written by Arthur Hailey (who also penned the 1968 novel Airport) about an airplane crew that succumbs to food poisoning; and The Doomsday Flight (1966), written by Rod Serling and starring Edmond O'Brien as a disgruntled aerospace engineer who plants a barometric pressure bomb on an airliner built by his former employer set to explode when the airliner descends for landing.
The Golden Age of the Disaster film began in 1970 with the release of Airport. A huge financial success earning more than $45 million at the box office, the film was directed by George Seaton and starred Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, George Kennedy and Jacqueline Bisset. While not exclusively focused on a disaster, in this case, an airplane crippled by the explosion of a bomb, the film established the blueprint of multiple plotlines acted out by an all-star cast. Airport was nominated for 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture, winning Best Supporting Actress for Helen Hayes.
With the 1972 release of The Poseidon Adventure, another huge financial success notching an impressive $42 million in rentals, the Disaster film officially became a movie-going craze. Directed by Ronald Neame and starring Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters and Red Buttons, the film detailed survivors' attempts at escaping a sinking ocean liner overturned by a giant wave triggered by an earthquake. The Poseidon Adventure was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actress for Shelley Winters and winning for Best Music, Original Song and receiving a Special Achievement Award for visual effects.
The trend reached its zenith in 1974 with the release of The Towering Inferno, Earthquake and Airport 1975 (the first Airport sequel). The competing films enjoyed staggering success at the box office, with The Towering Inferno earning $55 million, Earthquake $36 million and Airport 1975 $25 million.
Arguably the greatest of the 1970s disaster films, The Towering Inferno was a joint venture of 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. and was produced by Irwin Allen (eventually known as "The Master of Disaster", as he had previously helmed The Poseidon Adventure and later produced The Swarm, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure and When Time Ran Out...). Directed by John Guillermin and starring Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden and Faye Dunaway, the film depicts a huge fire engulfing the tallest building in the world and firefighters' attempts at rescuing occupants trapped on the top floor. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, winning for Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing and Best Music, Original Song.
Earthquake was also honored with four Academy Award nominations for its impressive special effects of a massive earthquake leveling the city of Los Angeles, winning for Best Sound and receiving a Special Achievement Award for visual effects. The film was directed by Mark Robson and starred Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, George Kennedy and Lorne Greene. It was noted as the first film to utilize Sensurround, where massive sub-woofer speakers were installed in theaters to recreate the vibrating sensation of an earthquake. Several made-for-TV movies also capitalized on the craze including Heat Wave! (1974), The Day the Earth Moved (1974), Hurricane (1974), Flood! (1976) and Fire! (1977).
The trend continued on a larger scale with The Hindenburg (1975) starring George C. Scott; The Cassandra Crossing (1976) starring Burt Lancaster; Two-Minute Warning (1976) starring Charlton Heston; Black Sunday (1977) starring Robert Shaw; Rollercoaster in Sensurround (1977) starring George Segal; Damnation Alley (1977) starring Jan-Michael Vincent; Avalanche (1978) starring Rock Hudson; Gray Lady Down (1978) also starring Charlton Heston; Hurricane (a 1979 remake of John Ford's 1937 film) starring Jason Robards; and City on Fire (1979) starring Henry Fonda.
Skyjacked (1972) was a lessor entry into the Disaster film canon, following on the heels of Airport, though preceding its sequel Airport 1975. The Airport series would continue with Airport '77 (1977) and The Concorde ... Airport '79 (1979), with George Kennedy portraying the character Joe Patroni in each sequel. The Poseidon Adventure was followed by the sequel Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979).
The genre began to burn out by the late-1970s when the big-budget films The Swarm (1978), Meteor (1979) and When Time Ran Out... (1980) performed poorly at the box office signaling declining interest in the Disaster film product.
The end of the trend was marked by the 1980 comedy Airplane! which fondly spoofed the clichés of the genre to surprising box office success, producing a sequel of its own, Airplane II: The Sequel, in 1982.
The blockbuster hit Independence Day (ID4), which is about a hostile alien invasion of Earth, and the Poseidon Adventure-esque Daylight were released in 1996. In 1997, two films about volcanic eruptions debuted, Volcano and Dante's Peak.
Also in 1997, James Cameron produced, wrote and directed the most recent version of the epic story, Titanic. The film combined romance with special effects and was a huge success, becoming the highest-grossing film (which it remained for twelve years) with over $1.8 billion worldwide, and winning 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director.
The revival continued in 1998 with the summer releases of the two comet/asteroid-impact films Deep Impact and Armageddon. The Perfect Storm was released in 2000, followed by The Core in 2003. The Day After Tomorrow did strong business in 2004, depicting rapid global warming and climate change with a varied assortment of disasters. In 2005, the genre went back to Poseidon, a 2006 remake of The Poseidon Adventure, which largely did not connect with both audiences and critics alike, despite its large global box office performance. In 2007 Sunshine was released, depicting a group of astronauts' attempt to restart a dying sun.
2009 brought two films. Knowing features Nicolas Cage as a teacher who discovers a set of numbers that are actually the dates, death tolls and locations of disaster events both in the past and the future, while 2012, based on the supposed doomsday prediction by the Mayans, sees various disasters bring the world to an end. The latter film is the highest-grossing disaster film to date, despite being largely lambasted by critics.
Movies from the disaster film genre are often based on novels. In many cases, the novels were bestsellers or critically acclaimed works. Three of the genre-defining disaster films of the 1970s were based on best-selling novels: Airport (based on the novel by Arthur Hailey), The Poseidon Adventure (based on the novel by Paul Gallico), and The Towering Inferno (from the novels The Tower by Richard Martin Stern and The Glass Inferno by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson). Some critically acclaimed novels that were turned into disaster films include On the Beach (by Nevil Shute), The War of the Worlds (by H. G. Wells), Failsafe (by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler) and A Night to Remember (non-fiction by Walter Lord).
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- Annan, David (1975). Catastrophe, the End of the Cinema?. Bounty Books. ISBN 0517524201.
- Broderick, Mick (January 1992). Nuclear Movies: A Critical Analysis and Filmography of International Feature Length Films Dealing With Experimentation, Aliens, Terrorism, Holocaust. McFarland & Co.. ISBN 0899505430.
- Dixon, Wheeler Winston. Disaster and Memory. Columbia University Press. ISBN 0231113161.
- Keane, Stephen (2006). Disaster Movies: The Cinema of Catastrophe. Wallflower Press. ISBN 1905674031.
- Newman, Kim (February 2000). Apocalypse Movies: End of the World Cinema. St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0312253699.
- Disaster Movie Bibliography (via UC Berkeley)
- Catastrophe in the Movies
- Disaster Films
- Novelguide.com: Film Fads And Fashions
Disasters OverviewLists of disasters • By death toll • By cost DisastersNaturalTransportIndustrialHealth Countermeasures MediaFeature films • Documentaries OrganizationsPortal: Disasters
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