I’ve always felt like I should like Roland Emmerich’s films more than I actually do, mainly because I love the disaster movie genre. The Poseidon Adventure is one of my all-time favorite films, the gold standard of this style, and Emmerich has been plowing forth in that direction ever since Independence Day hit the multiplexes. If any mainstream filmmaker seemed to be the spiritual child of Irwin Allen, it was Emmerich.
That said, his films have always left me cold. ID4 seemed fun at the time but its appeal disintegrated once given a second thought. The Patriot didn’t interest me, Godzilla and 10,000 BC were embarrassing duds and I didn’t even bother with The Day After Tomorrow. In fairness to Emmerich, only two Allen disaster epics really got it right (the aforementioned Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno) but at least his lesser efforts had an old-Hollywood charm to fall back on. Emmerich had CGI and bigger budgets but neither could capture Allen’s ballyhoo.
Thus, I was totally surprised by how 2012 won me over. The plot is straightforward disaster-flick fodder: scientists discover the earth’s core is overheating, which will trigger a chain of tidal waves, earthquakes and volcanos that will wipe the earth’s surface clean. A series of potential survivors are introduced, menaced and occasionally picked off as they attempt to make their way to a string of “ark”-style superships built by ubermillionaires and government officials to weather the catastrophes.
2012 works as charmingly daft, old-school Hollywood pulp because it gets the blend of destruction, pathos and pulp heroics just right, creating a series of ever-bigger cliffhangers that deliver the destructive goods with clockwork efficiency. Sure, the characters are all stock types and the last-minute escapes rely on ridiculous amounts of contrivance but that’s part of the fun: 2012 never tries to be anything but a b-movie with an a-movie budget. Emmerich paces it well and punctuates it with action and cheerful good humor. Most importantly, he embraces the story’s inherent ridiculousness in a straight-faced way that gives the film a bizarre yet charming honesty in its pursuit of implausible fun.
Just as important is the film’s well-chosen cast. The studio-era stars that dotted Allen’s productions are long gone but Emmerich and company have chosen a good cross-section of character actors, up-and-comers and name-brand types. John Cusack carries a lot of the weight as an ex-novelist who is forced to find his inner hero to save his ex and their kids. No matter how silly the plot points get, he plays it straight and anchors the proceedings. Chiwitel Ejiofor shows off his talent by breathing life into the “earnest scientist” cliche, even managing to pull off a climactic “what makes us human” speech that could trip up a less careful actor. Also worthy of note are Oliver Platt, chewing scenery in a flashy yet controlled way as a Machiavellian government type, and Woody Harrelson, who camps it up in an endearing manner as a conspiracy-theorist talk radio guy.
The end result is irredeemably silly and contrived… but it’s also so earnest and good-natured in its pursuit of logic-be-damned spectacle that its flaws become charms if approached in the proper, fun-loving frame of mind. Thus, 2012 is the most consistent and successful venture thus far for Emmerich. He’ll have a hell of a time trying to top it but I hope he tries. Irwin Allen would have wanted it that way.