Review - 2012 and the story of the disaster movie

"California tumbles into the sea
That'll be the day I go
Back to Annandale
Tried to warn you
About Chino and Daddy Gee
But I can't seem to get to you
Through the U.S. Mail"

- "My Old School" by Steely Dan



Airport (1970)

OK, so it's a bit of a lyrical stretch, but I have always been intrigued by the concept/prediction/fate of the Golden State's in event of "The Big One," the giant quake that is supposed to hit someday.  So last night, I indulged in a little guilty pleasure movie watching after it seemed that both the Cubs and White Sox had their respective games under control.  Who knew the Indians would make a game of it?

Wikipedia lists well over two hundred "disaster" movies, grouped in categories ranging from natural disasters like avalanches, earthquakes, meteors, and volcanoes to floods, tornadoes, and fires.  In addition, there are "man-made" calamity films on nuclear accidents, viruses, as well as planes, trains, spaceships.  The site even lists monster films like "Godzilla," "Jaws," and "King Kong."

It's been big business for sometime to create a disaster movie.  Although a British five minute silent film called "Fire" that dates from 1901, for practical purposes the oldest movies in the genre go back nearly eighty years with "Deluge" (1933) "The Last Days of Pompeii," (1935)  "San Francisco," (1936) and "The Hurricane" (1937.) Of course there is a another disaster story that goes back to 1908.  It's called "The Last Time the Cubs Won the World Series."

All kidding aside, the fifties gave us a slew of alien invasion movies, the cold war sixties brought on nuclear devastation movies, but the real zenith of disaster films for me was the seventies.

Big budgets, big stories, and big stars.

I remember watching 1970's "Airport" on TV.  What a cast.  Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, the lovely Jaqueline Bisset, George Kennedy, Maureen Stapleton, Gary Collins, and Helen Hayes who won an Oscar for her portrayal of the little old lady stowaway.  This movie had it all.  In addition to the stellar cast, it was an adaptation of a popular Arthur Hailey novel,  a midwest airport in the midst of a 25-year blizzard, a jet stuck in the mud, and a man with a bomb (Van Heflin.) This movie was famously spoofed in 1980's "Airplane!"

That may have set the bar high, but others followed.  "The Poseidon Adventure" (1972)  and "The Towering Inferno" (1974)  Those movies were produced by Irwin Allen, who had previously brought "The Time Tunnel," "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea," and "Lost in Space" to the small screen.  Just look at the cast of Inferno - Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Willam Holden, Faye Dunaway, and Fred Astaire.  Fred Astaire in a disaster movie?  Oh it gets better.  Susan Blakely, Richard Cahmberlain (The Thornbirds) Robert Vaughn, Robert Wagner, and drum roll please.........O.J.Simpson.  Yep, before he did the "Naked Gun" series, everyone's favorite Heisman Trophy, knife murderer (allegedly) had a modest part in this spectacle as a security man.

So how does someone top that? Release a movie about a big quake and use low frequency sound make the seats in the theater seem to shake, rattle, and roll.  Then make it a ride in your theme park.  That's how "sensurround" sound by Universal was developed for the 1974 film "Earthquake." Plus it had another stellar cast.  Charlton Heston (also in "Planet of the Apes" - another disaster series,) Ava Gardner, George Kennedy, Lorne Greene, Genevieve Bujold (I guess every disaster pic has to have a beautiful damsel in distress) Richard Rountree (Shaft) Victoria Principal (why have one when you can get two beauties?) and Walter Matthau.

There were others to follow "The Hindenburg," "The Swarm" (killer bees,) and even Steven Spielberg's "Jaws" in 1975, but nothing surpassed the spectacle of those early seventies films.  Other good offerings include the "Mad Max" series of life in a post apocalyptic world, and James Cameron's "Terminator" in 1984.

It wasn't until the nineties when the special effects made it easier to create on film no matter how outrageous the plots that writers could craft. The list is lengthy, but see this article I used in researching this story.  Among my favorites are "Jurassic Park," (1993) and "Twelve Monkeys," (1995) -watch that movie sometime if you don't think that Brad Pitt can act.  (Surprise, he sure can act!)

There's also "Independence Day,"  "Twister," "Titanic," and "28 Days Later."

So by way of a very long introduction, I finally watched 2012 with John Cusak, Amanda Peet, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Thandie Newton ("ER" and "Mission Impossible II,) Oliver Platt, Danny Glover, and Woody Harrelson, who has a knack for playing the great, lovable eccentric characters.  It was written and directed by Roland Emmerich, who also brought "Independence Day" and "The Day After Tomorrow" (another big disaster epic) to the screen.

Scientist Adrian Helmsley (Ejiofor) and his fellow scientists discover that the largest solar flare ever recorded has caused the earth's core to heat up. They thoerize that the resulting chain of events will lead to a destabilization of the earth's crust and a near destruction of the planet.  He communicates his findings to Carl Anheuser (Platt) who then advises the President (Glover) that the government has three years to prepare.  Instead of publicizing the fact, it's kept secret.  I won't tell you what the plan is, other than the fact that their timetable gets pushed up, because you should really see this movie. It also plays off of alarmist theories that the Mayans supposedly predicted the end of days in 2012.  I'll leave that debate for others.  I'm just a movie fan.

Writer Jackson Curtis (Cusak) stumbles across a government test site, then meets crazed conspiracy theorist and radio broadcaster Charlie Frost (Harrelson) who convinces him, that this is the real deal.  He must go back to Los Angeles and rescue his two children, estranged wife (Peet,) and her boyfriend.  All the while, freeways and buildings are collapsing all around.  It's pure escapist fantasy.  No one could dodge all the obstacles Curtis has to hurdle, but that what makes it fun.  There are other subplots, other families, the government conspiracy, all that makes it an enjoyable action film. 

Many critics panned this film.  It got a 26% rating from top critics on Rotten Tomatoes.  But who cares.  The fans gave it thumbs up to the tune of 63%.  I agree. I'm not looking for an award winning epic, just a good flick with explosions, quakes, mudslides, damsels in distress, some good tasteful kills, and a lot of water.  "2012" has all that and more. My rating  - a solid triple three and half stars.

See also Disaster Movies on Wikipedia.



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  • Honestly, what disaster movie is going to be an accurate portrayal of events? That would be SO sad and tragic that it would bomb at the box office...if the studio would even let it off of the lot! :D

    "2012" was light-hearted and suspenseful for the most part. I don't much like how the plot seems to have no mercy on some "disposable" characters, though. I mean, when someone dies, at least mourn for a bit before moving on! :-D

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