Every year Hollywood releases films that are characterized by critics as "disasters." But lately there's a trend to produce cinematic disasters on purpose.

It's not a new trend, of course. In the '70s, natural disasters were the hot ticket in movie theaters. And television soon followed suit.From "The Poseidon Adventure" (1972) to "Earthquake" (1974) to "The Towering Inferno" (1974) to "Meteor" (1979), people found themselves threatened by forces of nature. (When "Earthquake" and "The Towering Inferno" played in the same multiplexes, industry wags dubbed the duo "shake and bake.")

TV "event" movies capitalizing on these hits included Irwin Allen's twin pictures "Flood!" (1976) and "Fire!" (1977).

Now, volcanoes, meteors and floods are again threatening the Earth in both theatrical and made-for-TV movies. And the Titanic is sinking . . . again . . . and again.

Last weekend "Dante's Peak" erupted on the big screen, earning a healthy $181/2 million. (It opened in second place, behind the can't-be-stopped "Star Wars").

Meanwhile, ABC is preparing "Volcano: Fire on the Mountain" to air on Feb. 23. And "Volcano," a spring theatrical release, stars Tommy Lee Jones as a medic laboring in Los Angeles when an unexpected fiery eruption occurs beneath Los Angeles.

The first meteor to threaten the planet arrives Monday and Tuesday, Feb. 17 and 18, with NBC's big-budget (a reported $19 million, quite a sum for TV), two-part, four-hour "Asteroid." (See Scott Pierce's review on page W3.)

Three theatrical variations on the subject are also in various stages of production, including the Steven Spielberg-produced "Deep Impact."

Television is not only on a disaster kick, but - more specifically - an asteroid-a-rama. In addition to the NBC miniseries "Asteroid":

- "Three Minutes to Impact," a two-hour documentary about past and possibly future meteor impacts on Earth, debuted on Sunday and repeats this coming Sunday and Wednesday.

- "Doomsday: What Can We Do?" - an hourlong documentary airing Friday on Fox, looks at various disastrous scenarios, including a meteor strike, a huge earthquake, a nuclear attack and the outbreak of a deadly virus.

- "Asteroids: Deadly Impact," a one-hour National Geographic documentary looks at what might happen if a huge meteor collided with the Earth, airs Wednesday, Feb. 26, at 7 p.m. on NBC.

- "Fire from the Sky," a one-hour documentary about non-threatening comets and meteors, will be shown March 23 on the basic cable channel TBS.

If that's not enough, "The Flood," with Christian Slater and Morgan Freeman, a yarn combining an armored-car heist with the title disaster, is due in movie theaters this spring.

Last November, CBS premiered "Titanic," a two-part, four-hour TV-movie starring George C. Scott, and this summer in theaters we get director James Cameron's "Titanic," budgeted at an astronomical $125 million. (But with no stars, unless you count Leonardo DiCaprio; if Kevin Costner, Bruce Willis and Demi Moore had starred, the budget might be $200 million!)

The public's desire for disaster actually dates back to the silent era, with biblical epics like "Noah's Ark" (1929) and historical epics like "The Johnstown Flood" (1926). There was even a comic windstorm climax in Buster Keaton's "Steamboat Bill Jr." (1928).

Period pieces continued to be the most common showcase for nature's wrath as "talkies" took over, ranging from "The Last Days of Pompeii" (1935) to the great Chicago fire of 1871 in "In Old Chicago" (1938) to the 1906 earthquake in "San Francisco" (1936).

John Ford directed "The Hurricane" in 1937, which went on to huge success, although the 1979 remake met with disastrous results. In between, occasional films featured nature in a rage, but it wasn't usually the central focus.

Until the 1970s. Then, after a full decade of all-star disaster epics, the genre seemed to give way to more realistic, cautionary nuclear meltdown melodramas like "The China Syndrome" (1979), "Testament" (1983) and the 1983 TV-movie "The Day After."

But in the late '80s and early '90s, the genre started up again, this time with killer viruses threatening to destroy mankind. That craze kicked off with a multi-part TV movie, "Stephen King's The Stand," in 1994. The next year, "Outbreak" hit theaters, followed by the TV movie "Robin Cook's Virus" a few months later. The similarly themed "Pandora's Clock" was televised this past November.

The current spate can be traced directly to the success of "Twister," of course, which earned $242 million last year and became the second biggest box-office hit of 1996 (after "Independence Day," a disaster film of another sort).

And though filmmakers like to say their own pictures were in various stages of production before "Twister" became a hit, "Asteroid" executive producer John Davis acknowledges that blockbuster's part in a revival of interest in such movies.

"I think that `Twister' showed that people are really interested in natural phenomena and its sometimes violent nature," he said. I just think there's an interest in natural phenomena that, at times, can turn violent."

Actually, TV anticipated the "Twister" craze. The basic-cable Family Channel aired the surprisingly good "Night of the Twisters" more than three months before "Twister" opened in theaters in May of 1996. And Fox rushed the inferior "Tornado" on the air just three days before "Twister" premiered.

It's all part of the Hollywood cycle, Davis said, in which everything old becomes new again. "My theory is that certain kinds of genres become fresh after 10 years. And it's been 10 years since the last wave of action/disaster movies."

Another reason is the current state of movie magic - the ability to use special effects to make these huge disasters look more realistic than ever before. "Technology is rapidly evolving," said Davis. "What we can do is really so state-of-the-art that we have opportunities to make things feel real and do things we could never do before."

"It's really putting the magic back in the medium in many ways," said Sam Nicholson, "Asteroid's" visual effects producer. "(There are) things you've never seen before - astonishing things."

Unfortunately, these movies tend to build those state-of-the-art special effects sequences around otherwise pedestrian scripts. Sitting through the predictable "Dante's Peak" is so much like being on a theme park thrill ride that you can easily plot every move of the next attraction at Universal Studios.

It's no wonder that those who make such movies - including "Asteroid" - describe them that way. "It's an amusement park ride as well," said director Bradford May.

But those rides aren't nearly as much fun on the small screen. The "Twister" effects are spectacular in a movie theater - but watch it on video and much of the magic disappears.

Similarly, despite the enormous amount of time, money and effort that go into the effects for made-for-TV products like "Asteroid," they inevitably lose something on a 13-inch, 19-inch, 27-inch or even 35-inch screen.