Disaster movie weekend

CHANGSHA, CHINA — Unlike my last trip to the vicinity of Changsha, this one was not fraught with peril. The disasters were limited to the movies I watched.

Our bus screened two mega-disaster movies, the American 2012 and the Thai copycat version 2022: The Great Tsunami. (It goes without saying both were pirated copies.) And, before I fell asleep in my hotel Saturday night, I watched that classic star-studded extravaganza, The Towering Inferno, with dialogue dubbed into Chinese, of course.

Disaster movies are just really stupid, you know? It makes no difference when or where they are made. They’re just mindless entertainment.

Let’s start with Roland Emmerich’s 2012. As soon as heard the Important Scientist announce ominously that a massive solar flare had sent a storm of neutrinos toward Earth, and these neutrinos for the first time ever (Now with new cleaning power!) were interacting with matter, I knew the rest of the movie would be, scientifically, a stinker.

I was not disappointed.

Physics mini-lesson: Yes, the Sun produces neutrinos. Lots of neutrinos. They are a product of nuclear fusion, the gift that keeps on giving us heat and light from that yellow ball in the sky. The sun has been pumping out these little fellows for the last five billion years, and like all other subatomic particles, solar neutrinos don’t suddenly take the notion to change their ways. Neutrinos normally sail right through the Earth (and us, by the way) like nothing is there. They only very rarely interact with atoms, detectable by little flashes of light in huge underground tanks of pure water.

The premise of 2012 is that this sudden superstorm of neutrinos gets the Earth’s core all in a tizzy, and earthquakes, tsunamis, Go Go Speed Racer-style plate tectonics and global flooding are the cataclysmic result. It’s like the planet Krypton meets Waterworld.

Of course, the world’s G8 leaders somehow have expected something like this, so while we’ve been worrying about presidential birth certificates, Sarah Palin’s syntax errors, Balloon Boy and Octomom, they have conveniently been building humongous arks under the Himalayas. Yeaahhh.

Anyway, the rest of the movie divides its time between John Cusack, playing a famous author/flunky limo driver (say what?), trying to get his family to safety, and the leaders in Washington, DC, trying to get their collective asses to safety. Cusack saves his family. The folks in DC aren’t as successful: the president is clobbered when a tsunami slams the USS John Kennedy into the White House.

Getting Cusack’s children, his ex-wife and her amateur pilot boyfriend away from the perilous USA to the Himalayas is just one “car chase” scene after another, except our heroes spend their time outrunning seismic faults, walls of water, exploding volcanoes and other cataclysms, one after another after another. It gets tedious.

Cusack’s character, of course, has all the answers (like the DaVinci Code dude played by Tom Hanks), and even manages to find a plane to whisk them to safety.

Plot point: The ex-wife’s boyfriend says he has had only a few hours in a single-engine plane. Yet, this Lindbergh of pilotage manages to safely fly a twin-engine Beech away from a crumbling airstrip, dodging collapsing buildings and flying debris (no stall warnings?), and then manages to safely land the plane on a remote airstrip to refuel. (Cusack has to find Woody Harrelson, playing an Alex Jones/George Noury radio knowitall cum nutjob, to find where to go next, just as the supervolcano under Yellowstone National Park blows). Later on, our quick learner flies as co-pilot on a Russian-made, eight-turbine cargo plane on a transoceanic flight. Riiiight.

I’ve also had a few hours in a single-engine plane — eight, if I remember correctly (my log book is in a box in Kentucky right now). I was just learning how land the plane at that point. Of course, if the world were crumbling around me, maybe I would suddenly acquire Lucky Lindy flying skills, too.

If I did, I hope I have a better end that the poor sucker in 2012. After safely flying them all to China (which has conveniently moved two thousand miles closer to the USA), Emmerich promptly kills the pilot boyfriend off as our heroes try to stow away on the ark, thereby clearing the way for Cusack and his ex to reconcile and discover they never really stopped loving each other, and so on and so on.

I won’t belabor the plot any more. It’s just a wrapper for a lot of over-the-top CGI effects. I will offer some small praise for Emmerich’s choices of safe havens for our dauntless heroes, China and South Africa, my present and former homes away from the USA. The cargo plane lands in China, which is skimming like a catamaran over the mantle, and the ark lands in the Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa and Lesotho. (Those wacky plate tectonics have elevated South Africa’s mountains higher than the Himalayas, which end up under water.) Then, the ark’s passengers come out to look at their new home just like the roly-poly people in Wall-E do.

Now, the Thai version of the apocalypse was a little harder to follow, since the dialogue was in Thai and the subs in Chinese. The plot is only slightly different from its American progenitor: for obscure reasons, there are simultaneous earthquakes all over the world, which create a giant tsunami. Of course, the tidal wave heads right for Bangkok and our heroes must save themselves, busloads of children, random strangers we care about, etc., etc. from imminent inundation.

(Of course, that part of the world did get hit by a real tsunami last year. The movie version makes the real one look like a ripple in a pond. You can see the trailer and some stills here.)

Unlike 2012, which basically annihilates most of the earth’s 6.4 billion people (Why don’t the characters seem more upset? Have they all read too much Ayn Rand?), 2022 manages to save most of Bangkok’s residents from death. The prime minister tells the public there will be a major festival inland on the very day the tsunami is predicted to hammer the city. So, 15 million people empty the city without much fuss.

Witness one major difference between American and Asian cultural values. Americans seem fixated with the concept of a select few surviving a global catastrophe, a relic of Noah’s ark and Revelation’s prophecies of the Second Coming. Asians, rather, seem more comfortable with saving most of the population. Go, Buddha!

Major catastrophes like asteroid/meteor strikes, crazy weather patterns, solar storms and the like make for some bombastic drama, but I am waiting for someone to script a movie about a future time after the icecaps have melted and sea levels have risen. A global warming movie might actually get some folks — especially the ones living along the coasts — thinking about what all the fuss is about. (Would NYC become a new Venice, then? I wonder …)

By comparison to the numbered movies, The Towering Inferno, one of Irwin Allen’s many disaster flicks, is a little more realistic. High rise office buildings can catch fire, though fortunately not to the extent suggested by this 1974 potboiler. Age has not improved it, however. I thought it was silly 35 years ago, but it was fun to see all those old movie stars on the screen again.

In TTI, a small electric fire blossoms into a raging inferno in a poorly constructed 138-story office building, while lots of San Francisco bigwigs and other Famous People join in the building’s grand opening celebration. The fire traps many of them inside, and the bulk of the movie focuses on the heroic efforts to get them out alive. Maybe it was exciting 35 years ago, but it now seems to drag on forever. Or maybe I was just tired from shopping.

Allen’s schtick was to gather up a cast of veteran and not-so veteran, but still big stars, hand them a formulaic script, and put them in dangerous, quasi-realistic situations, like sinking ocean liners and burning buildings, only to escape unscathed 2 to 3 grueling hours later. The audiences ate it up, and TTI won three Oscars and made the two studios that collaborated on it a bundle of money.

Not high art, but moviegoers like disaster flicks, and I confess I do, too. The two number movies killed a lot of time on my 4.5-hour bus ride. The Towering Inferno, though, just put me to sleep.

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