The sole virtue of slasher movies is there's just one human-size killer trying to send the main characters to their reward.
In disaster movies, nature itself is the killer, pursuing the big-name members of the cast with a determination that suggests both a hidden sentience and a planetary case of PMS.
Producer Irwin Allen practically invented the disaster film in the 1970s, and during its heyday, the genre spawned lumbering money-making machines such as "The Poseidon Adventure," "The Towering Inferno" and "Earthquake." Stars such as Charlton Heston, Gene Hackman and Steve McQueen struggled manfully against uncooperative Nature while the female leads stood around and awaited rescue (Shelley Winters excluded). Plenty of lesser stars turned up to be killed or enjoy poignant moments with children. For some reason George Kennedy was often there.
The genre thankfully died out in the late 1970s and early 1980s when disaster films became legitimate disasters themselves, fiscally speaking. Then, in the mid-1990s, came German director Roland Emmerich.
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An end-of-the-world fetishist without peer, Emmerich gave Earth its first drubbing in 1996 with "Independence Day," an alien invasion epic seemingly created to deliver dozens of exploding city money shots. In his ill-conceived "Godzilla" remake two years later, he restricted his appetite for destruction to New York and a beloved Japanese icon. When Emmerich returned to the disaster genre in 2004 with "The Day After Tomorrow," he broadened his scope again to the entire world by thrusting Earth into a scientifically shaky ice age.
Around the time "The Day After Tomorrow" hit theaters, some wag coined the term "disaster porn" to describe the base thrill that comes from seeing mass tragedy unfold on either the big or small screen. The images may be compelling, but we don't feel better about ourselves for watching.
It's been a few years since "The Day After Tomorrow," but Emmerich's determination to smite the entire planet remains undiminished. He's gone global again with "2012," coating most of the Earth's surface with fire, dust and rushing water. In the film's opening minutes, an American scientist named Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) learns that a massive solar flare has fundamentally changed the elementary particles called neutrinos, making them interact with matter in screenplay-convenient ways. Normally neutrinos pass right through solid matter, but after the flare they turn the Earth's molten core into an overflowing fondue of death.
Elsewhere, an unsuccessful writer named Jackson (John Cusack) meets the one conspiracy theorist in the world (Woody Harrelson) whose crackpot suspicions are actually true. It seems this theorist knows of giant ships being built in China in anticipation of some cataclysmic event. In the nick of time, Jackson realizes the world as he knows it really is ending and manages to get his ex-wife, kids and her dull white-bread boyfriend out of Los Angeles on a commandeered private plane. The boyfriend may be boring and shacked up with Jackson's wife, but he does know how to fly. He gets to last until reel five.
Jackson and family narrowly escape the Earth crumbling beneath them not once but twice, making Nature look like some oafish, Jason Vorhees-type killer who, in this case, can't seem to get this homicide thing right. Most of the time, however, Nature is wildly successful, dumping hordes of tiny CGI people into deep chasms and rivers of lava.
Most of the time, the mayhem occurs with notes of jaw-dropping absurdity.
One key moment has Jackson outrunning an exploding volcano in Yellowstone Park. Normally one would assume that Cusack versus the volcano has to be a parody of that action movie cliche in which the hero stays two steps ahead of the huge fireball spreading behind him. The whole episode is played straight. Any trace of stubbornly held suspension of disbelief turns instantly to ashes.
As luck would have it, all the improbable calamities have somehow left most of Africa intact. The characters ride floating arks that look like giant suppositories into a future that, after all the preceding death and destruction, seems improbably hopeful. The surviving members of the human race are all squeezed onto one diminished continent. What could possibly go wrong?
Rated PG-13 for killing so many tiny CGI people.
Two stars (one star subtracted for allowing a dog to live). Horrible.
The rating system:
1 star: Lousy
2 stars: Horrible
3 stars: Painful
4 stars: Traumatic
WHO IS THE MOVIE MASOCHIST?
The Movie Masochist is an emotionally wounded cinephile who lives in the United States. He watches bad movies so you don't have to.