For decades, Cecil B. DeMille was Hollywood’s go-to megalomaniac when it came to big, simplistic, spectacular devastation, with side-orders of religion and/or patriotism. In the 1970s, Irwin Allen became Master of Disaster, and ships sank, buildings burned, volcanoes blew, cities fell and killer bees swarmed. Now, Roland Emmerich presides over the carnival of destruction, commanding huge budgets, wilfully ignoring scientific advisors to keep the plot boiling (for future reference, sudden continental drift probably will affect your cell-phone reception — but not in this film) and cracking a whip over slave-like hordes of computer-programmers piling up the pixels which render the unbelievable photo-realistic.
DeMille’s specialty was historical/religious epic and Allen perfected the ‘disaster movie’, but a necessary escalation means Emmerich has to resort to science fiction to slake audiences’ need for destruction on a super-colossal scale. Godzilla, in which a monster only attacks New York, is one of his smaller films. Having written off the beginnings of human history in 10,000 BC, Emmerich now turns to the immediate and terrifying future and tries to outdo the genocidal upheavals he wrought through alien invasion in Independence Day and global warming in The Day After Tomorrow.
The disaster cycle of the ‘70s had to escalate too — after an ocean liner and a skyscraper had been trashed in CinemaScope, the stakes had to be upped to an entire city in Earthquake and a continent or so in Meteor.
2012 has a less easy-to-sell (and, therefore, harder to worry about) concept than earlier moviemageddons — impending doom here isn’t just one big thing, but a matter of solar flares, planetary alignments, earthquakes and big waves, with Biblical overtones of the Flood.
What it boils down to is all the disasters from all the other disaster movies happening in one long film. Emmerich tosses off towering infernos by the dozen in single shots, throws Poseidon-like ocean liners (and aircraft carriers) into maelstroms like toys in a bathtub, has entire cities levelled by quakes or swept away by tidal waves (LA, Vegas and DC get it worst, this time), transforms a scenic national park into a volcano, and swamps the Himalayas with a tsunami which makes Peter Weir’s Last Wave seem like a ripple on a duck pond.
As expected, the script is a load of old cods, delivered in a hurry by the wildly overqualified likes of John Cusack (everyman Dad), Amanda Peet (underwritten ex-wife), Chiwetel Ejiofor (scientist with integrity), Danny Glover (humane Prez), Thandie Newton (cute First Daughter), Oliver Platt (weasely politico), Woody Harrelson (ranting doomsayer) and George Segal (twinkly old-timer). We get glutinous sentiment, weirdly appropriate low comedy, non-denominational religious mutterings (though the Sistine Chapel cracks and the Vatican collapses) and doses of dignified self-sacrifice, my-kids-must-live heroism and cutthroat politicking from characters competing to secure first-class passage on the Ark. Yes, there’s a cute yapping dog whose survival seems more important than the entire population of India.
Many times, cars and planes escape from disasters that seem to chase them off-screen as whole cities fall down or blow up. And the finale brings on an impressive Ark, and plays ridiculous suspense games as the fate of humanity depends on John Cusack holding his breath underwater and ungumming the grinding-works of huge doors.
But, my question is is this the END?