For those of you who don’t know me, I’m a sociologist and communications researcher who studies climate change, misinformation, and environmental attitudes. One of my research areas is climate fiction (“cli-fi”). More specifically, I study disaster films and how these films impact how we think about climate change. As a result, I’ve seen a lot of disaster films. I’ve given more hours of my life to this genre than is probably healthy, but even after all that I still love these movies, and not just as the subject of research. They have their own silly, adventurous appeal, and when approached with the right mind-set, they can give quite a few laughs and provide a fun distraction from the darkness in the world today.
Disaster films overwhelmingly fall into two categories: big-budget blockbusters like The Day After Tomorrow and San Andreas and low-budget productions like Sharknado. Both types have their charms, but most people have heard of the major productions. This post is going to focus on some delightful examples that you might have overlooked.
Be warned, though: in terms of accessibility, one of the hazards of diving into obscure productions is that they are sometimes harder to find than blockbusters. Films like these tend to cycle on and off services like Netflix. Some of them are available for streaming on Amazon, plus used copies can often be bought there for a few cents (literally) plus shipping. For a few hours of entertainment plus the joy of sharing them with friends and family later, it’s not a bad deal.
As you go through this list, remember that the baseline for low-budget films is pretty low and that my standards have probably been warped somewhat by sitting through multiple viewings of 100+ of them. Films with a somewhat coherent plot and reasonably convincing acting are rare. That being said, I’ve also developed a deep appreciation for well-done bad disaster films with all their cheesiness and melodrama. These are my favorite.
Most of my research is focused on cli-fi disaster films, but in the course of research I’ve watched a variety of films that don’t necessarily have a climate element. After a while, they tend to blur together since so many of them have similar plots. But every once in a while, a film comes along with such an absurd and bizarre concept that you remember it even after the others have faded. Earth’s Final Hours is one of these films.
The film’s premise is that shards of a white hole have shot through the earth and altered its rotation, posing certain death for all living things unless our fearless scientists and government employees can figure out a way to solve the crisis. It’s worth a watch because, really, where else are you going to get people pretending to take seriously white holes as a cataclysmic threat to civilization?
Stonados is the kind of ridiculous, poorly-written, and poorly-acted film everyone expects from the genre. It’s the kind of film you want to watch on a Friday night with a beer (or two or three). The premise is self-explanatory: tornadoes full of stones wreak havoc on Boston, and it’s up to an unexpected hero to save the day. Keep an eye open for one of the Northeast’s most famous geological/historical features to make an appearance near the beginning of the film.
You really won’t be surprised by anything in this film. The premise is absurd, the special effects are laughable, and the acting leaves much to be desired. It’s cheesy, silly, and worthy of all the groans, but it’s the kind of bad movie you can actually enjoy instead of just being annoyed by it (keep in mind how low my standards for “enjoy” are, though). Plus, I dare you to invite any of your movie-loving friends over for a screening of Stonados and have them turn you down.
10.5 and 10.5 Apocalypse
This is a set of mini-series that feature improbable geological changes and the use of massive force to make things right. Watch 10.5 first, then follow up with the sequel, 10.5 Apocalypse. In these films, unprecedented earthquakes demolish the United States, starting, as always, on the West Coast. The government must decide how to head off even more casualties and families try to find one another in the chaos. These films go all-in on the dramatic take and feature some relatively well-known talent, including a young Kaley Cuoco and Dulé Hill.
The approach these films take towards the environment—that it’s an enemy to be conquered—characterizes these films and is epitomized by the last lines of 10.5. The longer format allows for a bit more character development than you’d see in something like Stonados. The CGI is decent, reflecting the multi-million dollar budgets for these films and the time put into them. For fans of the genre, it’s a solid block of entertainment.
F6: Twister is the kind of film you would expect someone to come up with if you asked them to mimic Twister but gave them a budget of about $30,000. The cast is led by Casper Van Dien, a face that will be familiar to anyone who’s spent much time watching disaster films. The plot is a classic one for fans of disaster films: the obsessed scientist with a fraying home life and a discredited theory confronts authorities who downplay the threat of a major tornado outbreak. Included is lots of random destruction in a festive Christmas setting.
That being said, F6: Twister is one of the better takes on this formula I’ve seen. It knows exactly what it is and doesn’t pretend to be anything more, but it’s solid enough to be watchable. Plus the effects shown from climate change (tornado outbreaks) are somewhat plausible based on the science. This may not matter much for the causal viewer, but it made me as a researcher happy. The best part of the film comes near the end, when an extremely irritating character is dealt with in true disaster film fashion.
Honestly, both of these are worth watching for Randy Quaid’s portrayal of “Tornado” Tommy alone. Both Category 6 and Category 7 are mini-series produced for CBS (watch Category 6 first), aired on television and divided into two sections of about two hours each. As with 10.5 and 10.5 Apocalypse, the extra time gives them room to draw out plots instead of relying so heavily on interchangeable, cardboard cut-out characters screaming at each other and making bad decisions in front of poorly-rendered natural disasters.
The premise rests on stopping a climate-change fueled extreme weather outbreak: tornadoes over Las Vegas (destroyed within maybe 5 minutes of the opening credits), hurricanes on Lake Michigan, and catastrophic, colliding storms on the East Coast of the United States. Mixed in are failing power grids, computer hackers, hostage situations, and religious fundamentalists. Keep an eye out for Lindsay’s (Petra Wildgoose) creepy boyfriend (Ryan Kennedy) holding up a convenience store for Big Guzzles and a lunch bag of cash in Category 6 and for lead scientist Ross Duffy (Cameron Daddo) to mispronounce the word “mesosphere” throughout the entirety of Category 7 (it’s supposed to be “meso-sphere” like a globe). The plots are complicated, though not that complex, and the graphics are interesting.
These are films that I actually enjoyed watching rather than go through for the sake of research. Happy viewing!