Director Roland Emmerich has carved a mini-film empire as a purveyor of high-tech disaster movies. Emmerich's films are in the spirit of '70s-era disaster flicks, with sprawling, cameo-packed casts inhabiting flimsy characters who are secondary to visual spectacle.
A master of the new technology, Emmerich isn't content with mere capsized ocean liners or burning skyscrapers. Only computer-generated global cataclysm will do.
These films — 1996's Independence Day, 2004's The Day After Tomorrow, and now 2012 — have emerged as pure formula: An unexpected assault — whether alien or environmental — threatens mankind. A group of broadly drawn, relatively multicultural, and far-flung characters are established via early crosscutting and finally brought together midway through the film. An Everyman who Understands What's Happening overcomes obstacles and doubts to find his place beside the primary decision makers. Fantasies of mass destruction are indulged. Humanity comes together and survives to start anew. And so it goes with 2012, its title a reference to a Mayan calendar prediction about the date of the end of time.
Independence Day is still beloved in some quarters while The Day After Tomorrow was an impressive spectacle soon forgotten, a fate likely to befall 2012 regardless of whether it recoups its budget.
Independence Day is more the crowd-pleaser for several reasons: It had some human interest in the form of enjoyably blustery performances from the likes of Bill Pullman, Will Smith, and Randy Quaid; by contrast 2012 gets by with an overplayed Woody Harrelson cameo and a subdued John Cusak (and I can barely remember who was in The Day After Tomorrow). The alien-invasion angle provides a villain to fight against and more of a sense of distancing fantasy. In the other films, the villain is simply nature, and the specter of environmental devastation, however wildly exaggerated, hits too close to home to serve as simple popcorn-movie escapism. As a result, these films try to be more serious but are too clunky and cartoonish to earn the gravity they aspire too.
2012 is essentially the same film as The Day After Tomorrow, only with a Great Flood replacing a new Ice Age. The film opens in 2009 with the discovery of "the biggest solar eruption in human history" provoking a secret global initiative to plan for planetary upheaval and the preservation of the species. Later, a struggling writer and divorced dad (Cusak) is taking his kids on a Yellowstone camping trip when they wander into a military installation studying a disappearing — and steaming hot — lake. Soon, the special effects destruction revs up: Californa collapsing into the sea is the backdrop to a high-speed thrill ride, like something from an Indiana Jones movies. Iconic creations such as the Washington Monument and the Sistine Chapel are pulverized.
There's something interesting in the film's sci-fi speculation about what a (slightly) futuristic Noah's Ark would be, but 2012 is built on the spectacle of watching the world collapse over nearly three hours, with little redeeming value in terms of story, characterization, or thoughtfulness.