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Roland Emmerich is the new and improved Irwin Allen, of The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno fame. Emmerich has given us a succession of expensive, fast, loud and star-studded monster, sci-fi and disaster epics. Having wrecked cities, battled aliens and frozen half of the planet, in his latest megaproduction he aims to destroy the entire world, more or less. Dangling from the pseudo-scientific hook of the expiration of a Mayan calendar that "ends" in December of 2012, the apocalyptic thriller 2012 gives audiences over two and half hours of special effect eye candy and insipid, groan inducing storytelling. It made an ideal brainless summer picture for audiences awaiting the debut of Avatar in the fall.
Nobody expects a Roland Emmerich film to be good, just big, colorful and noisy, with "lots of stuff blowing up". Every twelve minutes or so comes a gigantic special effects sequence. Los Angeles residents can thrill to Santa Monica and Venice crumbling into bits and falling into the ocean; Pasadena and downtown L.A. are thrown into a geo-blender. Yellowstone erupts in a superheated volcanic explosion many times bigger than a hydrogen bomb. Later on we get to enjoy the spectacle of the Himalayas slammed by tidal waves apparently 30,000 feet tall. Don't forget your umbrella.
Whether the organizing factor here is video games or the desire to maximize thrills or the conviction that audiences are total idiots, I don't know, but these complex and frequently dazzling CGI action scenes work overtime to be idiotic. The filmic concept of escaping in the nick of time is taken to such an extreme and repeated so often that the movie should be advertised as being presented in That New Miracle of the Screen, Nickotime™! Nominal hero John Cusack speeds down a Pasadena street, barely keeping up as the roadway falls away just behind him ... chasing his car, as it were. This gambit is repeated ad nauseum ... several airplanes do the same thing while taking off, the runway collapsing into the ground just behind their tail fins. The way cities, mountains and deserts tumble away into chasms that appear out of nowhere, you'd think America was built on a hollow shell. In each case, somebody has to get into the car or plane before it can escape. The editing uses the exact same suspense cutting pattern, usually ending in a small kid screaming "Daddy!" After seeing this happen as a major sequence cap five times, we look forward to ordinary disaster movie nonsense, like people outrunning explosions, tidal waves, volcanoes, etc. 2012 doesn't let us down.
Those airplanes have a terrible time getting up power, and end up flying through subterranean chasms as buildings and freeways rain down on them. At one point an L.A. subway train races out into empty space as a plane slips by in the Nickotime™. Things this silly don't happen in kiddie comics.
Emmerich and Harald Kloser's sprawling, imagination-challenged screenplay launches twenty main characters into a sprawling plot that more or less recapitulates the Sci-fi classic When Worlds Collide. Just cross out where the script says "errant planetoid" and replace it with "gonzo geological disaster". The basic concept is not bad, as ridiculous pseudoscience goes. "Rogue neutrinos" have caused the formation of a new subatomic particle that heats up the Earth's core, melting our planet's outer shell like the chocolate coating on an ice cream cone. This turns our continents and land masses into a geological soup. For the purposes of the plot, certain scientists have predicted this event so well that the movie can use giant digital clocks to count down the seconds to just about every earthquake and tidal wave we see; just when one artificial suspense deadline gives out, another is starting. (Recent events make the home video release of the movie even more timely - a giant earthquake that levels a South American country has a Richter scale rating less then the temblor that rocked Chile.) My obnoxious question #237 is this ... with that giant dust cloud covering the earth for years, how will the survivors continue to survive?
In its quest to be as warm and fuzzy as is possible, 2012 focuses on the survival of an American family. Every other human being on Earth can be drowned or asphyxiated, but these people are more important. Chauffeur John Cusack takes his kids to Yellowstone for the weekend (and drives both ways, from L.A.?) and rushes them back to the house of his ex-wife Amanda Peet and her new husband Tom McCarthy. After a lecture from a conspiracy theorist / radio nut played by Woody Harrelson, Cusack realizes that his rich Russian client Zlatko Buric and his no-neck monster children are rushing off to catch some kind of rescue craft, because the whole Earth is going to be destroyed. Cusack gets his family and Gordon off the ground from Santa Monica Airport just as Los Angeles is annihilated. Nickotime™! Cusack lands in Yellowstone to retrieve Woody Harrelson's flaky "map of special rescue locations", and they take off again just as the magma pressure explosion goes off. Nickotime™! In Vegas, they hitch a ride on Zlatko Burik's giant Russian transport plane just before the giant dust cloud arrives from Yellowstone (gee, it moves faster than a plane can fly?). Nickotime™, already. They head straight for China, where the Arks to save a small piece of humanity are being built in the tall mountains.
The official side of the story sees scientist Chiwetel Ejiofor working with President Danny Glover and Machiavellian presidential advisor Oliver Platt to get the outlandish international rescue operation in gear. To keep the secret, Platt has been having various people assassinated, and Ejiofor has already told his father Blu Mankuma, an entertainer on a cruise ship. (Mankuma's performing partner is George Segal, in a superfluous guest star role.) The ruthless Platt rushes the plan, abandoning the Indian scientist who discovered the problem with the earth's crust; Ejiofor is the voice of humanitarian reason. A flaky moral quandary appears when it becomes apparent that the thousands of Ark passengers weren't chosen fairly. Many have bribed their way on board, and wave Willy Wonka- like magic tickets that guarantee passage. To create a second love story, the script manages for the President's daughter Thandie Newton to have a thing going on for Ejiofor.
The epic body count follows standard Disaster Movie guidelines. Top billed stars will survive, by virtue of the laws of Nickotime™. Chosen loveable sidekicks and noble supporting characters will perish, along with untold numbers of extras and walk-ons. The screenplay also makes sure that cute dogs and children of top stars always live. But a character inconvenient to the star -- a romantic rival, say -- is highly expendable. The movie also takes the easy path, politically speaking. Special concern is allotted for "deserving" people not from the good ol' USA, but obnoxious foreign millionaires haven't got a prayer. Then again, the movie makes continuous cracks about corruption and incompetence in our government. When told that the White House has been "cleaned out", a character snaps, "It's about time!"
The odd thing about 2012 is that despite its lack of originality and mind-numbing predictability, it's an exceedingly well-made show. Roland Emmerich's direction is energetic and the production values are high; the CGI may not be groundbreaking but there's a lot of it and most effects look good. Our only complaint there is that many of the more grandiose shots of cities falling apart are too busy and go by too fast to allow us to take in the immense detail (retained in Blu-ray). Although I wouldn't call anything in 2012 particularly artful or even elegant, it does envision its photogenic disasters on an enormous scale.
Secondly, the acting is all very good. There ought to be an Academy Award for the ensemble cast most dedicated to lending credence to an awful script with unplayable scenes. Even when the dramatics are limp and the moral speeches fall flat, everybody is good here. Oliver Platt is terrific as the government guy who gives out bad news. John Cusack is asked to do one stupid thing after another for 158 minutes straight, and manages to keep our respect. This isn't like an old Irwin Allen film, where we get bored and can't wait for another wave or burning skyscraper to kill somebody off. On the other hand, Woody Harrelson's annoyingly eccentric eco-hermit is such a bad exposition machine (he's even created his own animation to explain the problem at the earth's core) that we look forward to his imminent extermination.
A waste of time in serious movie terms, 2012 is a good diversion nevertheless. In an early scene in an L.A. supermarket, Amanda Peet argues with her husband Tom McCarthy. Just as he says, "We can't let anything come between us", a giant crack cleaves the building in two, separating them. The audience I saw the movie with groaned as one; the movie was telling us it had no intention of being anything but schlock. A few minutes later, the big L.A. destruction scene showed a car and an airplane doing 10 impossible things each, dodging falling skyscrapers and flying amid a rain of falling debris. I felt both exited and insulted, but the audience clapped. 2012 clearly gave them the particular thrill ride they were looking for.
Sony is releasing two Blu-ray editions of 2012. A fancier double disc version unaccountably costs only a dollar more than the single disc, at least on Amazon. As expected the picture is sharp and colorful and the audio comes in several format and language choices. The single-disc reviewed has with an alternate ending and several picture-in-picture extras about Roland Emmerich's creative vision. I don't know about creative vision, but Roland certainly has something going for him. Unlike that old disastermeister Irwin Allen, his movies don't look cheap. But we'd really like him to try something a bit more ambitious than cinematic junk food the next time -- 2012 probably nudged a worthy remake of When Worlds Collide off the "in preparation" lists.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
2012 Blu-ray rates:
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