Monday, November 16, 2009
People seem to be completely torn on the merits (or lack thereof) of Roland Emmerich's latest film, 2012. There are those who say the film is simply a tragic miscalculation on the level of Transformers 2. Their argument is, in a nutshell, that the film is completely devoid of merit, that there's nothing to enjoy, and that it's a complete waste of celluloid. Then, there are the more level-headed viewers such as Roger Ebert and myself, who acknowledge that the film isn't without it's faults, but that there's so much spectacle on display that it's hard not to find something, anything, to enjoy here.
The film is a portmanteau of sorts of half a dozen other disaster films. When scientists discover that solar radiation is heating up the Earth's core, Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) takes it upon himself to enact a three-year plan to preserve humanity. John Cusack plays Jackson Curtis, a virtually unknown author who acts as our everyman. When it starts hitting the fan, Curtis and his family flee an earthquake in Los Angeles to Yellowstone National Park. When Yellowstone explodes, they take a plane to Las Vegas, where they get a connecting flight to China, where the world's governments have been building giant arks in which to survive the coming tsunamis.
This is the plot in its simplest form. I'm ignoring about three dozen other primary and secondary characters, as well as two or three big action sequences. Not that they're not important, but... Actually, parts of this movie are pretty unimportant. The most damning thing I can say about 2012 is that this really is not a tight script. Emmerich seems bound and determined to borrow wholesale scenes from The Poseidon Adventure, Volcano, Earthquake, and even his own The Day After Tomorrow. If he wanted this to be the disaster flick to end all disaster flick, he definitely swung for the fences. However, certain characters add little to the proceedings, such as Oliver Platt's chief science advisor, who acts as the film's de facto villain. Being the antagonist isn't really the problem, but rather that his character arc fizzles out so thoroughly by film's end.
At 160 minutes, 2012 is definitely a long film with a relatively thin plot. However, what the film lacks in narratve efficiency, it more than makes up for in sheer spectacle. As stated above, there are at least six big action sequences in the film, and the best of these is easily the explosion of the Yellowstone caldera. The resulting mushroom cloud and raining fireballs is definitely a sight to behold, and seeing John Cusack running for dear life is popcorn entertainment at its finest. What sets this apart from obnoxious crap like Transformers 2 is that A) the action is easy to follow, and B) while it is dumb, it never attempts to insult its audience's intelligence.
And despite the relatively poor script, the cast acquits itself nicely. Ejiofor and Cusack come off the best here, the former getting the bulk of the big hero speeches. It seems sort of antithetical to cast an actor of John Cusack's calibur for a film that mostly just requires him to run away and look frightened, but 1408 proved the man can handle genre as well as he can handle drama. Oscar-worthy it ain't, but he does his best with the material Emmerich tosses at him. Danny Glover, Woody Harrelson, and George Segal are among the dozens of other actors relegated to the film's sidelines, but make good use of their limited screen time (Harrelson in particular).
Somewhere in this preposterous soup are mixed in themes of morality, humanity, the preservation of culture and all that jazz. It's almost standard issue for this kind of end-of-the-world flick, but its presence never gets overplayed. We see the Mona Lisa being put into a vault and replaced with a reproduction, supposedly for safe keeping for after the end comes. I understand why, but it's a theme which is brought up only once more, over two hours later. It really only serves to pad the running time, and it's just not really necessary.
If you've made it this far, you've probably gathered that I'm giving this film a pass. But why? It's not a great piece of cinema, destined to win a dozen Oscars. It's the popcorn flick in its purest of forms. The spectacle has been amplified ten-fold, with every dollar of its $225 million budget on full display. If you don't get a visceral thrill (or chill, your choice) watching the USS John F. Kennedy riding a tsunami wave into the White House, among other things, then you're clearly not the audience for this kind of movie, and you probably shouldn't be watching it in the first place.
The rest of us acknowledge that 2012 is an action flick from the master of the genre (faint praise though it may be) capitalizing on popular end-of-days myths, and we put down our $9 knowing full well what we're getting. 2012 delivers precisely what it advertises, and I enjoyed every moment of it. Mind you, I enjoyed it on the basest of levels, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. If you ARE planning on seeing this, see it in theaters. It might still be enjoyable on DVD, but to get the full effect, you really need to see it on the big screen.
3.5 / 5