Movie Review: 2012 (2009)

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Special effects are the star in 2012
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Roland Emmerich brought in aliens to destroy the world in 1996 with Independence Day. In 1998 he gave the keys to a giant mutant lizard trying to destroy New York City in Godzilla. Weather was to blame in 2004 when he directed The Day After Tomorrow and now, in 2009, the sun is the culprit as the Earth’s core is heating up and 2012 will no longer be known as just another a year as much as it will be the year the Mayans predicted the world will end and Roland Emmerich gladly obliged for no less than two hours and 38 minutes.

2012 is a victim of its own ability to entertain. For 90 minutes of its running time it is a wild and insanely entertaining thrill park where limousines can outrun eroding fault lines and drive straight through crumbling skyscrapers just in time to make it to a twin engine prop-plane that will take off just in the nick of time. Don’t worry, it’s not a spoiler, the outlandish spectacle is the story here and once it’s gone 2012 stops being fully aware of its own silliness, and attempts to make sense of it all. It goes from being a film where we are willing to follow its leaps in logic to one where we are given enough time to begin questioning them. In this sense, Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen has a leg up when it comes to effects-driven behemoths. Bay heard the fan’s cries for robots fighting one another and delivered, while Emmerich still felt it was necessary to get the destruction of the world over with midway through, and rely on technological gimmickry and character-driven mumbo jumbo for the final hour. Buh-oring and unearned is the only way to describe that decision.

In discussing the film with a few fellow film reviewers, one argued the opening 30 minutes (of which I enjoyed) contained just as much exposition as the final 30 minutes so how could I really complain about the ending? I argued, we are willing to endure the opening setup, which is expected in an effort to establish some semblance of a story, but we still expect enough glorious mayhem in return to make up for what we have put in. For what it’s worth, I think Emmerich did a decent job setting up the film with the skill of a simpleton, which is fine, but it’s when he forgets his characters are nothing more than paper thin devices necessary to set up outlandish A-to-B action pieces that he begins to lose me. Then again, even his action scenes become redundant as the limo scene I referenced earlier is the film’s high point, but it’s mirrored over and over again as a jumbo jet must outlast a collapsing runway and a Winnebago must dodge and evade volcanic fireballs before the Earth once again attempts to swallow our protagonists’ lowly prop-plane attempting to avoid an ash cloud of death.

Emmerich’s unwillingness to let the film evolve causes it to fall apart. He is so determined you care about his characters to the point 2012 stops becoming an effects-driven monolith of cornball action and becomes a schmaltzy drama dedicated to characters you don’t care a lick for. Sure, I cheered the little dog on as it performed it’s highwire act with the dexterity of Philippe Petit, but at the same time I didn’t care about the brainless owner calling for it. And why should I? It’s not like it will get me anywhere as the final moments become a knock-off of Wolfgang Petersen’s 2006 remake Poseidon dispelling any chance of redemption.

No one is to blame for 2012‘s eventual self-destruction other than Emmerich and his 2012 co-writer/composer Harald Kloser as they created a disaster epic with a story that can’t pull itself out from beneath the rubble. John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Thandie Newton and Danny Glover serve no real purpose other than to read lines and not get in the way of Emmerich’s not-so-magic wand. 2012 is likely to enjoy a healthy opening weekend at the box-office and perhaps even prove to be a financial success, but overall it’s just another Emmerich disaster film that can’t pull itself together.

Perhaps one of these times Emmerich will take himself completely out of the writing process and hand off his admittedly fascinating ideas of world destruction to a more capable screenwriter. And hopefully one of these days the perfect storm of destructive directorial and capable screenwriting talent will come together for a film we can all get behind. For now we are stuck with a mildly satisfying film whose appeal wears off long before it’s all over.

GRADE: C