Explainer: Comets and cannibals: Best disaster movies
It’s a disaster in the making: A runaway freight train carrying tons of hazardous chemicals is rocketing towards a populated town, threatening thousands of lives.
In "Unstoppable," based on a true Ohio incident, Denzel Washington plays a veteran train engineer who joins conductor Chris Pine (“Star Trek”) in a daring plan to prevent the disaster. The duo’s efforts are complicated by their own bosses, who are more concerned with their corporate image than saving lives.
Reteaming Washington for the fifth time with director Tony Scott, “Unstoppable” harkens back to the heyday of the disaster-film genre, in which the danger comes not from criminals or other human antagonists, but a large-scale catastrophe. Here’s a look back at the genre’s greatest hits — and crashes, booms, and bangs. —Christopher Bahn
'The Poseidon Adventure'
Filmmakers have been showcasing the destruction of buildings, cities, and even entire planets practically since the invention of the movie camera, but in the 1970s the disaster movie reached the height of its popularity.
“Airport” jump-started the wave in 1970 by threatening a jetliner with a trio of misfortunes: A blizzard, a bomb-toting passenger, and boozy Rat Packer Dean Martin as the pilot.
But the undisputed king of the genre was producer Irwin Allen, nicknamed “The Master Of Disaster” for a pair of movies that told stories of heroic survival in the midst of epic catastrophe.
In 1972’s "Poseidon Adventure," a cruise liner is flipped end-over-end by a monstrous, earthquake-created tsunami. The survivors, led by the squabbling Gene Hackman and Ernest Borgnine, are forced to seek safety by climbing upwards to what was once the bottom of the ship — before it sinks beneath the waves.
"The Towering Inferno'
Allen returned to the disaster movie in 1974, earning a Best Picture Oscar nomination for “The Towering Inferno.” In the star-studded action film, the world’s tallest building — the fictional Glass Tower in San Francisco — becomes the scene of a deadly conflagration. When shoddy electrical wiring catches fire, the entire skyscraper soon begins burning out of control, and what had been a monument to human ingenuity becomes a horrifying deathtrap.
Thrust into the situation are fire chief Steve McQueen and the building’s architect, Paul Newman, who may be the only person with the knowledge to salvage the situation. Meanwhile, a group of people trapped on the top floor fight for their own survival — including the building’s penny-pinching owner, played by William Holden, who hopes to cover up his own culpability in the disaster.
Possibly the most infamous real-life disaster of the 20th century, the sinking of the Titanic became an indelible myth almost immediately after the “unsinkable” ship struck an iceberg in 1912. The scale of the tragedy, in which 1,500 people lost their lives, made it an irresistible symbol of humantiy’s propensity for hubris and overreaching, inspiring dozens of songs, stories and movies over the next decades.
Though hardly the first, perhaps the most definitive was 1997’s “Titanic.” Director James Cameron took pains to depict the catastrophe as it had really happened, populating the cast of characters with historical figures like Molly Brown and even including genuine submarine-captured footage of the Titanic resting on the ocean floor. The film didn’t skimp on sheer spectacle, including a scene where the dying ship cracks in half on its way down.
But its popularity was also due to the way “Titanic” kept the tragedy’s human scope at the forefront, focusing on the star-crossed love story between a penniless artist (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the troubled, upper-class woman he saves from suicide (Kate Winslet). In some ways, the movie had more in common with with the iceberg than the ship: It shattered box-office records that would only be broken 13 years later by Cameron’s own “Avatar,” and took 11 Oscars at that year’s Academy Awards.
Once “Titanic” had brought the disaster film back into the public consciousness, other films were sure to follow. As special-effects technology improved, filmmakers began looking for ways to thrill their audiences with increasingly gigantic scenes of destruction. The 1994 collision of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with the planet Jupiter provided a perfect cosmic threat, and inspired a pair of competing films released in 1998.
In “Armageddon,” Bruce Willis led a team of astronauts tasked with planting a nuclear weapon on an asteroid the size of Texas in order to deflect it from its course for Earth. Although “Deep Impact” included a similar subplot, its darker storyline focused more on the frantic struggle of those left on Earth to prepare for what might happen if a large comet did strike the planet. The film featured a scene which a fragment of the comet devastates the entire Atlantic seaboard, killing millions (including, we should note, an MSNBC reporter played by Tea Leoni).
'The Day After Tomorrow'
No modern director has destroyed the world as often or as thoroughly as Roland Emmerich. He’s struck box-office gold, if not critical adulation, by recognizing that the disaster movie satisfies a visceral, if not very noble, thrill: watching the most familiar landmarks of human civilization wiped out like so many anthills.
Emmerich’s reign of destruction started on a relatively small scale in 1996’s “Independence Day,” as an alien invasion vaporized such famous structures as the White House and the Empire State Building.
2004’s “The Day After Tomorrow” threw the Earth into full-fledged (if scientifically implausible) environmental chaos, battering America with tornadoes, snowstorms, giant tidal waves, and hurricanes so large that the super-cold temperatures in space are sucked down to ground level, freezing New York City. Emmerich returned to his apocalyptic theme last year with “2012,” ending the world in Biblical style via earthquakes, a volcanic eruption, and finally a globe-spanning flood.
So now the world has ended. Is there any hope for humanity’s survival? Movies have explored that grim territory many times, from the zombie-plagued world of “Dawn of the Dead” to the post-nuclear devastation of “The Road Warrior.”
But few have been as relentlessly bleak as 2009’s “The Road,” John Hillcoat’s stark drama based on the Pulitzer-winning novel by Cormac McCarthy. In the film, Viggo Mortenson plays a father who is one of the few remaining humans left after an unnamed event has wiped out nearly all life on Earth. He struggles to keep himself and his son alive, eking out a meager existence while keeping away from other survivors, who have been reduced to cannibalism.
While movies like Will Smith’s “I Am Legend” use their after-the-end setting as a backdrop for big action sequences, “The Road” treats the extinction of everything with due gravity. Somber and existential, “The Road” suggests that the world will end the way poet T.S. Eliot predicted it would: not with a bang, but a whimper.
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints
Video: 'Unstoppable': Nov. 12
Discuss: Best disaster movie ever?
Are the oldies, like "Towering Inferno" and "Poseidon Adventure," the best? Or do modern special effects help "Titanic" and others top the list?
World leaders, celebrities and public figures across the globe mourn the passing of Nelson Mandela.
- 'He is now at peace': Nelson Mandela dead at 95
- Obama: ‘He no longer belongs to us; he belongs to the ages’
- Walter Dhladhla / AFP/Getty Images