'Contagion' finds a lot of big names -- Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Elliott Gould, plus more -- dealing with an out-of-control bird flu epidemic. With an all-star cast that rivals the old Irwin Allen productions from the 1970s, we can't help but wonder: where does 'Contagion' stack up against the biggest disaster epics of all time? Does it put more Oscar winners in jeopardy than the original 'The Poseidon Adventure?' Warning: Some spoilers for who bites the big one in these classic flicks.
15. 'Volcano' (1997)
Biggest names: Tommy Lee Jones, Anne Heche, Don Cheadle
Awesome (but doomed) character actor: Michael Rispoli
Oscar winners: 1 (Jones)
Haven't I seen you on TV? John Corbett ('Sex and the City' and 'Northern Exposure')
Despite Tommy Lee Jones' awesomely no-nonsense approach to wrangling lava, too many no-name actors prevent this from achieving true "all-star" status.
14. 'The Core' (2003)
Biggest names: Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Stanley Tucci
Awesome (but doomed) character actors: Bruce Greenwood, Delroy Lindo
Oscar winners: 1 (Swank)
After a few impressive magnetics-gone-haywire sequences, this thriller quickly gets sillier the deeper our terranauts delve into the Earth's core. At least -- in classic disaster movie tradition -- several familiar faces don't make it to the end of the film, so when they bite the dust, we feel the requisite pangs.
13. 'The Day After Tomorrow' (2004)
Biggest names: Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal, Sela Ward
Awesome (but doomed) character actors: Ian Holm, Jay O. Sanders
Oscar winners: none
Nothing wrong with the two leads, but if we're going to cry "Oh no!" when folks get wiped off the map by tornadoes or killer waves, they should have stocked the cast with more people we recognize. Points, at least, for the demise of pretty-boy president Perry King and for the genuinely sad last moments of Ian Holm and crew.
12. 'Earthquake' (1974)
Biggest names: Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, Geneviève Bujold, Richard Roundtree
Oscar winners: 2 (Heston and disaster movie staple George Kennedy)
Haven't I seen you on TV? Lorne Greene ('Bonanza'), Victoria Principal ('Dallas')
Any way you look at it, 'Earthquake' is pretty unspectacular. The special effects are cheap and the cast barely registers on the Richter scale. We love Charlton Heston, but we had more fun watching him battle those damn dirty apes or warding off zombies in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles.
11. '2012' (2009)
Biggest names: John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Thandie Newton, Danny Glover, Woody Harrelson
Oscar winners: none
Whatever you thought of the script or that ending, it's a nicely packed cast of people we like, with a suitably catastrophic death toll.
10. 'The Poseidon Adventure' (1972)
Biggest names: Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters
Awesome (but doomed) character actors: Leslie Nielsen, Roddy McDowall
Oscar winners: 4 (Hackman, Borgnine, Winters and Red Buttons)
Does one over-the-top Gene Hackman equal the star wattage of, say, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen? No, but this high-water mark in disaster movies makes up for the lack of A-listers with its boat-flipping scenes and self-sacrificial dramatics. And an Oscar-winning theme song!
9. 'Airport 1975' (1974)
Biggest names: Charlton Heston, Karen Black, Linda Blair, Gloria Swanson, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, George Kennedy
Oscar winners: 2 (Heston and Kennedy, together again)
Haven't I seen you on TV? Yes, that's Erik ('CHiPs') Estrada
You can't really rival this kind of casting they had in the '70s, where a star from silent films (Swanson) could rub elbows with the girl from 'The Exorcist' and pop singer Helen Reddy.
8. 'The Perfect Storm' (2000)
Biggest names: George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Diane Lane
Awesome (but doomed) character actors: John C. Reilly, William Fichtner, John Hawkes
Oscar winners: none (Clooney didn't get his until 2006)
We'd rank this movie higher, but the death count and scale of the disaster is dwarfed by movies like 'Deep Impact' (see below). Plus, that cheesy farewell hallucination of Wahlberg cost them some points.
7. 'Airport' (1970)
Biggest names: Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Jacqueline Bisset
Oscar winners: 4 (Lancaster, Helen Hayes, Van Heflin and, yep, George Kennedy again)
The disaster movie that started it all: a few slightly over-the-hill stars, some even more over-the-hill stars from a bygone era, and one hot babe are all trapped in a life-threatening situation. Let the Oscar-worthy overacting (and the death toll) begin! "It's the biggest all-star cast ever assembled for a single Universal motion picture!" boasts the trailer (below).
6. 'Outbreak' (1995)
Biggest names: Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman, Cuba Gooding Jr., Donald Sutherland
Awesome (but doomed) character actor: Kevin Spacey
Haven't I seen you on TV? Patrick Dempsey ('Grey's Anatomy') as virus victim number one. Dig the grunge!
Oscar winners: 1 (Hoffman), with future winners Freeman, Gooding and Spacey
We never quite bought Dustin Hoffman as an action hero, but what's not to love about a virus-run-amok movie with such an entertaining cast? RIP, Dempsey and Spacey. Your touching movie deaths were just a stepping stone to better billing.
5. 'The Cassandra Crossing' (1976)
Biggest names: Ava Gardner, Richard Harris, Burt Lancaster, Sophia Loren, Martin Sheen
Awesome (but doomed) character actor: Lee Strasberg
Oscar winners: 2 (Lancaster, Loren)
Some of them may have been past their prime, but these actors were still stars with a capital S when this movie came out. And that's future president Martin Sheen as Ava Gardner's hot boy toy and O.J. Simpson (dressed as a priest!) in the same movie!
4. 'The Swarm' (1978)
Biggest names: Michael Caine, Henry Fonda, Katharine Ross, Richard Widmark
Disaster movie staple: Richard Chamberlain
Oscar winners: 4 (Olivia de Havilland, Patty Duke, Lee Grant, Ben Johnson), with future winners Caine and Fonda
By 1978, moviemakers had exploited just about every disaster imaginable, but there was no shortage of old-school and current stars willing to face certain death by fire, earthquake or, in this case, a swarm of killer bees. Unlike Winters in 'The Poseidon Adventure' and Hayes in 'Airport,' no one saw any Oscar nominations for this puppy.
3. 'Deep Impact' (1998)
Biggest names: Robert Duvall, Téa Leoni, Elijah Wood, Morgan Freeman, James Cromwell, Leelee Sobieski, Blair Underwood
Oscar winners: 3 (Duvall, Vanessa Redgrave, Maximillian Schell), with future winner Freeman
Haven't I seen you on TV? Ron Eldard and Laura Innes ('ER'), Kurtwood Smith ('That 70s Show'), Richard Schiff ('The West Wing')
Now this is what we're talking about: a snapshot of all tiers of society, from the president to news anchors to ordinary families, wrestling with the big issues of who should live and who should die as a meteor hurtles toward Earth. (We'd include 'Armageddon,' except that the disaster never really happened and nearly everyone lives.)
2. 'Contagion' (2011)
Biggest names: Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet
Oscar winners: 4 (Marion Cotillard, Damon, Paltrow and Winslet)
Haven't I seen you on TV? Dr. Sanjay Gupta plays himself
When you're Steven Soderbergh, you can assemble an all-star cast any time you want, whether you're going to ask your actors to rob casinos, stop drug trafficking, or face down a deadly epidemic.
1. 'The Towering Inferno' (1974)
Biggest names: Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Robert Wagner
Disaster movie staples: Richard Chamberlain, O.J. Simpson
Oscar winners: 2 (William Holden, Jennifer Jones), with future winners Newman and Dunaway
We're not saying it's the best disaster movie ever made, but you just can't beat the star power of McQueen and Newman, back when both were in their prime. The familiarity of the supporting cast and the inevitable timetable by which they meet their doom (or miraculously survive) is what we call the gold standard of all-star disaster movies.
Top photo: Warner Bros.