If I had to guess, I’d say THE TOWERING INFERNO was the first big budget disaster flick to draw a crowd. The director of 2012, Roland Emmerich, was only 18 when that film came out, and I imagine him in the antiquated theaters of 1974 with eyes wide open, watching the building ablaze with the body count rising I can imagine the hamster in his head working that wheel with a fury, thinking of all the things he could do in the realm of disasters as a future filmmaker. He has gone on to direct aliens blowing up the world in INDEPENDENCE DAY, GODZILLA stomping on New York City in his 1998 remake, and drowning and freezing the planet in THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW. And every time another film comes out, like this weekend’s 2012, much talk is made of his propensity for disaster. But we still line up to see it, as the aforementioned films have grossed $817, $379, and $544 million dollars worldwide respectively. And it’s because the man knows destruction.
First off, let me say I know nothing of the Mayan calendar. I understand much of the “debate,” if that word can be used, around the proposed ending of the world occurring in 3 years is a disagreement as to the interpretation of the Mayans prediction of the end of the world. But I thought we all came to the movies to escape rational thought? And since when do we even give the Mayans any credibility as to Doomsday predictions? But then again, the movie itself mentions the Mayans a few times, too, so maybe the debate is warranted, but again do we really care about the science behind it? When ARMAGEDDON hurled a meteor at us, we just accepted it. And Chiwetel Ejiofor, as the lead scientist in 2012, does well to explain the basics of what’s happening, so that wasn’t a problem.
As for the basics of the story, solar outbursts deliver neutrinos (yeah, I haven’t heard of them either) to the earth which heat up the earth’s core, causing…oh, you know what, let’s just admit it. We watch these movies for the drama of the protagonists stuck in the disaster, and the action and visuals of the world falling apart. And the reason this film gets the rating it does is because in these respects, 2012 succeeds. John Cusack plays Jackson Curtis, failed novelist and current limo driver, estranged from his ex-wife Amanda Peet, who takes his kids to Yellowstone National Park and inadvertently stumbles on advanced notice of the impending doom. This doom was foreseen in 2009 by scientist Adrien Helmsley (Ejiofor), and a secret plan put in place between the President of the United States (Danny Glover, who is not too old for that s**t), which Cusack learns from Doomsday prophet/crackpot Charlie Frost (played with the right amount of mania by Woody Harrelson). The rest of the film involves a series of close calls in which Cusack grabs his kids and runs from Manhattan Beach, runs from Yellowstone (which becomes a super-volcano, another phrase I’ve never heard), Las Vegas and all other cities along a doomed path to China where arks are being built, complete with animals, for heads of state and billionaires who can afford the ticket.
The dramatic scenes follow a formula, somewhat. But they follow the formula well, and they genuinely affect the audience. We all know Cusack will survive the close calls throughout the film, but we still feel the tension. We know there will be monologues about sacrifice and continuing humanity, but Ejiofor and Oliver Platt (as Chief of Staff) do them with passion and brio. And the scenes of destruction are done better than any film before it, with great attention to even the smallest details. So if you don’t like disaster films, obviously this film is not for you. But if you do, this film is done exceptionally well, and shouldn’t be discounted just for the director’s continuing pattern, or disputes on the Mayan calendar.