Friday, February 5, 2010

Movie Review: "2012"

I had pretty much given up on seeing "2012," the latest end-of-the-world spectacle from Roland Emmerich. I missed it upon its initial screenings and, upon hearing that the special effects were the only thing that stood out about the film, had pretty much decided against seeing it on a small screen. Then, while out with my girlfriend last weekend, we found it playing at a big revival house near her and figured to check it out--more to see the theater than anything else.

Let me just say this: seeing a film like "2012" in a place dedicated to classics like "Casablanca," "The Wizard of Oz" and, yes, "The Blues Brothers," may be cinematic sacrilege.

"2012" made a lot of news upon release for playing upon the whole hype of the world ending in 2012 as the Mayans supposedly predicted--although it bears noting that the Mayans never predicted the end of the world; they simply ended their calendar in 2012 (if I designed a calendar in the 1400s, I probably would have stopped after 600 years as well). I have a feeling that most of the "news" was hype drummed up by 20th Century Fox's PR machine and not any actual fears or scientific beliefs--everything presented in this film is so utterly ludicrous that any scientist backing it up should just surrender their diploma upon leaving the theater.

Emmerich--who has ended the world by aliens (Independence Day), lizards (Godzilla) and cold (Day After Tomorrow) in the past--has to have put the nail in the coffin of end-of-the-world disaster flicks with this film. Here the world doesn't just get gets baked, flooded, smashed, ground up, chewed up and spit out. It's the rare movie that has a body count of 5 billion people; thank goodness there was no blood, otherwise the PG-13 rating would have never stuck.

I'm still a bit unclear as to why the world is ending here. As far as I can understand, it has to do with massive solar flares that are destroying the Earth's crust, which leads to massive earthquakes and tidal waves around the planet--California sinks into the ocean, Yellowstone National Park and Hawaii are turned into massive lakes of lava, a tsunami buries Mt. Everest and, just for good measure, Washington is flooded--but not before the battleship John F. Kennedy smashes into the White House. Yes, gone are the good old days when Emmerich was content to smash a few American landmarks...the whole world is wiped off the map in this flick.

The effects are, of course, staggering--before "Avatar" hit the screen this likely would have been an Oscar contender for visual effects. I can't say they look real--California sinking into the ocean and waves covering the Himalayas tend to be unreal as rule--but they are effective. The destruction's scale in this movie is amazing.

And, to be honest, a bit disturbing. I realize the movie was released well before the earthquakes in Haiti. But in light of 100,000 people dying in real life, watching a massive earthquake played for excitement--and, sometimes, for laughs--just isn't fun. It used to be that Emmerich simply showed a building crumbling and we'd be satisfied. Now he shows bodies falling from bridges and collapsing buildings and trains slamming off the rails and into giant crevices--after 9/11, there's just something about mass death and destruction that is a little less entertaining. Were he playing the sequences for horror and emotional impact, I might have been more forgiving...but he's playing the end of the world as action-adventure and entertainment. Something about considering the death of billions to be remotely entertaining feels a bit icky.

But it soon becomes less icky and more numbing as the devastation goes on for two more hours. I'm finding a growing weariness with filmmakers who depend on special effects as moneymakers rather than tools. After awhile the entire affair feels more like a videogame and less like a film.

That's not to say the film is boring. As I said, the scale of the effects is astonishing. And there's a cheesy guilt to enjoying the increasingly preposterous plot twists--a plane twice flies between two crumbling buildings, a stretch limo outruns an Earthquake in downtown L.A., the heroes board a plane conveniently carrying luxury cars--which they then drive to safety in the Himalayas.

I find it funny that I've wasted all this time describing the action and effects and haven't even touched on the plot or characters yet. And yet, that's probably fitting. There are a lot of actors in "2012"--a lot of very good ones, actually, including John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Woody Harrelson (who steals the show as a crazed mountainman), Danny Glover (the President), Thandie Newton (his daughter), Chiwetel Ejiofor (the science advisor who saw the whole thing coming) and Oliver Platt (as the slimy politician who has his own agenda). And there is a plot--Cusack must get his family to the government folks, who are loading secretly-constructed arks that will carry survivors to safety. There's even a bit of a moral conundrum--seats on the ark may have been sold to the highest bidder instead of open to all. But everyone is at the mercy of the effects. In a movie that pays such lip service to the idea of humanity, Emmerich seems to have no idea how to tell a human tale.

The scenes with Cusack and Peet--as a divorced couple trying to protect their kids--are mind-numbingly cheesy, with horrid "comedic" moments and dialogue that lands with a thud. When they hook up with a Russian politician who has a seat on the ark--and the aforementioned plane with luxury cars--we simply roll our eyes...we know not only that the sleazy politician will probably not get on the ark, but that the cars will probably come to some use.

The scenes with the government officials are more interesting. There's an intriguing premise about how the government would handle the end of the world--who would you save and how would you start over. The film picks up steam whenever Platt and Ejiofor are onscreen but, unfortunately, goes limp again whenever we cut back to the not-so-happy family.

Emmerich also fills the screen with needless secondary characters who are related to the primary ones--a jazz duo on the sea and a couple in Japan--who have no bearing on the plot but simply exist for supposedly tear-jerking moments in which we're supposed to get emotional because they didn't "get to say goodbye." The film is so packed and rushed that the scenes play as obligatory afterthoughts, never achieving any interest or emotional involvement. I could see the film working better as a large scale miniseries, but at nearly three hours the film manages to feel both bloated and dramatically empty.

The result is a film that is never boring but is never really engaging, entertaining or exciting either. The cacophony Emmerich subjects the audience to quickly becomes numbing and obligatory and it ends with such a pedestrian crisis (a stuck door? Really?) that I had to laugh. Emmerich has made a career out of destroying the world but really only did it once in a manner that entertained me ("Independence Day.") His best film was actually the Revolutionary War flick "The Patriot." But he keeps returning to devastated landmarks and repetitive special effects as if there just was too much world for one man to destroy.

Hopefully with "2012" he got it all out of his system.

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.