Through sight, sound, and the power of narrative, few mediums can evoke emotions and experiences as powerful as film can. The moving image allows an audience to see, hear, and empathize with a character, before following them on a journey that’s sure to leave an impact on both.
When it comes to the modern disaster film, this impact can be unique. With CGI and impressive small-scale creations, an audience can experience the physical and emotional consequences of large-scale natural disasters. Suddenly the threats of a colossal earthquake or a devastating tsunami aren’t just after-thoughts in the minds of those threatened, but real events that can—and have—happened to victims across the globe.
That being said, Hollywood has a nasty habit of stretching the truth to serve their story (or their wallets), and blurring the line between fact and fantasy, leaving audiences wondering if the disasters they’re seeing on screen are actually possible in the real world. We’ve chosen a handful of popular disaster films to see if the events depicted are realistically possible or simply a lavish Hollywood creation.
San Andreas (2015)
STARRING: Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario
As Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson pilots a helicopter around collapsing skyscrapers and monstrous ocean waves, it’s not hard to wonder if the massive destruction seen in 2015’s San Andreas is at all close to reality. According to seismologists, the answer is an unsurprising “not really.”
While a large earthquake is certainly possible (and perhaps even likely) along the San Andreas Fault in California, there’s almost no chance it could match the 9.1 and 9.6 magnitude earthquakes seen in the film. But even if an earthquake did hit such a magnitude, the damage wouldn’t be quite as cataclysmic as the film suggests.
Buildings would suffer some damage, but most, if not all, would still be standing. Also, a tsunami wouldn’t take the form of a massive ocean wave, but rather a very sudden surge in sea level. And that gaping hole in the earth swallowing up houses and cars? Such a thing would never happen in an earthquake, which is caused by plates colliding, not coming apart.
The Impossible (2012)
STARRING: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland
2012’s The Impossible benefits from being based on an actual natural disaster, namely the Thailand tsunami of 2004, but was still smart enough to not embellish or “Hollywood-ize” the traumatic event. One survivor called the film “beautifully accurate”, and the woman whose story is depicted in the film, Maria Belon, consulted extensively with the director to ensure a realistic depiction of what she experienced. Such dedication makes The Impossible the most realistic film on this list.
In contrast to what’s seen in San Andreas (2015), tsunamis don’t crash onto land like traditional waves, but instead swell forward like a giant wall of water. Belon described the sound as “large jet engine” and happened so fast hardly anyone had a chance to react.
The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
STARRING: Jake Gyllenhaal, Dennis Quaid, Emmy Rossum
DISASTER: Superstorm caused by climate change
The science behind The Day After Tomorrow (2004) becomes increasingly nonsensical as the film goes on, with characters literally running from a wall of cold air, freezing everything in its path. The idea behind the events of the film is that climate change has caused the oceans and atmosphere to go haywire, creating massive superstorms and rising sea levels in a matter of days.
While sudden and abrupt climate change has occurred in the past, according to National Geographic it would never happen in just a few days. In fact, just the idea of another ice age is unlikely, as consistently warming oceans would undo any effects caused by freshwater change in the oceans (which causes the events in the film). The large superstorms shown the film are also impossible, since hurricanes dissipate very quickly after hitting landfall.
Scientists are quick to point out, however, that climate change is real and should be treated seriously, even if we don’t need to fear another ice age. While the film is mostly fantasy, the ideas at the core of it are not.
Dante’s Peak (1997)
STARRING: Pierce Brosnan, Linda Hamilton
While the extremes to which the film depicts may be too much, geologists agree that much of what occurs in 1997s’ Dante’s Peak is possible when dealing with large volcanic eruptions.
The “mud flows” seen in the film coming from the volcano happen frequently during eruptions in the Cascade Range, where the film takes place, and nearby lakes can certainly become acidic during an eruption, capable of dissolving metal over time. Even the suddenness of the volcano’s eruption isn’t impossible, with some volcanoes having as little as 24 hours of seismic activity before it.
While volcanic eruptions are rare occurrences, the events of the film are plausible enough that those living close to such volcanoes ought to take notice.
STARRING: Helen Hunt, Bill Paxton
Following a group of storm chasers as they track the movements of a series of tornadoes, Twister (1996) does a decent job of showing the devastation possible from a large tornado, even if the nature of the tornadoes was a little dodgy.
Throughout the film the characters are able to escape the tornadoes through various means, few of which would actually work. Hiding under bridges would give you no protection whatsoever, and running to a large building like an airplane hangar would only end poorly for those involved. Along those same lines, rarely do storms last through the night and into the next day, and it’s next to impossible for anyone to know the strength of a tornado simply by looking at it.
On the other hand, the film has similarities to actual occurrences in storm chasing history. The DOROTHY project is based on an actual storm chasing experiment from the 80s, and the super tornado in the film’s climax is eerily similar to a 2.6 mile wide tornado that landed in Oklahoma in 2013, killing 3 storm chasers and injuring several more.