With the holidays approaching, Hollywood is rolling out a second batch of blockbusters primed to either capitalize on the spirit of the season (A Christmas Carol) or provide a couple of hours of blissful escapism, like this week's "rock 'em, sock 'em, world-go-boom!" epic, 2012, from today's maestro of destruction, Roland Emmerich. The trailer indicates a scant plot: John Cusack races to get his family to Ark-esque bunkers in the Himalayan Mountains, after the Mayan Calendar correctly predicts the end of the world on December 12, 2012. Mostly loaded up on money shots of wanton havoc and world monuments crumbling, the film appears to sacrifice an element integral to the best of disaster flicks: sympathy for its characters.
Needless to say, Emmerich's brand of gratuitous rack and ruin doesn't impress everyone. Entertainment Weekly columnist and pop cultural whistle-blower Mark Harris is deeply offended by some of the more brazen examples of mass carnage. He cites the shot of a plane carrying Cusack's brood zipping away from the devastation, slipping between two towering office buildings as they collapse in a burning heap. "Eight years after 9/11," Harris writes, "Hollywood has apparently decided that not only can we see two giant buildings coming down in a movie, but we want to, because it's fun."
Harris uses the phrase "destructo-porn" to describe this type of filmmaking where the goal is titillation above all else, via images of wanton decimation. Harris is absolutely correct when he describes the 2012 trailer as a "glib orgy of world destruction." He's also correct when he clarifies his argument against 2012 by admitting that he thinks world events and mass catastrophe "can be packaged into popular entertainment," citing FlashForward and Cloverfield as positioning their cataclysmic and jumping-off points to tell more human stories. In 2012's trailer, "mass annihilation isn't the pretext, but the pleasure itself."
By indicating what 2012 may lack, Harris points out what makes successful disaster movies (Emmerich's included) usually so enjoyable: A disaster is only as palatable as the cast of characters withstanding it. Disaster films usually boast an ensemble cast anchored by one or two big names---1974's The Towering Inferno boasts Paul Newman and Steve McQueen with William Holden, Faye Dunaway and Fred Astaire in supporting roles---and the screenplays take as much care to set up the characters' motivations as the parameters of the coming disaster. By virtue of the straightforward scenario (characters try to escape a bad situation), there is almost zero opportunity for a convoluted plot, resulting in coherent films.
2012 is the most recent example of a genre that has been revived over the past 15 years, where CGI has expanded the scope of obliteration. The disaster picture came into its own in the '70s when Irwin Allen produced the best (The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno) and worst (The Swarm). In a taped 1977 interview, Allen spoke of the genre's popularity. "The problem with our individual ids," he said, "is that we're all madly attracted to disaster." That, combined with what he sees as a desire to vicariously enjoy being a hero, "results in the success of the disaster film." Allen turns to the camera with a Cheshire grin: "And for which I am eternally grateful."