There’s a reason they call it “disaster porn.” You don’t want anyone to see you going into the theater, and you certainly don’t want them to know you had yourself some cheap fun while you were in there. Though if we’re going to be specific, Roland Emmerich’s 2012 is more than just disaster porn—it’s a disaster orgy. One held at the End of the Worlds of Fun amusement park.
Emmerich of course has made his career on destroying things, but where your Michael Bay likes to blow up cars and buildings and giant robots, Emmerich aims higher in films like Independence Day, Godzilla, and The Day After Tomorrow: he’s not happy unless he’s bringing the whole world down around your ears and then giving you a lecture about how we aren’t going to let ourselves be pushed around by aliens, or giant lizards, or cold weather!
This time the Earth is getting some serious indigestion from solar flares and rogue neutrinos and is set to go all Jenga on us right around the time of some ancient doomsday prediction from the Wayans. Having just written that sentence and you having just read it, can we just agree to stop caring about the why’s and how’s of cinematic global destruction? Emmerich and co-writer Harald Kloser could have said the world was going to end because someone dropped a giant Mentos into the Earth’s core and the film would still work. And if the measure of a disaster movie is how good it gets stuff blowed up, 2012 is a resounding success: like a fat man at a Vegas buffet, the flick grabs a little of this, a little of that. Earthquakes and volcanoes and tidal waves, oh my god yeah.
In the tradition of, oh let’s say every disaster movie ever made, the plot proceeds to introduce various and diverse characters, most of whom will spend the next few hours trying to outrun fiery things. On the government side there’s the earnest scientist (terrific actor Chiwetel Ejiofor), the noble U.S. President (Danny Glover), the President’s smart-and-sexy daughter (Thandie Newton), and then Chief of Staff (or Disasters or Secret Reports or whatever) Oliver Platt doing what he does best: being sneaky and sly, but with such self-aware charming bluster that you almost forgive him when he takes your ice cream cone and kicks you off the bus. Oh and there’s Woody Harrelson, playing a conspiracy minded radio host like Art Bell by way of Gary Busey and a bag of weed. (The Randy Quaid shtick from ID4, only now it appears Quaid has gone nuts for real.)
Warned ahead of time that those rat-bastard neutrinos had turned on us, the world governments have been secretly building giant arks in the Chinese Himalayas. Because when you’re planning to save human civilization, you want your massive ships to be stamped “Made in China.” Just don’t lick the lead-painted walls, kids. My quibble with this whole Chinese Arks of Salvation thing
is that the only world figure we see being saved is Queen
Elizabeth, alongside her Corgis and Prince Philip. Really? Prince
Philip? We have a chance to reboot human civilization and we make an
effort to save Prince Philip? I’m surprised we didn’t also see Paris
Hilton slinking aboard.
(Actually, there’s an even more cynical reason for this plot angle: Sony/Columbia wants 2012 to do big business in China, hence the Sino-centric plan and a nice, positive spin on the nation’s altruistic participation. Oh and yes, according to the film, Tibet is part of China. Take your little signs and go home, Richard Gere and The Beastie Boys.)
But since few viewers besides me want to see Oliver Platt presiding over the End Times, 2012 needs an Everyman central character. Enter John Cusack, acting out a flawless demonstration of Art for the Heart, Trash for Cash. (Before anyone starts bemoaning Cusack Selling Out, remember this is not the first time Lloyd Dobbler has slathered himself in box-office bait: Con Air? Serendipity? Must Love Dogs? America’s Sweethearts? Runaway Jury? Those are the paydays that keep the little films like Max, Grace is Gone, and War Inc. coming.) Cusack is a struggling novelist living in L.A. (where all struggling writers wind up, since it’s always nicer to struggle in the sun) who suddenly goes all Joie Chitwood thrill driver in order to get his estranged family (including ex-wife Amanda Peet and her new boyfriend, Tom McCarthy) out of town while there’s still a town to get out of.
As you can see, that’s a lot of talented actors dashing around saying things like “You’ve got to see this!” and “We gotta leave right now!” Ejiofor gets to spend most of his time furrowing his brow over scientific computer read outs telling him how dirty the Mentos, er neutrinos are gonna do us, while Cusack gets to have all the fun. 2012’s best section revolves around Cusack and kin using cars, planes, RVs, and Russian cargo jets to flee some of the most gleefully horrifying devastation CGI effects money can buy, while the narratively less fortunate masses go out with one long Wilhelm Scream. (As in The Day After Tomorrow, it turns out even the most destructive natural events can be outrun. If Emmerich ever gets around to making a biopic of Jonas Salk, there’ll no doubt be a very exciting scene in which the scientist outruns polio.)
And when I say “best,” let’s be honest. There are less-than-noble impulses at work here. We all love to see the world go to hell in crumbling hand basket. Partly because yes, it is fun watching stuff blow up. But also because parts of us kinda dream of the End of the World. Oh you can wring your hands about the humanity of it all but deep down inside there’s a little voice saying “but maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if we—or an asteroid, or a global economic collapse, or neutrinos, or Mentos—wiped the slate clean and we could start all over again in a nice little heavily fortified log cabin in Idaho?” Again, that’s why this is called disaster porn: it puts a bad weave and some cheap make-up on what in reality would be a pretty ugly and horrific situation. (For comparison and a more emotionally realistic look how much “fun” the post-Apocalypse will be, please go see The Road when it comes out later this month.)
That’s the less-than-sexy side of grabbing a tub of popcorn and getting your jollies from watching seven billion little CGI ant people get squished by various falling landmarks. And your jollies will be gotten–2012 serves up some wildly entertaining death and destruction. But the downside is when films like this try to gussy up their lurid, morbid, voyeuristic appeal by having characters give Big Speeches about compassion, hope, and humanity—after two hours of trying to smoosh said humanity in every conceivable way. The End of the World is fun, screams 2012—look, it brings families back together! And if just one little girl learns to stop wetting her bed, well then all the fire and crushing and drowning was worth it.
No doubt, 2012 is big, dumb fun for a while. There’s no denying the giddy thrills of all that absolutely ri-donk-ulous CGI eye-candy mayhem—if they re-title the film for distribution overseas, they can’t go too wrong with calling it Good Fun Time Stupid Blow Up. Emmerich, for all his embracing of mindless thrills, does know how to shoot a movie so that it makes visual sense. 2012
may be be an insane circus of chaotic crazy, but like watching
professional circus folk, every trick, every gag, no matter how
familiar or ridiculous, is executed perfectly.
And when it comes subtlety, Emmerich is the master. Would Spielberg have a character say “something is pulling us apart” just before a huge fissure in the earth divides him from his significant other? Would Spielberg crack the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel right between God and Adam’s fingers? No he would not, and that is why Spielberg will forever fail to match Emmerich’s shameless, cheesy genius.
The plot of 2012 is silly, but unlike Transformers 2, at least there is an A-to-B-to-C plot logic. Sure, that plot is mostly running from A, driving quickly away from B, and fleeing C in various airplanes, but it all makes a silly sort of sense. (And although California slides into the ocean, an aircraft carrier is dropped on the White House, and Hawaii becomes one big open-air lava lamp, at least no legs are humped in the process.)
However, like a pre-teen mainlining pixie stix in your living room, 2012 jibber-jabbers on about an hour too long. Emmerich has never been able to stick his third-act landings—everything always starts out on a grand, dazzling global scale but winds down, hours and hours later, with someone spending way too much time desperately trying to tighten a bolt or cut a cord to save what’s left of the world. By the time 2012’s third hour rolls around even those viewers with Big-Gulp-sized bladders and their own giant built-in seat cushions will be getting antsy.
But hey, we like our fun big and dumb and in a perpetual state of self-destruction. We like Pamela Anderson and Larry the Cable Guy and Hummers and fast-food burgers with multiple slabs of processed meats and cheeses. In fact, if 2012 had featured Ms. Anderson and Mr. The Cable Guy driving a Hummer into an erupting volcano while eating Monster Thickburgers and preaching about the nobility of the human spirit, it probably would have had Best Picture in the bag.
Even so, as much good a time as you may have at 2012, you’ll still find yourself waking up the morning after feeling gross and guilty–and sheepishly trying to sneak home without being seen by anyone you know.