Let’s be very clear about something up front: “2012” is flat-out, jaw-droppingly ridiculous.
It is one of the most outrageous, egregious, over-the-top, go-for-broke lunatic things I’ve ever seen on a movie screen. I would be hard-pressed to call it a “good” film, but it is stuffed with things I will never forget.
As the movie ended, one very smart critic friend of mine was in visible pain, annoyed to the point of anger by the entire thing, while another very smart critic friend of mine was elated by the scale of the movie’s madness. My wife, who I always view as the general movie-going public, loved it and couldn’t wait to tell people to go see it. I was amused by just how all-over-the-map reactions were, and by the passion of them.
Amused, but not surprised. Roland Emmerich has been one of the experts in empty calorie filmmaking on a certain scale since “Independence Day” was released in 1995. I wasn’t a fan of that film, but there’s no denying that it hit some sort of nerve with the general movie-going public. Emmerich was making films before that, of course, but even “Stargate” was just a warm-up. “ID4” was a triumph of marketing over movie, and it established Emmerich as a certain sort of brand-name.
There are a number of blockbuster directors who get critically beat up and they are frequently lumped together, guys who are more about empty sensation than storytelling, guys who deal in cliché, who go for the big image at the expense of everything else. After the aliens were defeated with an Apple computer virus in “ID4,” Emmerich earned some of the lumps he took, but in his defense, I’ll say this much: in an age of shakey-cam and epileptic editing rhythms, I’m glad there’s still a guy like Emmerich who seems devoted to the idea of conventional coverage, coherent editing, and cinematography that allows you to actually see what you’re looking at. All of those seem like fairly obvious skills for a filmmaker, but today’s stylistic conventions allow a lot of filmmakers to ignore these things.
Emmerich really wants to be Steven Spielberg. You can feel it in every one of his films. But at heart, he’s more Irwin Allen, and “2012” seems like the moment where he both acknowledges that and also does his very best to put the entire disaster genre to bed once and for all. Working with his co-writer from “10,000 B.C.,” which I would argue is the worst film he’s ever made, Emmerich has taken the basics of end-of-the-word theory and pumped them up to such profound levels of excess that it’s almost impossible to judge the film as a dramatic piece.
Sure, you’ve got your various human stories unfolding, all of which are people with fairly stock situations and characters. John Cusack stars as Jackson Curtis, a novelist whose one published book was a failure, and which JUST SO HAPPENED to deal with a situation not unlike the one that happens to him and his family as the world crumbles. His family, estranged from him at the start of the film so he has something to work towards while running and driving and generally avoiding all manner of CGI mayhem, consists of his ex-wife Kate (Amanda Peet) and his surly son Noah (Liam James) and his daughter Lily (Morgan Lily). The fly in the ointment is Kate’s new boyfriend Gordon (Tom McCarthy) and Jackson’s own irresponsibility. We also spend time with Chewetel Ejiofor playing Adrian Helmsley, one of the scientists who first uncovers the planetary instability that threatens to end all life in the world if drastic measures aren’t taken. Oliver Platt plays the unsubtly-named Carl Anheuser, a White House scumbag who is charged with implementing those drastic measures. How these storylines eventually come together is (A) irrelevent, since the real point is people running and dodging and narrowly avoiding death and (B) totally absurd. This is the formula that disaster movies follow, so the audience is conditioned to accept a certain amount of this stuff from their films when they buy a ticket for something from this genre.
But it has a curious effect here, this tunnel vision focused on a few people. Because we are dealing with the end of the world, Emmerich indulges all of his grandest visions for blowin’ shit up. There’s a supervolcanic eruption in the middle of Yellowstone National Park. He takes LA into the ocean at one point. Vegas falls. Hawaii turns into one giant sputtering pool of lava. The poles shift position. The oceans rise. No one is spared. And so as we watch this global conflagration, and yet we see John Cusack somehow manage to outdrive an earthquake, a nuclear-sized explosion, and a plane crash, it starts to get absurd. Why are we asked to celebrate or invest in the continued survival of these people when we’re watching literally thousands and thousands of people as they die in spectacular fashion? If the film offers me no answer to that most basic of questions — “why them?” — then it fails. At its core, it fails.
The film’s handle on global ethics is slippery at best, offensive at worst. There are provocative questions to be asked, and Emmerich even comes up with a great excuse. The world’s governments, working in secret for years because they realize the end is coming, build a possible answer to the problem, but only for the ultra-wealthy. If Emmerich really wanted to grapple with the idea of picking people who “deserve” to live when everyone else dies, there’s some heavy drama inherent to the notion. But at best, he pays it lip service as he rushes from one set piece to the next, more interested in suspense and spectacle than in anything resembling recognizable human behavior.
I’ll say this… the destruction is amazing. Companies like Digital Domain, Pixomondo, and Double Negative all contributed to the FX in some way, and the end result is dazzling. Even if you’ve seen the end of Los Angeles online, where it was released as an extended promo clip, you haven’t really seen it. Every nightmare you’ve ever had about the end of our planet ends up paraded out for your entertainment by the time the closing credits roll, and whatever you’ve imagined, Emmerich has imagined it bigger. He pours on every type of horror, and the effect is almost numbing by the end. I cannot imagine any scenario in which he tops the scale of this film. It’s almost too big to get your head around as you watch it. Everyone involved in bringing these terrible sights to life deserves a round of applause, even if the reality of what we’re looking at makes me deeply uncomfortable.
Part of me is outraged by the idea that this film could get a PG-13 while far more innocuous fare gets bumped up to an R for arbitrary use of language or for a hint of sexuality. What’s on display in this film could easily traumatize younger viewers. I have friends who were genuinely unsettled for years because they saw “The Day After” when we were pre-teens. That film never looked anything like reality, but it still managed to get deep inside these viewers and haunt them for years. Here, you’re dealing with photo-reality in large chunks of the film, and it’s like a waking nightmare. It seems to me that this is one of those cases where the ratings system fails, pointing out exactly how ineffectual it really is.
Overall, “2012” is not a movie I would recommend based on performance (although the cast is game and does everything they can with the wafer-thin script) or story (it’s fine, but there’s not one thing about it that will surprise any filmgoer), but if you have been watching the trailers, wondering if the film really is as crazy and over-the-top as it looks, the answer is yes. And for that reason, I’d say there’s definitely an audience that will walk away from this one at the end, totally sated and fat and happy, aglow from all the carnage and mayhem. There are very few films that even attempt to play on the scale that this one easily accomplishes, and the result is a one-of-a-kind movie that will hopefully bring this chapter in Roland Emmerich’s career to an end, forcing him to try something else next time out.
I fully expect this will be one of the year’s biggest hits, based on the applause I heard all around me in the theater. I also fully expect that it will be a critical punching bag, a la “Transformers 2.” It’s appropriate that I would wrap up Video Game Day on the blog with a review of this film, which isn’t based on a game, but which feels like one as you watch it. There’s such a rhythm… cut-scene, impossible chase sequence, cut scene, impossible chase sequence, cut scene, impossible chase sequence… that it sort of feels like you’re playing “APOCALYPSE!” on the PS4.
In the end, you can look at that trailer and you know already whether you’re going to enjoy yourself or not. This film is exactly what you think it is, only more. And for that reason alone, you may want to take a look.
“2012” opens everywhere on Friday, November 13th.
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