Breaking Down Disaster Movies into Their “Core Dangers”

Breaking Down Disaster Movies into Their “Core Dangers”

After a conversation with Jake yesterday at the studio, on the subject of a new design project, I’ve decided to take some time an analyze a bunch of “disaster movies.” My specific focus here is to lay out the core threats and dangers present in each one. I’m looking for basic defined components, the dangers that work together to compose the central threats of each story.


Since it’s fresh on my mind, I’ll go ahead and start with Sunshine. The most obvious here is the Sun. While it of course provides the object of the entire movie’s conflict, it is also an ever-present danger for the crew. On numerous occasions it fries, melts, and explodes things, including parts of the ship and even people. Next would be the second most obvious: the Cold Dead of Space. This danger presents itself quite frequently, and is pretty much unavoidable. The third one might not be so obvious, because the director did such a good job of blending it in seamlessly with everything: the knowledge that these guys are all that’s left, and if they fail, it’s all over. There are no second chances, there is no one else to help you. That knowledge is understood by every crew member, and it is there in every decision they make. Finally there is the “twist.” Yeah, sure, that’s a danger too (grumble grumble).

In summation:

  • The Dying (yet still mega-hot) Sun
  • The Cold Dead of Space
  • This is our only shot
  • The “Twist”
  • Here’s a possible fifth: “Nowhere to Hide”

Other dangers present themselves, but only as short-term obstacles, and not really “core” dangers and threats. Even the “Twist” is more of a temporary thing, I guess.

What about some others? Read past the cut for my takes on them. I’ll try to keep them as spoiler-light as possible.


  • Post-Cryo Amnesia
  • Killer “Things” in the halls
  • Rampant Systems Failure
  • The Cold Dead of Space

Deep Rising

  • The Endless Blue Sea
  • Terrorists
  • All Systems Down
  • Weird Crazy Monsters from Below

Independence Day

  • Aliens
  • Terrible Writing. I really can’t think of anything besides Aliens, sadly.

Dawn of the Dead

  • A horde of monsters
  • The threat of Infection
  • Dwindling Supplies
  • The Collapse of Society


  • The Freezing Ocean
  • The Ship is Sinking
  • Clash of the Social Classes

What are some others?

5 Replies to “Breaking Down Disaster Movies into Their “Core Dangers””

  1. You are forgetting one of the most important ones: Each other.

    Dawn of the Dead wouldn’t have half the impact if it weren’t about five (seven? Been a while…) people with nothing in common. They don’t like each other, don’t trust each other, but have to work together or get munched.

    For the most part it’s what makes any of these disaster movies worth watching. The best part of Titanic, for example? Billy Zane chasing them through tilting corridors, gun in hand (and really, expanding on that would have improved the movie immensely..)

    The Shining is another example. It’s not the ghosts that are the scary part. Granted, the isolation, dangers of being outside, little boys talking in weird voices, and decaying ladies in the bathtub all add to it, but the real fright is Jack Nicholson with an axe.

    On a similar vein, there is a (Sci-fi chanel) movie called Lifepod that is amazing with suspense. Space ship explodes, and seven survivors make it to a lifepod and are drifting, waiting for rescue. (Big theme in disaster/suspense. Reducing your options). As the movie goes on, it’s revealed that one of the survivors is the person who blew up the ship. Then the water supply is poisoned. A mechanical breakdown locks the pilot in her cabin, where she gets to experience a solar flare first hand (and the passengers get to hear the whole thing). All the while accusations fly and people get paranoid trying to figure who is the murderer.

  2. You forgot Billy Zane in Titanic. Yeah sure you could argue that he is covered in the “Clash of Social Classes” point, but I disagree. This is Billy Zane we are talking about here. Have you seen Demon Knight? Come on.

  3. I’d argue for including Aliens as a disaster movie, because while it’s an action horror flick, it’s really a disaster movie too, I think. Just on the scale of a terraforming colony (and the rescue ship) as opposed to global.


    * Aliens
    * Carter “fuck you over for a percentage” Burke
    * Cascading Systems Failure of Fusion Plant
    * Untrustworthy Nature of Androids (in Ripley’s mind)
    * Losing A Child (I think Ripley’s sadness over missing her daughter’s whole life was paid more attention in the director’s cut, better explaining her willingness to risk EVERYONE to save Newt)

  4. I’ll agree with StJason, each other is a huge one, though I think it can be categorized in a few different ways. If you look at something like The Mist, this was literally one of the main threats, and killed almost as many people as the actual ‘monsters’… In the specific case of The Mist, or even The Shining, we could look at something like Group Polarization, mass hysteria or even insanity as a main threat.

    The same thing can be extrapolated into others, like The Crazies or Quarantine which are nominally Zombie movies, but where the infection itself is the enemy, not necessarily the monsters created.

  5. HappyFunNorm:

    The Mist! Great one. Let’s give it the treatment:

    * Distrustful townsfolk
    * Weird Monsters
    * The Mist

    As the movie continues, more will become Dangers, such as that crazy lady, etc.

    As for the zombies, I whole-heartedly agree that the primary threat is Infection, and not necessarily the creatures that result. That’s why I have always personally classified movies like The Signal and Slither as zombie movies. Even though they don’t involve the living dead, they involve single-minded entities that can transform you into one of them.

    But still, while Infection is a big danger, the results of said infection (zombifictation, insanity, alien, etc) should be considered a major threat, too. One begats the other in an endless circle.

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