Director Roland Emmerich is so good at destroying things, (at least in the movies) that it looks like he (or Columbia Pictures) is now intent on destroying the DVD format. His monumental blockbuster 2012 might have been overshadowed by Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and ultimately destroyed by Cameron's Avatar - as far as blockbusters go - but the end-of-the-world-epic is no slouch. At over two-and-a-half-hours, the movie still manages to be energetic, not bloated, as it goes about trashing the globe. Yet this single-disc edition, with a singularly bland cover design, arrives in one of those well-intentioned but wimpy eco-cases with most of the protective plastic removed. It's a big movie with an initial DVD release that manages to feel like a mail-order freebie, making me wonder if DVDs might not actually be about to slide into the ocean like California.
Like all the Irwin Allen classics, 2012 begins by weaving together disparate stories of the big and the small, for a full 45 minutes, even, before dispensing the good stuff. There's concerned scientist Adrian (Chiwetel Ejiofor) whose buddies have noticed that the earth is heating up from the inside out. There's secretive government bigwig Carl Anheuser, (Oliver Platt) and even the president (Danny Glover). Plus, there's a hot art conservator (Thandie Newton) a nut-job in the woods (Woody Harrelson) and everyman/author Jackson (John Cusack). But what's important is buildings collapsing, and the promise of more buildings collapsing. So as the earth gets all warm and sexy, with the crust sliding around like the loose skin of a rotten orange, things start collapsing in ways astonishing and comically surreal. As disaster movies go - not terribly far for a genre never known for subtlety - 2012 is the new champion.
On the other hand, 2012 is fairly glib, cavalier even, when it comes to the deeper issues. This, and most other world-destruction movies, are spiritual remakes of When Worlds Collide, a movie that manages to salt its goofy '50s attitude and jingoism with at least a practical examination of the realities of imminent species death. Even Deep Impact and Armageddon took a stab at it, while 2012 is content to keep the whole everyone-is-going-to-die aspect hidden from its poor victims. Which is all well and good, since things like conscience tend to get in the way when enjoying the sight of jam-packed subway cars careening into the wall of a newly opened chasm. It's only a movie, but a movie with a death-toll of about 6 billion, and plenty of times we get to see the little tiny bodies clinging for their lives on collapsing freeways, or being crushed by the Sistine Chapel, for instance.
Never one for nuance, Emmerich still manages to squeeze decent, at times even layered performances from his stellar cast. Ejiofor steals the show from Cusack, who never quite convinces as a dad estranged from his kids. Perhaps since Cusack himself doesn't have kids, he's never able to connect his otherwise bachelor-esque character with the moppets. However, we don't have to suspend disbelief as far as Cusack romancing Amanda Peet is concerned. Platt shades his shady part nicely, and Zlatko Buric is a deeply sonorous pleasure as a shifty Russian billionaire. Best of all is Harrelson as outlaw DJ and conspiracy theorist Charlie Frost. Harrelson has become over the years one of those actors who is always the best part of whatever movie he chooses to pop up in, and this time is no exception. You can't deny that face - he's always Woody - but as a pickle-chomping maniac with good intentions, he becomes totally lost in his role.
Of course the real star is Mr. CGI, the guy who can toss an aircraft carrier onto the Whitehouse with total ease. Emmerich doles out his eye-bending treats with care. Knowing that any good Monster Kid needs to wait a bit before getting to the goodies, Emmerich holds off on the big stuff for 45 minutes before layering it on thick with the destruction of California. This first exercise in preposterousness reaches shrill heights of surreal carnival mania never seen before, as Cusack and crew pilot a small plane through collapsing towers, freeways, catapulting trains and what-not. Then the city pretty much lurches up and slides into the sea, just as we'd been promised. Overuse of symbolic cracks, including one that goes right between God and Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, prove to be a wee bit too cheeky for my tastes, but they help offset other improbabilities, such as Cusack being able to run faster than an airplane getting ready to take off.
2012 isn't anything more than a diversion, a thrill-ride that willfully takes heavy doses of 'the clear and the cream' (you steroid-having baseball fans will understand). It won't even make you wonder for an instant what you'd do if you knew the world was about to end. That's not the point. The aim is to give you edge of your seat action and jaw on the ground spectacle, while padding things with enough characterization that your brain doesn't completely fuzz out. It's a monster of a movie, and it delivers everything it promises.