Movie Review: Roland Emmerich's '2012'

'Independence Day' director's new disaster film is slaphappy ludicrousness taken to an epic level

<p>&nbsp;John Cusack and Woody Harrelson of '2012'</p>

 John Cusack and Woody Harrelson of '2012'

Credit: Sony Pictures
I know people who take issue with the plausibility of "Independence Day." 
 
They aren't uncomfortable with the aliens, with the destruction or with Jeff Goldblum's clever and climactic use of a computer virus to mock their advanced technology.
 
No, more than anything, when I hear people discuss the absurdity of "Independence Day," they complain about that darned dog in the tunnel. It's like the pinnacle of sentiment and absurdity, where audiences ignore the thousands of human casualties, but cheer as Will Smith's pooch is somehow able to avoid a fireball of devastation, defying both logic and sheer animal mechanics.
 
It's a ridiculous scene, but I still remember the audience bursting into cheers when I saw "ID4" in theaters and I'm assuming a similar reaction played out around the world. Some forms of cathartic goofiness are just universal.
 
Roland Emmerich's "2012" is disaster filmmaking boiled down to a very peculiar essence. It's over two-and-a-half hours that simulate the experience of the "ID4" dog outrunning the fireball. It's slaphappy ludicrousness taken to an epic level. 
 
You can walk out of "2012" complaining about the acting or the writing or nitpicking the seemingly endless details that either don't make a lick of sense or would probably be offensive if you gave them half-a-consideration. But you can't walk out of "2012" saying that Emmerich delivered anything less than exactly what was promised in the trailer or that the film's budget, doubtlessly outrageous, wasn't thoroughly reflected on the screen.
 
Yes, "2012" is brainless bunk, but what gloriously brainless bunk.
 
[More review after the break...]
 
First thing to say about "2012": It has absolutely nothing to do with the Mayan Calendar or fulfillment of Mayan prophesies or anything like that. The only mention of the Mayans comes in the sequence featured in the trailer, but the events of the movie aren't causally linked with any native doomsday scenario. If anything, Emmerich treats the Mayans as being even more fictional and implausible than the "ID4" aliens. But at least he doesn't try to avert the inevitable by killing the Mayans off with a computer virus.  
 
Also, unlike Emmerich's "Day After Tomorrow," "2012" isn't perpetuating an environmentalist agenda cautioning humanity about our abuse of the Earth.
 
In "2012" the Earth is revolving because... it is. Plates are shifting, volcanos are erupting, the oceans are covering the land, but other than the most half-hearted and quickly dismissed of scientific explanations at the beginning, explanations delivered so flatly and unconvincingly by the actors that you know that nobody involved actually believed them, nobody cares about why it's occurring. And just as nobody can tell you why the Earth has suddenly gone astray, there's no point in trying to prevent it. The movie begins with the point, "We're screwed!" and moves without hesitation to "So now what?"
 
On one level, the "Now what?" question is in the hands of government science advisor Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) whose job it is to help the president (Danny Glover) and a bigger science advisor (Oliver Platt) figure out what to do about the fate of humanity and our human treasures. But that's all bureaucracy. 
 
On the human level, we're meant to care about author-turned-limo driver Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), whose two kids live with their mother (Amanda Peet) and step-father ("Station Agent" director and "The Wire" baddie Tom McCarthy). Jackson and his kids just happen to be at Yellowstone when the world begins to go pear-shaped. For this part of the subplot, the apocalypse is just an excuse for family bonding.
 
There's a rhythm that we expect in movies of this sort. You start the movie with an immediate minor cataclysm and then, having hooked viewers, you've then earned the right to develop characters for maybe 15 or 20 minutes before you have to really get the action moving again.
 
Emmerich and co-writer Harald Kloser are almost courageously uninterested in that convention. For nearly 45 minutes, "2012" keeps its disaster to a minimum. We get some concerned scientists squawking, some paranoid raging by Woody Harrelson as a blogger and radio host and a few precarious cracks in the Los Angeles concrete, but that's all. The writers are determined to get you the icy chill between Cusack's character and his son, pointless plot details about his daughter's nighttime bed-wetting, and cumbersome conversations between a pair of cruise ship entertainers lamenting their lack of contact with their children. They're determined to make you care.
 
And will viewers care? Ummm... Heck no? The actors all deliver the requisite gravitas. You really buy that for these people the end of the world is going to be a major inconvenience. But with the flimsy grounding of the script, none of the performers is really able to transcend the genre.
 
Do they need to, though? Ummm... Heck no, again.
 
At a certain point, deep into the film's first hour, all hell breaks loose. When that occurs, the movie rarely lets up. There are one or two respites where characters briefly reflect on the their general disappointment at the way their day is progressing, but those moments are so clearly programmed as bathroom breaks that you almost expect Emmerich to put a stopwatch in the corner of the screen, letting you know when the next familiar monument or pristine digital landscape is going to be devoured by digital effects.
 
Unlike something like the original "Poseidon Adventure" (which Emmerich steals from liberally, especially in the film's last half-hour) or "The Towering Inferno," "2012" practices none of the craft of the classic suspense movies. The Irwin Allen formula calls for tension to be generated by plausibility, but tension isn't what Emmerich aspires to at all. Yes, one or two characters die without notice and their deaths are supposed to be shocking, but nobody will really be biting their fingernails over whether or not Cusack's character or Peete's character is going to survive, especially in the early set pieces. It's just like how you never really expected Emmerich to BBQ that dog in "ID4." A suspense-driven filmmaker wants you watching through the cracks in your fingers, but Emmerich doesn't want you to need to cover your eyes. He wants viewers to watch "2012" with their hands in the air practically screaming "Whee!!!!" at the screen. It's a ride, albeit a ride where you have to ignore the deaths of billions of people.
 
The ignoring is easy, when Cusack's character is navigating a limo around Los Angeles as the City of Angeles begins a not-so-slow crash into the Pacific, a crash that's rendered with such exquisite detail that I'm guessing I'll be able to see my apartment getting wrecked on the Blu-Ray. And ignoring is easy when McCarthy's character, an inexperienced amateur pilot, manages to steer a small plane through the escalating carnage. Yellowstone, India, Las Vegas, Italy and various parts of China and Tibet are singled out for particular havoc. As much as you may have seen in the money shot-driven extended trailer, "2012" has plenty of action that you've missed. The effects in "2012" are, for the most part, spectacular and set new standards for the genre, even if they aren't always believable in their sense of weight or gravity.
 
Does Emmerich attempt to insert some underlying messages? I guess so. As has always been advertised (so I'm not really spoiling or anything), humanity has a survival strategy, but it's not a solution that allows everybody to be saved. So who gets saved? Who decides who lives and who dies? I guess that could be construed as provocative.
 
I guess you could also choose to find political meaning in which landmarks and nations Emmerich concentrates on destroying and which places and cultures he either excludes or ignores. Is being spared an on-screen end in a movie like this a sign of respect or contempt? I couldn't tell you. And certainly Emmerich's contempt for organized religion is evident, though he mostly targets Catholics, Buddhists and, briefly, Muslims. It's like he's the puppetmaster standing above the praying masses cackling "Where's your messiah now?" in a voice that's both Germanic and Edward G. Robinson. 
 
Yes, you could try looking for meaning or human connection or any number of intellectual outlets in "2012." You could try to find sentimental outlets within this tragedy-less tragedy.  But why would you bother? "2012" is about daffy, orgiastic catastrophe, about eating popcorn and fiddling while the world burns. Is that a bit soulless and empty? Well yes, but... Oooh! Things go boom!
 
"2012" is now in theaters everywhere.
Dan-feinberg-sm
Daniel Fienberg
Executive Editor
A long-time member of the TCA Board and a longer-time blogger of "American Idol," Dan Fienberg writes about TV, except for when he writes about movies or sometimes writes about the Red Sox. But never music. He would sound stupid talking about music.
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