Action! 4 Films Inspired by History’s Natural Disasters

No one wants to experience a natural disaster, but watching on screen is another story. Check out these four top films about Mother Nature’s wrath.

Mar 6, 2024By Kassandre Dwyer, M.Ed History

films inspired history natural disasters


Natural disasters such as earthquakes, wildfires, volcanoes, tornadoes, blizzards, and tsunamis are phenomena that all humans must contend with. Depending on location, these threats may be more prominent than in other places, lurking at the edge of consciousness. Natural disasters can alter human life in an instant, changing reality for thousands in the blink of an eye. It’s something no one wants to experience, but it’s hard to avert one’s eyes when it’s playing out on a theater screen. Disaster movies offer action and emotion and appeal to wide global audiences.


1. Pompeii (2014) Based on: Eruption of Mount Vesuvius, 79 CE

kit harrington pompeii
Kit Harrington stars in Pompeii. Source: George Kreychyk/Trystar Pictures


Pompeii stars Kit Harrington, riding high from his breakout in Game of Thrones. He’s Milo, a young gladiator in the Italian town of Pompeii. His true love (Emily Browning) is promised to a middle-aged senator (Keifer Sutherland), a corrupt and evil man. As Milo attempts to save his beloved from a loveless marriage, he is suddenly confronted with a fight for survival as Mount Vesuvius, a volcano looming over the city, begins to erupt. Rated PG-13, the movie met mediocre acclaim in the United States but received several awards from the Canadian Screen Awards and Directors Guild of Canada.


pompeii mount vesuvius
Eruption of Vesuvius by Pierre-Jacques Antoine Volaire, 1770s. Source: Newsweek


One of the biggest disasters in human history, the 79 CE eruption of Mount Vesuvius devastated the real city of Pompeii. The eruptions began with 12 hours of ash and pumice raining down on the city. That was followed by the hot flows most commonly associated with volcanoes, made up of rock, ash, and gasses, flowing down the side of the mountain. Most of the 20,000 people living in the vicinity were killed, their lives preserved under layers of ash that archaeologists later uncovered. Though it has erupted since, the volcano has never released a spew like the one in 79, known as a Plinian Eruption.


Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

Scholars have indicated that the filmmaker’s visual portrayal of the Plinian mechanics of the eruption is actually quite factual and not just pleasing to the audience. Plans of the city’s actual ruins were used to create a computer-generated movie city, and a NASA volcanologist even credited the film’s crew for their portrayal of the eruption.


2. Everest (2015) Based on: The 1996 Mount Everest climbing disaster

natural disaster films everest
Poster for the film Everest. Source: Universal Pictures


Starring Jason Clarke and Josh Brolin, Everest tells the story of Rob Hall and Beck Weathers and their two climbing expeditions. As the two men head towards the summit of Mount Everest, the highest point on Earth, a violent storm engulfs them. The movie follows their fight to survive a nearly impossible situation.


natural disaster films everest cast
Cast members on the set of Everest. Source: Universal Pictures


With a star-studded cast including the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal, Robin Wright, and Keira Knightley, the film was nominated for several awards globally and won an award for its voice work. Rated PG-13, it currently sits at 73% on Rotten Tomatoes.


The film is based on events that occurred in May 1996, when three climbing teams became trapped by a fast-moving blizzard that seemed to come out of nowhere. In addition to the weather conditions, other factors contributed to the outcome of the disaster, in which eight climbers perished.


natural disaster films beck weathers
Beck Weathers was left for dead during the Everest storm after being blown away by gale-force winds. His wife (right) organized a rescue expedition that involved the highest-altitude helicopter landing to that date. Source: Tranquil Kilimanjaro


Firstly, Mount Everest had become increasingly crowded with climbers from all over the world, increasing risks all around. A major reason for this was the second contributing factor, the overcommercialization of the mountain. In pursuit of publicity, hundreds were racing to reach the summit, guided by outfitters who were raking in profits. Thirdly, the groups did not turn around at their pre-designated time that day and instead continued on.


When it came time to descend, the storm was upon them. Many of the climbers were exhausted, and in a low-oxygen environment, their situation was exacerbated as high winds and blinding snow engulfed them. Those who could dragged others down the mountain, while still others were seen as a lost cause and left for dead. Two bodies have never been recovered; others took years to be removed from the mountain due to the conditions. Three survivors, including Jon Krakauer, who has become a well-known author, have written books about their experiences in the disaster.


3. The Impossible (2012) Based on: The 2004 Asian Tsunami

natural disaster films the impossible
Movie Poster for The Impossible. Source: Warner Bros. Pictures


The Impossible, starring Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, tells the true story of a family of tourists as they are caught in the insanity of the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean. The family was vacationing in Thailand when the storm suddenly struck. The film follows their journey to survive the event and its aftermath as they are separated in the chaos. Tom Holland, who would become a breakout star just a few years later as Spiderman, makes an early career appearance as the family’s oldest son, Lucas, one of the film’s central characters.


The film was praised as “emotionally resonant” and has received acclaim from real tsunami survivors for accuracy. The name and nationalities of the family the story centers on were changed to “reach a wider audience,” according to filmmakers, but the heart of the story remains accurate, according to reviewers and the family whose story the movie tells). There were concerns that the film was whitewashed as the real family is Spanish, but reports indicate that the real matriarch of the family chose Naomi Watts to portray her in the film, as she was inspired by Watt’s performance in the film 21 Grams


family watts mcgregor
The Belon family flanked by Naomi Watts, left, and Ewan McGregor, right. Source: Men’s Health


The Impossible is based on the experience of the Belon family (who became the Bennetts in the movie) on a Christmas trip to Thailand. There, they experienced the deadliest tsunami in human history, which took the lives of over 200,000 people in 14 countries. The family was enjoying a day by the pool when they heard a strange noise and suddenly saw a huge black wall coming towards them; it was the sea.


Maria Belon was separated from the rest of her family and held underwater for three minutes. When she resurfaced, she found her son Lucas and clung to a tree trunk. They were rescued by a Thai man and taken to a hospital. Later, they would be miraculously reunited with her husband and two other sons, Tomas and Simon. The family was heavily involved with the filming and found it “cathartic.” Today, all five family members are involved with philanthropy and work with tsunami victims and medical causes.


4. The Perfect Storm (2000) Based on: The “Perfect Storm” of 1991

perfect storm cast
Cast members depicting the six fishermen in The Perfect Storm, 2000. Source: Warner Bros. Pictures


The movie The Perfect Storm is based on a book by Sebastian Junger of the same name. Junger was living in Gloucester, Massachusetts in 1991 when a superstorm hit the area and took a boat called the Andrea Gail into its clutches. The story of the Andrea Gail and the “perfect storm” that caused her loss became his bestselling book and a subsequent blockbuster.


The film stars George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and John C. Reilly as the intrepid commercial fisherman aboard the doomed vessel. Lauded for its impressive action sequences that kept viewers on the edge of their seats, it was nominated for two Academy Awards the following year. The special effects are considered “quite impressive” in this action thriller, which is saying a lot for the early era of computer-generated sequences.


natural disaster films fishermans memorial
The Gloucester Fisherman’s Memorial. Source: Beauport Hotel Gloucester


The true story behind this film occurred in October 1991, when three storms converged over the northeast, creating a superstorm, the so-called “perfect storm” that is the movie’s namesake. Waves reached as high as 100 feet, and winds measured over 90 miles an hour. The Andrea Gail’s six-man crew was on an extended swordfishing trip, and at the time of the storm, located off of Canada’s Grand Banks.


What exactly happened to the Andrea Gail and her crew is unknown, but all six men perished, and the boat was never found. The boat’s emergency beacon washed ashore on an island off Nova Scotia the following month, but no other evidence of it was ever recovered. Between them, the six men left behind five children, many friends and family, and an entire town grieving their loss.


Junger began reaching out to those who knew the men, piecing together the story behind their daily lives and their dedication to their careers. The interest in Junger’s book and then the film seemed to grow exponentially, leading to the public’s ongoing obsession with risky jobs on the ocean sea and the popularity of shows such as The Deadliest Catch. The success of the story created a cottage industry in Gloucester, with a guided Perfect Storm tour and a new appreciation for the commercial fishing industry as a whole.

Author Image

By Kassandre DwyerM.Ed HistoryKassie is a farmer with a passion for history who has a day job teaching middle school social studies in her hometown. In addition to earning NBCT certification and M.Ed. in History, she holds an M.Ed in Curriculum & Instruction and a B.S. in Sustainable Agriculture/Animal Science. She is particularly interested in telling the stories of often overlooked historical perspectives or hidden truths, and is especially intrigued by the history of America’s Indigenous peoples, war, and the “wild west.”