By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
Director Roland Emmerich slaps an exclamation point on disaster movies with 2012, a movie as massively entertaining as it is stupid. It's the first time I ever felt like I was witnessing the end of not only the world but also a genre.
Emmerich doesn't rewrite the book on cinematic mayhem as much as he smears every page on the screen, daring anyone to top this. It's likely that nobody else can fabricate so much total annihilation and human folly with such hubris, as Emmerich proudly presents his greatest hits collection of famous disaster flicks.
The Poseidon Adventure? 2012 has an ocean liner tipped over by a tidal wave, too. Remember the White House blowing up in Independence Day? Emmerich has something more agonizing and dark-humored in store for 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. He also recalls The Day After Tomorrow, with climate changes and icy crises. Towering skyscrapers become tumbling infernos, volcanoes erupt, and famous landmarks become rubble.
And just to prove Emmerich understands the rules of disaster flick survival, children and a dog survive. At least the ones we get to know. There's also an aging actor — in this case, George Segal — joining Helen Hayes and Fred Astaire in the AARP hall of doomsday fame. At times it's like the master of movie disaster, Irwin Allen, came back from the dead.
Yet 2012 doesn't feel as derivative as that sounds. The obligatory all-star cast watched those earlier movies too, fully realizing this is intended to be the big kahuna of disaster movies. They embrace each line of stilted dialogue with respect for their elders' fictional travails. Suspending disbelief happens easier when everyone on-screen believes.
Emmerich begins 2012 by aligning planets in outer space, a cosmic coincidence that somehow matches the end of the Mayan calendar, prompting forecasts of global calamity. No word yet on whether the Mayans also predicted Thomas Wander and Harald Kloser's portentious music underscoring practically every minute of 2012; songs to end the world by.
After getting planets in order, Emmerich does the same with his stars, providing just enough character backstory for future reference and laughably serendipitous meetings among people with no logical reason to cross paths. Each key character is related to another, works with someone else in the movie, reads their book, or happens to meet where something terrible is about to occur.
2012 isn't a movie depending on performances but it must be noted that John Cusack makes a decent savior of the human race, Woody Harrelson is fun when acting crazier than he did in Zombieland, and Chiwetel Ejiofor (Kinky Boots, Redbelt) is an even better actor than previously thought for handling this material so well. And almost any movie giving Oliver Platt a choice role is worth the admission price, including this one.
No, the real stars of 2012 are the countless billions of phony people crushed, drowned and incinerated without much time left for grieving. They are sacrificed for our enjoyment, an unsettling fact earning movies like 2012 the unflattering nickname "disaster porn" — a title that Emmerich's wildly overblown movie may make obsolete. Where could anyone else possibly go from here?