I’ve seen a few versions of a popular meme that goes something like this: “Quarantine, day 36. Finished Netflix.” 

Yeah, it’s a joke. I tried to find out how many hours of content are available on Netflix at any given time, and the calculations varied quite a bit. But most agreed that it would take at least nine years of continuous, around-the-clock viewing to get through all the content on Netflix.  

Also, seriously, who only watches Netflix? There’s Hulu, Amazon Prime, Vudu, Apple TV, Quibi, Sling TV, YouTube, Roku and Facebook Watch, and a few dozen others that I can’t remember off the top of my head.  And let us not forget good old network TV and the gazillion channels you get with your super-premium cable package. 

And yet you sit there listlessly channel surfing, trying to find something to distract you the latest statistics.  

Lately, I’ve hit on a strategy for something to absolutely, positively take my mind off the current disaster. I immerse myself in a bigger, badder disaster.  

So, here, in no particular order, is my list of top ten disaster movies to watch while social distancing. 

1. Pompeii (2014 – Sony Pictures Entertainment – PG-13) 

If you have anything like a fourth-grader’s level of world history, you already know how it ends. The volcano explodes, the city is destroyed, bodies are frozen in time, etc. Ah, but did anyone escape? The writers manage to insert some storylines about corrupt politicians, greedy oligarchs, forbidden love, and the exploitation of gladiators. Lots of intense battle sequences, featuring an always shirtless-and-glistening-with-sweat Kit Harington will please both lovers of action and lovers of, well, a shirtless-and-glistening-with-sweat Kit Harington. Also, there are great special effects when the volcano finally does what volcanoes do. 

Pompeii trailer: https://youtu.be/t6TRwfxDICM 

2. Armageddon (1998 – Touchstone Pictures — PG-13) 

Despite scientific plot holes you could fly the space shuttle through, Armageddon was an international box-office success. The cast of really fine actors (Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Billy Bob Thornton, Steve Buscemi, Owen Wilson, Will Patton….I could go on) manage to make the cheesy plot and dialogue work. Remember, the only reason most movies in the disaster genre work at any level is that you, the viewer, are obliged to suspend disbelief. If you can manage that, the story of a bunch of blue-collar dudes saving the world is a whole lot of fun. Oh, and it has a really cool theme song.   

Aerosmith – “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” – https://youtu.be/JkK8g6FMEXE 

3. Deep Impact (1998 – Paramount Pictures – PG-13) 

What? Two killer-comet movies released in the same year, and I’m recommending both? Yup. This one is, according to experts, more scientifically accurate, so I suggest you watch this one after Armageddon in order to give your disbelief-suspension-brain-cells a break. The writing may be almost as jaded, but Morgan Freeman (as the President of the United States) can make pretty much anything sound plausible. 

Morgan Freeman’s speech: https://youtu.be/mspjRckuczM 

4. The Core (2003 – Paramount Pictures – PG-13) 

I missed this one back when it came out (which is unusual, as I am drawn like a moth to the flame to any movie where a lot of things blow up) so I recently got to watch it for the first time. As usual, there is a massive amount of pseudo-science talk to explain this impossible scenario and its even-more-impossible solution – I had to run it back a couple of times to follow the logic. The premise: Earth’s molten core has stopped rotating, resulting in weird natural disasters around the planet. This will cause the end of the world (or course) unless we drill down to the core and use nuclear explosions to get it spinning again. Simple, right? Okay, I enjoyed this movie, although I kept having visions of a bunch of writers sitting around a room with a whole lotta marijuana and a white board, shouting out ideas. “What if they’re, like, drilling through an underground cavern and they hit, like, a giant diamond, and it, like cuts through something important and shit.”  

5. Independence Day (1996 – 20th Century Fox – PG-13) 

An absolute classic. Wikipedia says the movie’s release is “…now considered a significant turning point in the history of the Hollywood blockbuster.” Before Independence Day, most big-budget film disasters were confined to a more limited scale: a tidal wave flipped over a cruise ship, a sky-scraper caught on fire, a terrorist highjacks a 747. In this movie, the entire world in under threat but luckily, a few scrappy individuals manage to outwit a more technologically advanced race. This may seem like a tired plot, but in 1996 it wasn’t quite so stale. And its massive box office success ushered in a whole new generation of greedy movie producers, begging for scripts and concepts that had bigger (and even less scientifically plausible) consequences and unlikely outcomes. Thank you, Independence Day. Without you, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post. Nor would I have gotten to see Will Smith punch an alien. “Welcome to Earth. Now, that’s what I call a close encounter.” 

Will Smith alien encounter: https://youtu.be/qjh_YGrtN9k 

6. The Day After Tomorrow (2004 – 20th Century Fox – PG-13) 

Unlike most disaster movies, this one was actually based on scientific research, or at least it started out that way. Based on a non-fiction book, The Coming Global Superstorm, the film depicts a series of catastrophic events brought about by climate change. While the scale, speed and results of these events are exponentially exaggerated, the whole tone of the movie is a lot more believable than some of its predecessors. And it is visually spectacular. While scenes depicting the destruction of familiar landmarks weren’t new in 2004, the sight of New York City rapidly flooding and becoming engulfed in ice is weirdly beautiful. Make a cup of hot cocoa before watching this one – you’ll need to ward off the chills. 

7. San Andreas (2015 – New Line Cinema/Village Roadshow – PG-13) 

I think I would have liked this one better if I’d gotten to see it in 3D, as it was originally released. But I can’t resist an earthquake movie. I was staying with a friend in downtown Los Angeles on January 17, 1994 when the Northridge earthquake hit, ironically because my apartment, 45 miles south, was shaking from the building next door being demolished. That was a different fault line, and had a magnitude of 6.7, which was entirely strong enough to collapse buildings and overpasses and illustrate some hard truths about the vulnerability of infrastructure. In the movie, three earthquakes, each exponentially larger than anything in recorded history (and two of which are larger than even scientists’ most dire predictions) devastates most of California’s coast and turn San Francisco into an island. The CGI is excellent and Dwayne Johnson is as appealing as always. As a side note, I wonder if anyone has ever counted how many times the Golden Gate bridge has been destroyed on film. 

Tsunami hits San Francisco Bay: https://youtu.be/PnpouwLCZnE 

8. The Poseidon Adventure (1972 – 20th Century Fox) 

Yes, I am talking about the original, not the too-awful-to-be-mentioned-made-for-television remake of 2005. Often cited as the prime example of “disaster done right,” the actual disaster level pales in comparison to more modern films. Civilization isn’t threatened, the President of the United States doesn’t have to make a serious-but-calming speech, and not a single famous landmark is destroyed. But the film garnered nine Academy Award nominations and actually won four of them, along with a BAFTA award for Gene Hackman for Best Actor and a Golden Globe for Shelley Winters for Best Supporting Actress. I couldn’t find the film’s original rating, but it can’t have been too bad, because my parents took me to see it when I was thirteen, and we spent many dinner conversations discussing what we would have done in a similar situation. It’s just a flat out great movie, and if you haven’t seen it, I suggest you get on that ASAP. 

9. War of the Worlds (2005 – Paramount Pictures / DreamWorks – PG-13) 

When Orson Welles created his 1938 radio production, based on the H.G. Wells 1898 novel The War of the Worlds, the voice actor playing the announcer was so convincing that thousands of listeners thought they were hearing a genuine news broadcast. By the time the show took its first scheduled break, police stations were flooded with calls and reports of widespread panic almost caused the show to be shut down. The 2005 production starring Tom Cruise may not have had such an historic effect on the public, but there are some heart-stopping scenes, both of the spectacular variety you expect in a disaster film and the suspenseful sort that makes you hold your breath and make you wish you’d gone to the bathroom before the movie started. Luckily, when you’re watching at home, you can always put it on pause. 

War of the Worlds basement scene: https://youtu.be/02og2a7piM8 

10. 2012 (2019 – Columbia Pictures – PG-13) 

I saved this one for last. Not because it is the best but because it’s the most, well, disastrous. In case you missed the memo, the Mayan Long Count calendar ended on December 21, 2012. There have always been people looking for portents for the end of the world, and this was one of the more popular ones with the tin-hat wearing crowd. Because, in this one the world did actually end (at least as we know it), I have unofficially dubbed it the King of Disaster Films, as long as you are willing to ignore the critics’ reviews, which are largely dismissive. But I could watch the sequences in which John Cusack’s classic beta-hero escapes a disintegrating Los Angeles, first in a limousine, then a crevasse-leaping motorhome, and finally a small plane piloted by his ex-wife’s new husband, over and over again. And that’s just the start of this movie.  

So, that’s my list. There are some glaring omissions, I know, and I’ve avoided plagues (for obvious reasons), along with zombies, vampires and other critters, including Godzilla and his cohorts. Those movies fall into a different category and may be the subject of a future post about monster movies. In the meantime, happy watching, and don’t forget the popcorn. 

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