— by JOEL CRARY —
Movies like “2012” make me miss Charlton Heston. That’s what this movie needs: a square-jawed, histrionic, tough son of a bitch with crazy mannerisms to lead everyone to safety. Instead, we get John Cusack playing a kind of wimpy divorcee and unsuccessful author who would rather surf the Internet than play with his kids on a camping trip. I like Cusack. When he has a good script, he can be all things to all men. Here, he’s treading water.
Granted, it’s a whole lot of water. “2012” sports some of the best computer effects work I’ve seen in any film.
It is directed and co-written by Roland Emmerich, whose films have provided spectacle on a grand scale for quite a few years now. “Independence Day” unleashed aliens to wreak havoc on Washington and New York City. “The Day After Tomorrow” put the world into another ice age. Emmerich has made a career out of tearing the planet apart.
A decade ago, disaster pictures were all the rage to the point of repetition. In 1997, we saw dueling volcano films. In 1998, no less than two enormous asteroids threatened global extinction. With the onset of CGI, the 90’s represented the first time these events happened convincingly on screen and production companies threw everything they had at the wall. Emmerich himself showed us the White House exploding. He sent devastating rivers of flame through city streets as the glass blew out from skyscrapers and he provided a visual of the Statue of Liberty frozen in time.
“2012” begins with a shot straight out of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The planets align vertically and we sense that something is cosmically amiss, yet the humbling visual is disrupted by a violent explosion from the sun’s surface. There’s so much in this shot that is indicative of where Emmerich is coming from in his storytelling. The world can be a place of unacknowledged pain and suffering. Our daily lives are inappropriate responses to our fragility and the violent forces in the universe will one day teach us a lesson.
In the film, Jackson Curtis (Cusack) has written a book about Atlantis. Geologist come high-ranking U.S. official Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) recognizes him. He’s just made it to the part of the book where the good side of human nature triumphs in the face of adversity. Will that be the case in light of the real world’s destruction? You’ll find out, as things start to get bad for the planet. Real bad. “Independence Day” was a cakewalk compared to the scenes of destruction that Emmerich presents in “2012.”
I recall being darkly fascinated by stories of the world’s end as a kid, having no real concept of that kind of chaos. Such visuals as the explosion of Yellowstone National Park and the descent of Las Vegas into the earth’s splitting crust offer moments approaching poetic beauty. An enormous fireball erupts in the sky and the characters are speechless. They fly planes through debris and witness the horrific detail of people hanging out of office buildings that have been cracked wide open by expanding fissures. There is no bigger action picture concept than the end of the world, and “2012’s” special effects team brings the cataclysm to violent life.
Like the popular disaster pictures from the last decade, the film contains all of the cliches: the romantic couple rekindling their love, the dog in peril, the impassioned speech about human decency from a government member, ironic mentions of the end of the world in conversations and song lyrics. “2012” makes attempts to involve the international community by having characters from other nations speak different languages, though everyone seems to know English.
Emmerich is obsessed with landmarks and well known objects, tossing them in willy-nilly purely for the visceral thrill of seeing them break apart. At one point, an enormous ship careens full speed ahead into Air Force One even though the odds of such an event happening are astronomically against. Giant arks designed to save humanity are launched in China, inexplicably in the direction of Mount Everest, to provide the film’s climatic sequence.
All of the characters conveniently seem to know one another in different contexts. There is a bad guy (Oliver Platt), whose black-and-white thinking is supposed to make us take a look inward at our own moral centres. There are countless scenes in which characters say goodbye to each other. Sometimes they are too late and we are given a moment to think about how tragic that is before a tsunami tosses an aircraft carrier into the White House, the building that just can’t catch a break in an Emmerich film.
The ancient Mayans, who have been acknowledged as the inventors of the supposed clock that is clicking down to Dec. 21, 2012, as the last day on Earth, are mentioned a grand total of one time. Religious explanations are given equally short shrift. The rest of the film is jam-packed with scientific blather about geological events that some scientist first witnessed back in the 1950s. Perhaps that’s for the best, because where “2012” could be insufferable in its explanations, it is instead merely unexceptional.
What does the disaster movie have left to destroy? The whole world has been ground up and spit out by this point on the grandest level imaginable. I can’t envision another film that could do our planet a greater amount of damage. For the sake of the talented effects artists who worked on “2012,” I’ll mean that as a compliment.
Follow Joel Crary on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joelcrary.