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What a disaster: Bullz-Eye ranks the definitive disaster movies

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With last week’s rather dismal performance by Wolfgang Petersen’s remake of “The Poseidon Adventure” – Josh Lucas gnashed his teeth so much, he looked like a rabid dog – it appears that we have seen the death of the disaster movie for the foreseeable future, if not for good. Okay, we know to never say never when it comes to Hollywood’s tendency to pilfer its history; after all, they thought that remaking “Sabrina,” “Bewitched” and “The Stepford Wives” were good ideas. Still, “Poseidon” managed to take in only $22 million of its reported $160 million budget, and while $22 million is a lot of money, it would have to make that much every weekend for the next two months in order to break even. Good luck with that, Warners.

As the mother of all popcorn movie genres sinks into the sunset – and we confess, we’re more than a little sad to see it happen – Bullz-Eye takes a tearful look back at our favorite disaster movies of all shapes and sizes, from birds and viruses (talk about life imitating art: now we have bird viruses) to aliens and tornadoes, with the hope that we’ll get to see stuff getting blow’d up good.

Warner Bros., 1995
Tag line: This animal carries a deadly virus... and the greatest medical crisis in the world is about to happen.

Damn that Marcel; he’s going to wipe out mankind with his primate-y badness. Before the New Wave of disaster movies launched in 1996, it was all about the Ebola. In fact, at the same time Wolfgang Petersen was shooting “Outbreak,” a rival studio was prepping an adaptation of Richard Preston’s book “The Hot Zone,” starring Jodie Foster. Warner Brothers got too big of a jump, though, and the other guy blinked (which is probably just as good, since Preston’s book wasn’t exactly a nail-biter). The opening scene is chilling, where the residents experiencing a mysterious plague in an African village get a fire bomb instead, but nothing had moviegoers on edge like the scene of the infected guy in the movie theater, with the CGI germs floating maliciously through the audience. Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo are fine actors, but a ridiculous looking couple. Marcel the monkey shows up the Central Perk crew by becoming the first cast member of “Friends” to go solo, and we would be remiss if we did not discuss the plucky young helicopter pilot played by Cuba Gooding Jr., who in a few short years would grace the world with such masterworks as “Chill Factor” and “Boat Trip.” Watching him here – along with a relatively unknown Kevin Spacey – is to see limitless possibility. ~David Medsker

The Day After Tomorrow
20th Century Fox, 2004
Tag line: Where will you be?

When word first spread that Roland Emmerich was going to direct a movie called “The Day After Tomorrow,” we were delighted to hear that Allan Folsom’s compulsive page-turner about the mother of all Nazi conspiracies was coming to life on the big screen. Then we discovered that it was not about that at all, but rather a series of freak storms that wipe out half the world, and then we got really excited. The tornado sequence in Los Angeles is the money shot, especially when the news reporter bravely/foolishly tries to do his journalistic duty, only to get swept away by a billboard flying towards him at 60 mph. (The wall of water that buries New York is a close second.) The Russian tanker floating through Manhattan was pretty cool too, though the CGI wolves that were on the ship were ree-dic-yoo-luss. We bless Emmerich for trying to make his disaster movies contain some human element to them – even if it means having Dennis Quaid walking from Washington DC to New York in a subzero snowstorm to be with his estranged son – but the truth is he’s much better at destroying than he is at creating, and the destruction here is among the genre’s finest. ~DM

The Core
Paramount, 2003
Tag line: Earth has a deadline

Let’s see, which of the ancient elements have we not done a disaster story about? We’ve done fire with “The Towering Inferno,” we’ve done water with “The Poseidon Adventure,” and we’ve done air with “Airport.” Well, that settles it; let’s make like the Jam, kids, ‘cause we’re going underground. I’m not going to tell you that this film is anything but ridiculous, but this trip to the center of the earth – and it’s an express trip, my friend – in an attempt to fix the planet’s rotation (no, seriously) is one worth taking, because the filmmakers are clearly winking at the screen as often as not. Aaron Eckhart plays his role as Dr. Josh Keyes with smart-aleck lines and the occasional double-take, and Stanley Tucci takes his performance as Dr. Conrad Zimsky places where only Jonathan Harris (Dr. Smith on TV’s “Lost in Space”) has gone before. The only person who may not be in on the joke is Hilary Swank, who treats the flick like she’s after another Academy Award. Uh, yeah, that didn’t happen. The only person who might’ve deserved an Oscar is Richard Jenkins, who – as General Thomas Purcell – channels every belligerent military man role you can imagine, even getting to utter that all-important line, “Gentlemen, what you are about to hear is classified.” Your instructions: sit back, have a few drinks, and enjoy every minute of this soon-to-be cult classic. ~Will Harris

Deep Rising
Hollywood/Disney, 1998
Tag line: Full scream ahead.

The best movie Stephen Sommers has ever done, and will ever do, by a country mile. “Deep Rising” came out during the monster run of “Titanic,” whereupon it was quietly shipped off to video and into our hearts. Treat Williams runs a boat-for-hire business and leads a group of pirates to a luxury cruise liner in the South Pacific, only to discover that a very hungry (thirsty?) group of sea beasties has beaten them to the punch. The dialogue, usually a sore thumb with Sommers’ movies (see “Van Helsing” – scratch that, don’t see “Van Helsing”), is snappy and fun, the action sequences are silly but brisk, and sweet Jesus, look at the cast he’s assembled. Joining Williams are Famke Janssen (“X-Men”), Djimon Hounsou (“In America”), Wes Studi (“Last of the Mohicans”), and perennial weasel Anthony Heald (“Boston Legal”). If Peter Jackson tells you he’s not a fan of this movie, he’s a filthy, filthy liar, and the bug sequence in “King Kong” proves it. ~DM

20th Century Fox, 1997
Tag line: The Coast Is Toast

Every list of disaster films needs a volcano movie, and when you get right down to it, the competition is really only between this and “Dante’s Peak.” And while “Dante’s Peak” might ultimately be the better movie, it’s in no way as much fun as “Volcano.” It’s a given that the movie played better in Los Angeles, not only because of the familiarity of the locale (that’s where the on-screen events are taking place), but many of the city’s local newscasters played themselves. Tommy Lee Jones is the gruff but loveable emergency management director for the city of angels, and he teams up with Anne Heche, the spunky seismologist who, of course, nobody believes when she says, “Hey, there’s a volcano underneath L.A.!” (Fortunately, this was right before Heche’s liaison with Ellen DeGeneres, so you could still just about buy the supposed sexual tension between her and Jones.) Plus, Jones’s right-hand man is played by Don Cheadle, so you’ve got two leading men who, as you already know if you’re familiar with their résumés, are generally the highlight of any movie they’re in. The scientific accuracy of the film is positively laughable, but, really, if you’re not a licensed volcanologist, you’re not going to care. Just go with the (lava) flow and enjoy the ride. ~WH

Airport '77
Universal, 1977
Tag line: Flight 23 has crashed in the Bermuda Triangle...passengers still alive, trapped underwater...

Precious few motion picture franchises can claim that the third in their series is better than the preceding pair, but, for what it’s worth, “Airport ‘77” definitely succeeds more completely as a disaster film than its predecessors. Maybe it’s the fact that “Airport 1975” tried to incorporate too much humor by including a trio of passengers played by Conrad Janis, Jerry Stiller, and Norman Fell. Or perhaps it’s because the original “Airport” was more of a soap opera than an action thriller. (The plane that’s in jeopardy doesn’t even take off ‘til after the one-hour mark!) But whatever the case, “Airport ‘77” beats ‘em hands down. You’ve got Captain Jack Lemmon at the controls, passengers played by Olivia De Haviland, Christopher Lee, Darren McGavin, and a plane that crashes into the ocean and sinks 200 feet to the bottom, thereby adding a “Poseidon Adventure” twist as well as begging the nervous question, “Say, who wants to have a contest to see who can hold their breath the longest?” (Too bad having the crash site located within the Bermuda Triangle turns out to be nothing but a red herring.) But, wait, who’s that waiting for the plane to arrive? Why, it’s…it’s Jimmy Stewart! Man, what a fun ride. Shame about the final “Airport” film, though; “The Concorde: Airport ‘79” had a cast that included Jimmy “J.J.” Walker and Charo. With those names, you don’t even need to see it to know that it’s less a disaster movie than a movie disaster. ~WH

28 Days Later…
Fox Searchlight, 2003
Tag line: Be Thankful For Everything, For Soon There Will Be Nothing...

They’re rabid, highly contagious, and they want to eat you. Oh, and they move at nothing short of a full sprint. Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later…” rewrote the rules of zombie movies forevermore (witness the souped up remake of “Dawn of the Dead” that appeared a year later), and includes the boldest opening scene an unknown actor has performed in recent memory: naked – and, if you must know, completely flaccid, and very hairy – in a hospital bed. A group of do-gooder animal activists set to unleash a group of chimps, unaware that they’re infected with a virus called “rage” that spreads like wildfire and turns London into a post-apocalyptic wasteland. THAT’s the world that Cillian Murphy (the naked hairy guy) wakes up to, lucky dog. The movie’s most stunning shot comes when Murphy makes too much noise at his parents’ place; the scene cuts to a sweep shot outside the house, back to Cillian, and then back outside, where the camera hauls ass straight for the house in total silence. Boom, zombies in the kitchen. Even scarier are the soldiers who rescue them, since their plans for survival are, well, they make you wonder if it’d be better to be a zombie. ~DM

Deep Impact
DreamWorks, 1998
Tag line: Heaven and Earth are about to collide.

This is the closest to an old school, all-star cast disaster film that emerged during the late ‘90s revival of the genre. You’ve got names that garner instant respect (Robert Duvall, Morgan Freeman, Vanessa Redgrave), a few instantly recognizable faces (James Cromwell, Tea Leoni, Jon Favreau, Blair Underwood), a couple of up-and-coming teen actors (Elijah Wood, Leelee Sobieski), and any number of actors and actresses whose faces you know, even if you can’t automatically come up with their names. The basic plot – oh, no, an asteroid is going to destroy the planet – was also central to “Armageddon,” which came out the same year and stole some of “Deep Impact”’s thunder, but even Steve Buscemi couldn’t save the former flick from being just another big, dumb Michael Bay extravaganza. “Deep Impact” has far more emotional depth, not to mention some disaster sequences that’ll blow your mind. If theatergoers left the cineplex with any one thought coursing through their minds, however, it wasn’t the universal truth that asteroids are bad, but, rather, this simple realization: “Damn, I wish Morgan Freeman really would run for President, because I would totally vote for him!” ~WH

The Poseidon Adventure
20th Century Fox, 1972
Tag line: Hell, Upside Down

The cast! The miniatures! Leslie Neilsen! All kidding aside, “The Poseidon Adventure” is actually great fun, despite the best efforts of Ernest Borgnine to chew up every frame of scenery before we can view them. In fact, while the original obviously doesn’t hold a candle to the remake in terms of visual effects and realism – it still looks quite good for its time, but apparently there were no flash fires or electrocutions on upside down boats in 1972 – it has considerably greater depth of character, from Gene Hackman’s rebellious preacher to Borgnine’s possessive, vein-popping cop with the hooker wife (Stella Stevens). Even Grandpa Joe from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” gets in on the fun, with an Oscar winner and swimming champion of New York (Shelley Winters) as his wife. So call it the granddaddy of modern disaster films, if you wish. Even producer Irwin “Master of Disaster” Allen would admit that it’s the second best movie he’s done (see #3). But second best to a classic is still mighty fine, and to that, we say, down the hatch. ~DM

Warner Bros., 1996
Tag line: The Dark Side of Nature.

“Twister” is a THX-plus-FX popcorn movie of the highest caliber, but one that falls into the “Chinese meal” theory of moviegoing, i.e. an hour after you’ve left the theater talking about how awesome the film was, you realize, “Wait a minute, that movie was dumb as hell,” but, ha-ha, too late, you already liked it. Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt play a pair of tornado hunters who are on the verge of divorce…so much so that when Paxton shows up, he’s got his girlfriend (Jami Gertz) in tow and is trying to get Hunt to sign their divorce papers! But, of course, before long, it’s tornado time, and the next thing you know, the two are together again, chasing the storm. The couple is in their element (no pun intended), so it’s inevitable that Gertz will feel like a fish out of water, Paxton and Hunt will rekindle their lost love, and, uh, y’know, a cow will fly across the screen. And a truck. And some other stuff, too. Plus, Philip Seymour Hoffman is in it – always a mark of quality – and Cary Elwes plays his snarky villain role to the hilt. A word of warning, however: if you don’t see this in surround-sound to hear the tornadoes in all their glory, you’ve lost half the reason to see it in the first place. Of course, it means you hear the cheesy dialogue clearly as well, but you can’t win ‘em all. ~WH

Independence Day
20th Century Fox, 1996
Tag line: EARTH. Take a good look. It could be your last.

You know how everyone and their grandmother know last weekend’s box office numbers these days? This is the movie that started all that. The buzz behind “Independence Day” – or “ID4,” as it was called before they got permission to use the full title from a rival studio – was massive, beginning with a Super Bowl commercial that showed the White House getting blown to smithereens. The trailers kept rolling out, slowly showing more tantalizing shots of total destruction, and when the movie finally did hit theaters, it ran around the clock for the first three days. It finished with an opening take of $96 million in its first “weekend” (it actually began screening the previous Tuesday night). Did it live up to its promise…? Well, sort of. The annihilation sequence brought roars from the opening night audiences (yes, we were there). After that, however, director Roland Emmerich’s shortcomings begin to show themselves all over the place (bad dialogue, mediocre acting), and the ending was, how you say, preposterous. Still, warts aside, “Independence Day” ushered in a whole new era of Event Movie, and forever raised the bar on blowing shit up. ~DM

The Birds
Universal, 1963
Tag line: Suspense and shock beyond anything you have seen or imagined!

Not even Hitchcock was afraid to delve into a tale of when animals attack. It looks like vintage Hitchcock at first, with the socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) playing a practical joke of sorts on mysterious attorney Mitch (Rod Taylor) when she visits his home in Bodega Bay, but things soon turn strange when Melanie is attacked by a seagull, and then the children at Mitch’s sister Cathy’s birthday party (Cathy is played by Veronica Cartwright, of “Alien” and “L.A. Law” fame) are attacked as well. The climax takes place at Mitch’s childhood home, with Mitch, Melanie, Cathy and mother Lydia (Miss Daisy herself, Jessica Tandy) under attack from all angles. Despite a rather – okay, incredibly – anticlimactic ending, the movie takes the theory behind strength in numbers to disturbing extremes. Perhaps the most interesting thing to note about the movie is its near absence of a musical score, aside from the opening credits. If it were remade today, it’d be filled to the brim with all sorts of loud ‘boo’ percussion effects, God help us. And can you believe they actually got away with a shot of a guy with his eyes poked out in a PG movie? Hardcore, Hitchy. ~DM

Towering Inferno
20th Century Fox, 1974
Tag line: The tallest building in the world is on fire. You are there with 294 other guests...There's no way down. There's no way out.

If you’re looking for the gold standard of disaster flicks, look no further. The original “Poseidon Adventure” may have preceded it, but make no mistake: no matter where it places on this list, “Inferno” is still used as a point of reference for how to make a great disaster movie. It combines two major human fears – fire and heights – and you’re never entirely sure who’s going to fall victim to what. In fact, the only people you’re even relatively sure are going to make it out alive are the architect (Paul Newman) and the fire chief (Steve McQueen)…and, even then, once Robert Wagner buys it early in the film, you begin to realize that the filmmakers are willing to kill off any character, no matter how famous the actor or actress who’s playing them may be. The fire is presented in such a terrifying manner that, even over 30 years later, there’s still an attraction at Universal Studios based on the film. Particularly keep your ears open during the last third of the film; you won’t want to miss McQueen when he offers the single most perfectly delivered use of the phrase “oh, shit” in motion picture history. ~WH

The Day After
MGM, 1984
Tag line: The day before. The day of. The Day After.

When you venture into made-for-TV disaster flicks, you’re swimming in some seriously crap-infested waters. That’s why “The Day After” stands alone as our only non-theatrical entry. If you lived through the ‘80s, you can recall a time when the possibility of nuclear Armageddon seemed pretty damned real. This film, which made every attempt to stay as close as possible to the theoretical reality of what life would be like after the bomb – lack of electricity, fallout, and just the general devastation – was a harsh viewing experience. The cast, which included Jason Robards, John Lithgow, and Jobeth Williams, avoids any dramatic showboating, making it much easier to get caught up in the drama of the unfolding events. Even this post-Cold-War era of today, it still remains sufficiently harrowing, particularly at the moment of impact (seeing bodies instantly vaporized and knowing that that’s what would really happen to you at ground zero is damned disconcerting), that you’ll find yourself a little surprised that it aired on network TV. ABC actually set up an 800 number for viewers to call during and after “The Day After” aired, in case it freaked them out so much that they needed to talk to someone. The last shot of the film, with Robards weeping amongst the ashes, is enough to make anyone want to ban the bomb. ~WH

20th Century Fox, 1997
Tag line: Collide With Destiny.

Six, hundred, million, in the United States alone. The next closest movie is $140 million behind. The backlash kicked in on “Titanic” quickly – and fiercely – but there is a reason it won so many Academy Awards. It’s a spectacular piece of work, from director James Cameron’s plotting of the story between past and present (though not his direction of Billy Zane) to the stunning execution of the ship’s slow descent into the frigid waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Leonardo DiCaprio was the rock of this movie, and his performance remains one of his most underrated to date. Plus, is that Jack Bristow (Victor Garber) as the ship’s architect? It sure is, in one of those before-they-were-famous roles. You can understand why Cameron took so long to choose a follow-up project (“Battle Angel,” though he has time to back out of that one, too), as the shadow of “Titanic” is larger than even its subject. In the end, Cameron was tapped to make an action movie, and he gave the studio something else altogether: a love story with a disaster sequence that is one for the ages. The best $135 million (the other $65 million came from Paramount) that Fox ever spent. ~DM

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