Back in the 1970s, when Irwin Allen was the master of disaster, filmmakers regularly trotted out the same old creaky tropes by grouping together a hodgepodge of celebrities, of varying renown and talent, and then throwing them in harm’s way. The formula didn’t always work, but it did work often enough for moviemakers to keep trying. Allen produced two of the best examples of the disaster film with these tropes: the capsized-ship story The Poseidon Adventure, and, my favorite, the burning skyscraper story The Towering Inferno. Those two films are prime examples of expertly crafted cheese and the reasons that I have such a goofy affection for the entire disaster movie genre. I love the way the varied cast members interact amidst the effects, especially Inferno’s parallel plotlines starring Paul Newman and Steve McQueen that build to the inevitable meeting of these two very cool men. To this day, I get excited when I see one of those posters with the line of little portraits revealing the cast in peril.
Since the mid-1990s Roland Emmerich has been making big-budget explosion films that are mostly of the disaster persuasion, staking out a corner of contemporary cinema that looks an awful lot like Allen’s 70s pad. But Emmerich has been wildly inconsistent. There’s the passable Independence Day (1996), which, despite its exploding landmarks, is actually more of an alien-invasion movie. He followed that with Godzilla (1998), a horrible half-hearted movie. But somewhere around the middle of this decade, Emmerich went full-disaster with The Day After Tomorrow (2004), a flawed but enjoyable popcorn flick that found weather raining down destruction on New England (elsewhere too, but our ensemble is exclusively East Coast). Now, with 2012, Emmerich has used a misreading of the Mayan calendar as the jumping point to top all of his movies, and all disaster movies, in premise, not always in quality. He exploits the same kind of whiplash-inducing “thousands are dying, but save the dog!” mentality that has long served peddlers of schlock well, and here it is done very well. Forget escaping a boat. Forget putting out the fire. Forget staying warm. There’s nowhere to run when the whole world is coming to an end. (But don’t worry too much; some of the cast will still have a happy ending).
Speaking of the cast, it’s an odd mix that’s suitably eclectic, with two very likable actors, John Cusack and Chiwetel Ejiofor, as a sci-fi writer and a scientist, respectively, doing most of the earnest heavy-lifting. (It’s nice to think that someone, somewhere, might think Cusack and Ejiofor could be our Newman and McQueen). Ultimately we need to think that the problems of the small ensemble cast do amount to at least a hill of beans on this hemorrhaging planet and Emmerich was lucky enough to get an ensemble that would work hard to elevate the horrendous dialogue that he co-wrote with his composer, Harold Kloser. There’s Amanda Peet, as Cusack’s ex, and Tom McCarthy as her new man. There’s Danny Glover as the U.S. president and Thandie Newton as his daughter. There’s Woody Harrelson as a kooky conspiracy-nut and Oliver Platt as a slimy bureaucrat. There's also some cute child actors and a little dog. Even George Segal shows up in an extraneous subplot, but then again, anything that isn’t a crumbling landmark is sort of extraneous.
Let’s get back to the disasters. Earthquakes! Volcanoes! Tidal waves! There’s nothing but destruction happening here and it’s played out with incredible special-effects that are sometimes scary, sometimes silly, but always enjoyable. Emmerich has perfected a kind of industrial-strength filmmaking here in an entertaining blend of silliness and suspense from the ominous title card to the perfect deep-fried cheese that is the end-credit-caterwauling of Adam Lambert. Other than a lame half-hearted nod towards a social conscience, the movie proceeds with a determined desire to let us marvel at the effects, to let us revel in his amiably dumb light-and-sound show. I was never bored, occasionally thrilled, and often amused. Emmerich finds a good spot between camp and cool and rides it for two-and-a-half hours.