November 21, 2009

Poor Roland Emmerich.  The man is in a war of escalation with himself, and I think he might just have ended it, destroying himself in the process.  He, along with his ex-partner Dean Devlin, revitalized the disaster picture with Independence Day, a film that in some ways gave birth to the mega-blockbuster summer period we’re still in today.  After some moderate successes and downright failures, he split with Devlin and came out with his best movie to date, The Day After Tomorrow, one of my favourite boneheaded blockbusters of the decade.  As Mr. Emmerich has tapped into that natural desire to see everything you know completely destroyed in a 9/11-would-have-been-so-awesome-if-it-wasn’t-real way, the next logical step after destroying major cities, and then a healthy chunk of every continent, was the entire world itself.  He must be preparing to follow it up with a CERN-made black hole that is eating up the entire solar system as a scrappy band of survivors make their way to Alpha Centauri and deal with their family issues along the way.

So yes, 2012 deals with effectively the destruction of the entire planet.  The Mayan prediction is mentioned, but it isn’t some supernatural force, but solar flares creating a new particle in the earth that melts the blah diddy blah blah blah.  Trust me, it doesn’t matter; I just wish that somebody had told Emmerich and his co-writer Harald Kloser (who has made that inevitable leap from film composing to screenwriting, presumably after somebody read his spec script for Chubby Rain II).  The set up is so perfunctory you can imagine an entire audience willing the earth to part to swallow up the thirty minutes of exposition and character sketches that are neither entertaining nor interesting.  I can imagine the cast thinking the same thing, considering how they had little else on their mind than the paycheck.  John Cusack plays what I assume to be a terrible writer whose divorced wife (Amanda Peet) has moved on with a plastic surgeon (Tom McCarthy, who truly deserves the money based on his work elsewhere) and his kids don’t have much interest in him and everything is terrible into the world falls apart.  Leave it to a writer to see the end of the world as an opportunity to get his family back together.  There are a host of other characters, from the President (an earnest Danny Glover), his chief scientist (an earnest Chiwetel Ejiofor), the President’s daughter (an earnest Thandie Newton), and so on.  Oliver Platt is the only one who seems to be having any fun here, except for maybe Woody Harrelson, but only in that way that stoners are having a great time stoned while everyone around them is bored and slightly embarrassed.  There are a slew of others off in their own little movies, occasionally popping up to take our heroes from point A to B or to just simply die.

Thankless as such roles seem, their deaths cost a lot of money.  Let’s face it, anybody going to this film is there to see wholesale destruction and that’s about it.  The special effects on display are pretty fantastic, sure, but it isn’t long before they become just plain tedious.  The single moment of real awe for the beauty of the end of the world is given over to the creation of a supervolcano at a national park, and even that is quickly forgotten in favour of the eighth narrow escape in a twenty-minute time span.  All credit to the effects team, they love their attention to detail, but at some point it becomes dull and then, even worse, it flips over into nausea.  There’s a moment when a character looks out his side window and sees a torn open office building with people dangling from ledges, struggling against gravity to survive.  There’s a fetishistic glee to the horrible and hopeless ends billions of people meet, and without anything particularly fun or amusing to occupy ourselves with, we’re stuck reflecting on the sheer ugliness of the CGI sheen.

The bleakness aside, the film continues to trundle on for what seems like years, wasting our time with ham-fisted dialogue while we wait to work out where the next, and hopefully more fun, sequence is coming from.  The beauty of The Day After Tomorrow comes from the joy you can take from the contrived B/C/D/E/F/G plots.  For instance, the main character there, Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal)’s mother, played by Sela Ward, is a nurse taking care of dying children in a hospital.  One child isn’t evacuated, so she decides to stay with him until an ambulance can take him away.  There is virtually no tension in these scenes, and the whole subplot sputters out into nothing in no time at all, but you have to howl with laughter at the fact that the dying cancer kid is reading Peter Pan, only he can’t actually read but he really likes the pictures.  Even without the snarky enjoyment of B-movie cheese, the central Sam and his love interest and Sam and his father arcs are, although simplistic and a little clumsy, are enjoyable enough. No such anchor in 2012, where the dull problems of these dull people are addressed in the dullest way possible, until some horrendous Russian Oligarch cliché comes barreling into the scene and somehow makes everything worse.

And so it goes on for almost 2 hours and 40 minutes.  Boring, boring, kind of interesting effects, now kind of depressing, boring ad infinitum.  The big climax involves a moral choice that’s meant to be hopeful but by this point it’s too late for anybody in charge to make amends for the billions they left behind.  Oh, and there’s also an action climax that is so poor that one pines for the days of Wolfgang Petersen’s Poseidon remake.  One can’t expect it to live up to The Day After Tomorrow, a film so classical in style that it adhered to that old maxim, “if a CGI wolf appears in the first act, it will attack Jake Gyllenhaal in the third”, and was all the better for it.  In 2012, that wolf would have either died a depressing drowning death or defecated on Amanda Peet’s head.  Okay, maybe the latter wouldn’t have been so bad.


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