I really enjoy movies. I own over 150 of them on DVD, and I try and go to the cinema at least once a week. However, although I attempt to avoid this whenever possible, sometimes I can be a movie snob. A few of my favorite flicks are by directors like Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, filmmakers that many find quite pretentious, and I'd usually rather go see the latest indie movie at the art theater down the street than the shoot-em-up action picture at the multiplex a few blocks away.
But I'm not always that way. I have a few guilty pleasures that I'm not afraid to discuss in great detail. One is Rush Hour 2, which I plan to passionately defend at a later date. Another is The Terminal, a light comedy that most people would call "minor Hanks." And then there are disaster movies.
To be fair, lots of people like disaster movies. Obviously, there are big crowd pleasers like Independence Day that almost everyone enjoys. There are also mini-disaster movies like Daylight, where the world isn't going to end but stuff sure is going to fall apart or blow up. Those are a bit more polarizing but ultimately still very entertaining.
And then there is the granddaddy of them all, Armageddon. I've probably written more words on Armageddon than any sane man should, and if provoked, I'd write some more. But a new disaster movie has emerged that warrants discussion, one not at Armageddon's level but still a masterpiece of the genre. That movie is 2012.
When the 2012 trailer debuted in early 2009, a lot of people groaned but I cheered. This was what I was waiting for: another epic explosion-fest from ID4 director Roland Emmerich with a cast that rivaled the 1996 alien-invasion classic. Danny Glover, Chiwetel Ejiofor, George Segal, Oliver Platt, Woody Harrelson, John Cusack and acclaimed indie director (and sometimes actor) Thomas McCarthy? Where do I sign up?
I was hooked from day one. Yet somehow, unfortunately, I did not catch 2012 in theaters. Maybe it was because no one would see it with me, maybe I was just inexcusably busy; I honestly cannot remember. But I've regretted it every day since, and for the last several weeks, 2012 sat near the top of my Netflix queue as I patiently awaited its DVD release.
Finally, it arrived. And it did not disappoint. Please note that the paragraphs below contain massive 2012 spoilers. If you plan to Netflix this gem on your own time, please X out of this website right now.
The first thing I noticed about the film was its brutality. In these types of movies, there are often scenes where a supporting character will find him or herself in a sticky situation, only to be "surprisingly" saved by one of the heroes. But not in 2012. Segal and Ejiofor's movie-dad are introduced early as a lounge-lizard duo that seem destined to dispel countless pearls of old man wisdom, much like Judd Hirsch in ID4. But nope, their cruise ship is soon violently destroyed. Woody Harrelson pops up as a soothsaying crazy man who looks like he might be a pesky thorn in someone's side down the line. But nope, he is crushed in a volcanic explosion. And Danny Glover is the fucking President of the United States, so surely he'll survive the Earth's near-destruction. Nope, he is also brutally killed.
Deep Impact dabbled in this as well, such as when Tea Leoni and her father both unexpectedly fall victim to a gigantic tidal wave, but it refrained from going the whole nine yards. 2012 does not; when it says that the world is ending, the world is fucking ending.
That is not to say that the movie doesn't wrap itself up in a nice, neat "happy ending" package. It does, and in a way that awkwardly forces a reaffirmation of your faith in humanity. Despite that, though, 2012 perseveres. This is because the movie doesn't waste time (its and yours) developing heroes and villains. Platt is the closest thing the movie has to a bad guy (unless you count the planet Earth, which is silly), but everything he does is backed by rationality. A cold, slightly twisted rationality, but come on, the world is fucking ending. You'd really be concerned about the greater good when a 20,000 foot tidal wave is right behind you? Let's just say that most moviegoers would probably be willing to cut Platt some slack.
Meanwhile, Cusack is the "good guy," but he's really just a schmuck who happens to be in the right place at the right time. Even though it seems like he's almost magically dodging debris and driving through falling buildings, nothing about him appears, or is, heroic. He just wants to save his family, and though he does so in the end, it's through oddly successful misadventures and mishaps more than anything. Hell, he almost single-handedly destroys one of the arks at the end with his stupid "everyman" behavior (granted, he does also single-handedly save that same ark; I never said this particular big-budget clusterfuck of a film was flawless).
It's interesting, though, because when 2012 came out, I remember people nitpicking Cusack and his family's survival. They said that Emmerich was glossing over the destruction of cities and the deaths of millions of people for the sake of a pretty picture and cool special effects, which is partly true but not the whole story. What I thought is that, even with the world ending, it's not that far-fetched that at least one family would be charmed enough to catch all the breaks and find their way out. Yes, everyone else was being crushed, but Cusack wasn't exactly using superhuman strength or intelligence to escape. He was 100% lucky, no doubt about it, and he's glorified appropriately. Like I said, almost everyone dies, but the odds are that someone would live. Emmerich might pull a few punches to make his movie, but I'd say it's a lot less cookie-cutter than it could be.
If you're one of those people who judges movies like 2012, Transformers and Armageddon before they even come out, I'd say you're missing out. Not just because you're writing off big, dumb action movies, but because you might not be fully appreciating the simpler things in life. 2012 does many of expected things wrong, but it also does a lot right. Emmerich recruited a very skilled cast, people who've recently starred in acclaimed films like Frost/Nixon, Children of Men or The Messenger. In the past, he's used equally unexpected actors like Jeff Goldblum, Matthew Broderick and Jake Gyllenhaal as his protagonists. He rarely, if ever, goes after heroes in the Stallone/Schwarzenegger vein, and I think there's something to be said for that.
2012 won't win any Oscars, but that shouldn't matter. It does what it's supposed to do very well, and if you're looking to be entertained for 158 minutes (trust me, it flies by), then you could do a lot worse.