10 Underrated Disaster Movies That Deserve A Watch

The disaster film comes and goes. The genre was massive in the 1970s, leading to classics like "The Towering Inferno" and "The Poseidon Adventure." It saw a resurgence in the '90s thanks to hits like "Armageddon" and "Dante's Peak," and there's been a slight bump over the past decade, too — think "Skyscraper" and "San Andreas," both starring The Rock. These films are often a chance to cobble together an all-star cast (historically, they featured big names past their prime) and thrill audiences by showing off some special effects work.

The biggest and best disaster films stick around. After all, people still debate whether "Armageddon" or "Deep Impact" was better. There are plenty more, however, that are forgotten. Whether due to genre fatigue or inexplicable box office failure, many have flown under the radar yet are still worth a watch. Some have casts that make them worthwhile (Alain Delon from "Le Samouraï" is in an "Airport" movie!), while others now have a certain camp factor thanks to their outdated special effects. From the enjoyably ridiculous to the sorely underseen, here are 10 underrated disaster films that deserve your attention.

The Swarm (1978)

For "The Swarm," Irwin Allen decided to direct. The producer had been behind legendary disaster flicks like "The Towering Inferno" and "The Poseidon Adventure," so "The Swarm" seemed like a no-brainer. He assembled an all-star cast (as usual), consisting of Henry Fonda, Michael Caine, Olivia de Havilland, Patty Duke, and others. The disaster: a gigantic swarm of killer bees. The results, according to critics? Well ... a disaster.

Sure, "The Swarm" is overlong. Sure, there's too much time taken up by scientists and military men squabbling over how to fend off the bees. Sure, a lot of the performances are lacking. (Caine fares particularly poorly. He shouts a lot without much facial expression). And ... sure, there's an inexplicable subplot in which survivors see psychic visions of gigantic hovering bees.

Still, there is a lot of fun here. Some of the bee-induced mayhem is as overpowering and ridiculous as you could want from a movie like this. There are slow-mo bee swarm attacks, cacophonous buzzing, and human figures contorted in pain. Many disaster movies kill a lot of nameless townspeople.  Still, the bees rack up an absurdly high kill count. "The Swarm" also has a trick up its sleeve. In addition to the bees, there are chaotic sequences involving runaway trains, a disaster at a nuclear plant, and a catastrophic city-destroying fire. Irwin Allen saw his chance, and he took it. You have to admire the chutzpah.

City On Fire (1979)

Like many disaster movies, "City on Fire" is star-studded. In this case, the intersecting cast contains Leslie Nielsen (the mayor), Henry Fonda (the fire captain), Ava Gardner (an anchorwoman), Shelley Winters (a nurse), and Barry Newman (a doctor). The disaster is instigated by a bunch of kids smoking in a treehouse. When one drops his cigarette onto a pile of trash below, it sparks a house fire that endangers the life of his little sister. At the same time, a madman blows up the oil refinery on the edge of town, leading natural gas to seep into the sewers. Soon the entire city is engulfed in flames.

Some of the effects in "City on Fire" are terrible in a charming way. At one point, the mayor views the destruction from the roof of the hospital. While the lighting on Leslie Nielsen's face is gorgeous and expressive, the clumsy glimpse of the burning (cardboard) city behind him is a little silly.

While the wider disaster shots are lacking, the stuntwork is phenomenal. At times, "City on Fire" is downright horrific. The movie's pièces de résistance are a series of long dolly shots tracking terrified patients as they flee the doomed hospital. Against the backdrop of what appears to be an actual burning city block, people cry, scream, and run as the flesh melts from their faces. A staggering number of people catch on fire in this movie, making it worth the price of admission.

Meteor (1979)

Before "Armageddon," there was "Meteor." In Ronald Neame's disaster film, a comet hits a massive asteroid and sends it on a collision course with Earth. Humanity's only chance for survival is for the United States and the Soviet Union to put aside their differences, aim their space defense systems at the asteroid, and cooperate by creating an explosion powerful enough to blow the planet-killer off course. Sean Connery plays a NASA scientist, while Natalie Wood stars as a Russian translator. Rounding out the cast are stars like Henry Fonda, Karl Malden, and Martin Landau.

It's interesting to watch "Meteor"  — not just after "Armageddon" but also after "Don't Look Up," the 2021 film about scientists who are unable to convince a complacent populace that certain doom is coming. "Meteor" was released in 1979, very much in the thick of the Cold War, but it imagines a world where the USA and USSR might work together. In the film, both countries have secret satellites capable of deploying nuclear weapons, but "Meteor" inverts the concept of mutually assured destruction. In turning these weapons of war into our only hope, it's about mutually-assured survival. Without spoiling much, it's a fundamentally optimistic movie in a way that feels even more quaint than its special effects.

The disaster scenes in "Meteor" are also worth the price of admission. So-called "splinter" asteroids reach Earth ahead of the main problem, and they cause chaos in the form of avalanches, tidal waves, and cities turned to howling infernos.

Into the Storm (2014)

By 2014, audiences were growing tired of found-footage movies. The "Paranormal Activity" franchise, for example, was in steady decline. "Into the Storm," which combined the found-footage film with the disaster genre, similarly failed with both critics and audiences.  However, "Into the Storm" is essential viewing for disaster movie fans.

The film follows several intertwining groups during a massive storm that produces multiple record-breaking tornadoes. Primarily, "Into the Storm" is about a family (headed by Richard Armitage as patriarch Gary) that links up with a storm-chasing group led by Matt Walsh and Sarah Wayne Callies. Both groups are filming on the day the tornadoes strike. Father and sons are capturing a high school graduation ceremony, while the storm chasers are hoping for a once-in-a-lifetime shot from inside a tornado. Crucially, "Into the Storm" isn't just found footage. It doesn't tie itself to the conceit the way a lot of films did around that time. This means it isn't beholden to inventing plot reasons for cameras to survive. If a cameraman gets sucked into a tornado, the film isn't concerned with how we'll find the footage. Director Steven Quale ("Final Destination 5") also knows when to give us an unmotivated view of his characters framed as small figures against the awesome power of nature.

In "Into the Storm," nature is awesome. The town gets absolutely mulchedand the action sequences are pulse-pounding. For all you "Twister" fans, there's even an obligatory flying cow.

The Concorde ... Airport '79 (1979)

In 1980, "Airplane" spoofed the disaster film genre so well that the boom quickly died down. Specifically, "Airplane" was lampooning the "Airport" franchise, a series of disaster movies about planes encountering various catastrophes in the sky. Each successive installment fared worse at the box office, and by the time 1979's clunkily-titled "The Concorde... Airport '79" was released, audiences didn't seem interested anymore.

However, the movie is still worthwhile. As with most disaster movies in the '70s, "Airport '79" boasts an all-star cast. This one includes Robert Wagner, Alain Delon, and George Kennedy, reprising his role from the previous three "Airport" films (He's one unlucky pilot!). All of the "Airport" movies are enjoyably preposterous, but "Airport '79" ups the ante by making the imperiled plane a supersonic jetliner dodging missile tests gone awry. The hook-nosed plane is populated by eccentric characters like a saxophone-playing pothead, a Russian athlete and his deaf daughter, and a reporter uncovering a nefarious plot. Charo even makes a brief appearance as a woman attempting to smuggle a dog aboard the aircraft inside her fur shawl — because why not? It's not great, but when the film is this silly and fun, who needs it to be?

The Hurricane Heist (2018)

As "The Hurricane Heist" opens, we witness two young brothers and their father attempt to outrun Hurricane Andrew in 1992. They cower in a house, but the hurricane tears the roof off of the building. A skull emerges from the clouds, swoops down toward the terrified children ... and roars. "The Hurricane Heist," the film wants us to know, is not your average disaster movie. It's incredibly campy — ultra-ridiculous — and it's all the better for it.

The bulk of the story takes place in the present day. The two brothers who survived Hurricane Andrew are now all grown up and are facing yet another terrible storm heading their way. Will (Toby Kebbell) is a meteorologist, while his brother Breeze (Ryan Kwanten) works as a mechanic. Yes, you read that correctly. The main character of a movie about a hurricane is named "Breeze." The brothers soon find themselves wrapped up in the titular heist, which is being carried out against a local cash storage facility by a group of evildoers attempting to use the cover of the hurricane to steal hundreds of millions of dollars. Along the way, they run afoul of kidnappings, shootouts, car chases, and horrifically high-powered winds that turn the town to rubble. Kebbell is British and Kwanten is Australian, but they both do Floridian accents that sound like no American ever. It's a scream.

Did we mention the part when the hurricane has a face and it roars? What are you waiting for?

Rollercoaster (1977)

On one hand, "Rollercoaster" may seem anticlimactic. Unlike most disaster movies, which tend to save the most mayhem for the end, "Rollercoaster" gets its largest disaster scene out of the way in the beginning. The rollercoaster derailment is a wild sequence, full of screaming people, twisted wreckage, and impressive camera tricks that put the audience right in the middle of the action. The rest of the film is a cat-and-mouse game, as detectives attempt to stop a madman (Timothy Bottoms) intent on destroying more theme park rides. Other stars include George Segal, Richard Widmark, and Henry Fonda (that guy sure did a lot of these). There's even an appearance by a young Helen Hunt, in her feature film debut!

Instead of being an action film like many disaster movies, "Rollercoaster" relies on suspense. We've seen what the killer is capable of, and Bottoms is excellent at conveying creepy intensity. As the authorities rush to foil his dastardly plans, the delighted screams of theme park patrons threaten at any moment to turn to screams of terror. There are numerous sequences in which people ride the coasters in an attempt to make sure they are free from tampering. Sometimes, the film feels like those POV ride videos you can find on YouTube. Then, the camera will pull back from the car and float away from the coaster for a birds-eye view. It's stunning. In short, "Rollercoaster" is as much of a thrill ride as its title promises.

Moonfall (2022)

Director Roland Emmerich is responsible for several iconic modern disaster movies, including "Independence Day" and "The Day After Tomorrow." The Hollywood Reporter even calls him the "master of disaster." When "Moonfall" was announced, I was excited. A movie starring Patrick Wilson and Halle Berry in which the moon, of all things, falls? Count me in! The movie failed to connect with critics, but I'm not sure what everyone expected that "Moonfall" doesn't deliver.

To my delight, "Moonfall" is even dumber and sillier than I could have hoped for. There's an absurd twist revealed in the first few minutes of the film: The moon isn't a moon at all but a giant alien superstructure. In other words, like "Independence Day," this isn't (just) a disaster movie. It's an alien invasion movie. It hits all the expected beats, and thanks to committed, in-on-the-joke performances from Wilson and Berry, it hits them well. There's an amateur scientist who realizes the problem before anyone takes him seriously, a city-destroying event that forces people to pay attention, a social media panic, and as the destruction on Earth ramps up, a trip to the moon that unveils a hilariously complex backstory. There are instantly-outdated shoutouts to Elon Musk, an inartfully-deployed reference to "Q-clearance," and a sense that Emmerich delights in razing iconic metropolises. In short, "Moonfall" delivers on the promise of the title, and it's worth watching to see just how far it goes.

Everest (2015)

Many disaster films have high body counts. Anonymous, nameless people run, scream, are crushed, and die. Part of the attraction is watching masses of humanity all panic together. On the other hand, Baltasar Kormákur's "Everest" takes a more subdued approach. Based on John Krakauer's book "Into Thin Air," the film is about the 1996 Mount Everest climbing disaster. It takes its time to build its characters. When the climactic storm finally strikes, we feel attached to these people. Watching them freeze, fall, panic, and die is harrowing.

Like all the best disaster films, "Everest" boasts an excellent cast. Jake Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, John Hawkes, Josh Brolin, and more face the ultimate test of their endurance, and they all deliver performances more well-rounded than the ones found in the vast majority of disaster flicks. Kormákur's direction is elegant, and the cinematography (from Salvatore Totino) is gorgeous. You can almost see how cold the air is. It's pretty to look at. The film makes fantastic use of the bright white of the Everest snow contrasted with the vibrant jewel tones of the climbers' equipment.

A lot of disaster films go big and loud, and "Everest" has those moments. More chilling, however, are the moments when the film dials back. One quiet scene, in particular, involving a character experiencing hypothermia, is downright haunting. It'll stay with you, preserved in your memory like one of the fallen bodies on the mountain encased in ice.

The Wandering Earth (2019)

The Chinese film "The Wandering Earth" was one of the biggest successes of 2019, racking up an astonishing $700 million at the international box office. That makes it the second highest-grossing film of all time that isn't in English. Netflix released the film outside of China, though, and on the streamer, the film didn't make nearly the splash that it deserved.

"The Wandering Earth" imagines a future in which the sun begins to decay, meaning it will explode and envelope the Earth. To counteract the impending extinction of the planet, the global community comes together to strap giant rockets to the side of the Earth, allowing the entire world to be driven like a spaceship. It's a preposterous idea, but the movie takes it seriously, and thanks to some very impressive special effects, so do the audience.

When the Earth begins to move, society experiences cataclysmic natural disasters. There are earthquakes, tidal waves, and plummeting global temperatures. This is a mass extinction event anyway, but there's a real sense that humanity is banding together to save those it can. It all leads up to a thrilling showdown between Earth and Jupiter, and to say much more would be to spoil some of the wondrous effects sequences that "The Wandering Earth" has up its sleeve. There's a sequel currently in production. Here's hoping it finds a wider international audience.