10 best disaster movies of all time, ranked

Leonardo DiCaprio stands on the edge of a railing and puts his hands in the air.
Paramount Pictures

Chaos and catastrophes have often been the subject of some of the most thrilling films ever made, with the disaster subgenre producing iconic blockbusters that had cinemas packed with eager fans. Often showcasing breathtaking spectacles of survival and heroism, disaster flicks can captivate audiences by reminding them of how terrifyingly small humanity can be when compared with sweeping natural calamities or even man-made destruction.

From the unsettlingly prophetic Contagion to the apocalyptic and riveting The Day After Tomorrow, the best disaster movies ever made depict heart-pounding and suspenseful tales featuring characters in dire situations. These films can be frightening, exhilarating, and cathartic all at once, especially when they showcase how easily massive systems, structures, and societies can be wiped out.

10. Deep Impact (1998)

A man and woman on a bike with a comet in the background in Deep Impact.
Paramount Pictures

In 1998, two disaster movies depicted a doomsday scenario of a comet hurtling toward the earth, threatening to eliminate all human life. Neither of them was particularly outstanding nor groundbreaking, but between Deep Impact and Armageddon, the former is undoubtedly the ‘90s film worth watching. Directed by Mimi Leder, it follows a variety of storylines as characters react to the impending apocalypse, including the tales of a bold journalist and a heroic astronaut.

Unlike director Michael Bay’s more bombastic and action-packed take, Deep Impact opted for a more nuanced human drama. It offered a roller coaster of emotions throughout its runtime, despite having somewhat uneven pacing. While far from perfect, the film greatly benefits from an impressive ensemble cast, which features stars like Morgan Freeman as the President of the United States and Elijah Wood as a young amateur astronomer. For a blockbuster, it also wasn’t afraid to go to some dark places, especially toward the inevitable end.

9. San Francisco (1936)

Clark Gable, Ted Healy, and Jeanette MacDonald in San Francisco (1936).
Loew's Inc.

Director W.S. Van Dyke’s San Francisco is a one-of-a-kind film from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Featuring that period’s most famous leading man, Clark Gable, as the charismatic saloon owner Blackie Norton, it portrays his budding romance with aspiring singer Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald). Mary is torn between her love for Blackie and her growing attraction to Jack Burley (Jack Holt), a wealthy socialite with ambitions of his own. The tensions mount until a massive earthquake hits the city, forcing everyone to unite.

The 1936 film is based on one of the country’s deadliest natural disasters, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which claimed the lives of more than 3,000 people and caused devastating fires that burned for days. Its depiction in the distinct musical-drama movie is a jarring reminder that calamities can strike at any moment, dwarfing any personal drama. Despite some outdated tropes, San Francisco‘s somewhat optimistic conclusion remains relevant since it shows how strangers, friends, and enemies can set their differences aside to help each other during such bleak times.

8. The Towering Inferno (1974)

Two characters huddling together in The Towering Inferno.
20th Century Fox

The Towering Inferno is a genre classic that highlighted the potential of disaster films to become award-winning works. The Oscar-winning movie is set in the world’s tallest skyscraper, the Glass Tower, where an extravagant opening party is just about to begin. Things take a dangerous turn when an electrical fire breaks out on the 81st floor, quickly spreading out of control and trapping hundreds of guests and workers above.

Directed by John Guillermin, the 1974 movie featured groundbreaking practical effects for its time that made each suspenseful and stressful moment more believable. It ultimately took home the Oscars for Best Song, Best Cinematography, and Best Editing. The Towering Inferno also features a star-studded ensemble cast that includes Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, Richard Chamberlain, and Robert Wagner, who all gave incredible performances. McQueen stood out as Chief Mike O’Halloran, the veteran firefighter who would stop at nothing to save as many people as possible from the raging fires.

7. Gravity (2013)

Sandra Bullock floating in space in Gravity.
Warner Bros. Pictures

Sandra Bullock stars as Dr. Ryan Stone, a brilliant medical engineer on her first space shuttle mission in director Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. She works alongside veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), who is in charge of this final flight before his retirement. During the pair’s routine spacewalk, however, debris from a destroyed satellite destroys their shuttle, leaving them stranded and struggling to survive in space.

It took three years to perfect Gravity‘s visual effects, with each striking frame meant to amplify the protagonists’ terror as it’s contrasted with the vast emptiness of space. This effort would pay off and result in seven Oscars, including Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Visual Effects. The film is also remembered for Bullock’s tour deforce performance as the frightened, but brave Dr. Stone, whose struggle for survival becomes the source of Gravity‘s most heart-pounding moments. Its minimalist approach to its plot means it heavily relies on its actors to convey believable fear, which the duo pulls off with ease.

6. 2012 (2009)

A man gives a little girl a piggyback in 2012.
Sony Pictures Releasing

Perhaps not the best, but certainly among the most popular sci-fi disaster movies from the 2000s, 2012 depicts the catastrophic end of the world predicted by the Mayan calendar. As the year approaches, the film shows politicians and scientists making tough decisions as seismic activity around the world increases, hinting at the impending cataclysm. The story soon focuses on struggling writer Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), who is determined to take his family to the secret colossal arks the government constructed to save certain individuals.

Director Roland Emmerich’s movie was an instant hit, with audiences flocking to cinemas to see the apocalypse play out on the big screen. Its lackluster plot was overshadowed by epic scenes of mega tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, massive earthquakes, and a destructive global flood that destroyed everything in its path. From one adrenaline-fueled set piece after another, 2012 offered a glimpse at the end that never came on an unprecedented scale that would influence future entries in the genre.

5. The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

Jake Gyllenhaal in The Day After Tomorrow.
20th Century Studios

Before 2012, director Roland Emmerich was responsible for another successful sci-fi disaster film based on Art Bell and Whitley Strieber’s 1999 book, The Coming Global Superstorm. Released in 2004, The Day After Tomorrow portrays a chilling future where climate change wreaks havoc around the globe, whether in the form of dangerous tornadoes or deadly flash freezes. As these freak weather events claim countless lives, climatologist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) races against time to save his son, Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal), and humanity itself from a new Ice Age triggered by a sudden collapse of global weather patterns.

Emmerich once again shows his mastery of the genre through The Day After Tomorrow‘s gripping events that escalate to show the world teetering on the brink of annihilation. The awe-inspiring power of nature in all its fury is convincingly portrayed by cutting-edge special effects, which make its more intimate story more believable and riveting. Quaid and Gyllenhaal‘s surprising chemistry as father and son here is just the cherry on top.

4. Contagion (2011)

Jude Law in Contagion.
Contagion / Warner Bros. Pictures

Anyone who binge-watched pandemic movies when COVID-19 hit is likely already familiar with 2011’s Contagion. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, the medical thriller tracks the rapid spread of a highly contagious virus that originates from a bat – sound familiar? As the virus, dubbed MEV-1, spreads across the globe, panic and fear grip communities, leading to widespread chaos. The film follows an ensemble cast, including Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), an epidemiologist investigating the outbreak’s origins, and Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), a World Health Organization investigator tracing the spread of the virus.

The meticulously researched film aimed to showcase the real-world effects of a global pandemic, and though it was based on the smaller 2002 SARS and 2009 flu outbreaks, it feels eerily prescient following the much more recent COVID pandemic. Its portrayal of anxiety around new vaccines and the misinformation and conspiracies that would come with it is uncomfortably accurate, with Contagion widely praised for its exploration of the interconnectedness of modern society and its interplay with a global health crisis.

3. The Impossible (2012)

Naomi Watts and Tom Holland in The Impossible.
Warner Bros. Pictures

Based on an unbelievable true story of a family’s survival during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, The Impossible follows Maria (Naomi Watts), Henry (Ewan McGregor), and their three sons during their vacation in Thailand, where they’re soon caught in the midst of one of the worst natural disasters in history. The family is separated following the lethal tsunami, which creeps up unexpectedly along the beach. The movie then primarily revolves around Maria and her eldest son, Lucas (future Spider-Man actor Tom Holland), as they move through the murky waters to find help and search for their loved ones.

Directed by J. A. Bayona (Society of the Snow), the 2012 disaster drama film captures the visceral intensity of being in the middle of a post-tsunami landscape that is strewn with debris and full of dangers. It becomes evident toward the end of the movie that it’s a story of one family’s incredible survival, and it’s guaranteed to have viewers welling up with tears before the credits roll.

2. Airplane! (1980)

Leslie Nielsen and Robert Hays in Airplane.
Paramount Pictures

Airplane! is one of the greatest movies to ever come out of the 1980s, with the spoof film taking aim at the disaster movies that dominated the ’70s. Directed by Jim Abrahams and brothers David and Jerry Zucker, it follows traumatized former fighter pilot Ted Striker (Robert Hays), who must overcome his fear of flying to save the passengers and crew of a disaster-plagued plane. One of these passengers is his ex-girlfriend turned flight attendant.

The 1980 film has continued to gain critical acclaim over the years, thanks to its excellent use of slapstick humor, rapid-fire gags, and deadpan delivery that cleverly mock the movie industry’s obsession with the disaster genre. It hilariously skewers tropes with impeccable comedic timing and witty dialogue. Airplane! is also notable for featuring Leslie Nielsen’s career-defining performance as the passenger Dr. Rumack, which played with his image as a serious actor.

1. Titanic (1997)

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic.
Paramount Pictures

Director James Cameron’s Titanic is a film that needs no introduction. A sweeping epic, romance, drama, and disaster film all in one, it depicts the ill-fated maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic. It particularly homes in on the intimate love story between Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), a penniless artist, and Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet), a young socialite trapped in a loveless engagement. Their new relationship blossoms on the luxurious ship, but is cut short by the Titanic’s collision with an iceberg.

Cameron used one of the biggest maritime tragedies in history to set a new standard for epic filmmaking, and earned critical acclaim and box office success on an unprecedented scale. The world was captivated by Jack and Rose’s passionate, yet heart-wrenching tale, captured with pioneering effects that made the climactic moments all the more jaw-dropping. Titanic would become the highest-grossing film of all time and hold that record until Cameron’s next film, Avatar, would surpass its earnings in 2010.