I know it’s not true, but it feels like it’s been quite a while since a studio put out a lot of money for a big budget disaster film. With all the recent enthusiasm for superheroes and fantasy films, it’s easy to forget about the heady days when talented effects artists could expect to face no greater challenge than to destroy the Earth, or at least parts of it, in some randomly breathtaking way. And in there is probably no better modern practitioner of the art, on the directorial side anyway, than Emmerich.
It probably goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: If you’ve seen a Roland Emmerich disaster film before, than you’ve already seen “2012.”
After subjecting the people of the Earth to the ravages of invading aliens, mutated lizards and climate change, a several thousand year old prediction of destruction is probably too good for him to pass up. As with his previous tries, it begins with the warnings of a scientist. In this case an idealistic geologist (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who discovers on a hot 2009 day that radiation from the sun is superheating the Earth’s core and the planet can’t maintain the pressure for much longer. The human race has less than three years to prepare for the complete destruction of everything on the Earth’s surface.
Which is what we’ve come to see after all. Yes, there’s the usual disaster movie tropes of the large varied cast for us to observe reacting to the crisis. Some will live, some will die, but through their connections to each other at the height of emotion we’ll learn something about what it means to be human, blah, blah, blah.
That doesn’t sound cookie-cutter because I’m being glib; it sounds cookie-cutter because that’s what it is. Emmerich has a well-worn disaster movie play book and he follows it to the letter. There’s the altruistic scientist of course, the father with the distanced relationship to his child (check), the estranged husband forced back into close proximity with his wife (check), the valiant President and logical but self-serving bureaucrat who works for him (double check).
Through some Altman-esque set of connections, these characters are generally connected together through our scientist, trying desperately to figure out what the right thing to do is amid such a difficult situation, and a failed novelist (John Cusack) working as a chauffeur who slowly begins putting two and two together after luckily stumbling on an Art Bell-like conspiracy minded radio host (Woody Harrelson) who is fortunately able to explain everything that’s going to happen to him.
They say nothing breeds contempt like familiarity and we know these clichéd archetypes like the back of our hand. They’re not particularly bad, just horribly, horribly uninspired. Not every story needs to be, but it’s symptomatic of the amount of effort put into anything other than the sequences of devastation.
Excellent, actually, and if that’s all you want out of “2012” you’ll certainly get your money’s worth. Cusack’s desperate race to get out of L.A. as it literally falls apart around his ears is honest challenger for best single chase scene this year. It’s insane and ridiculous and completely improbable, which is what it’s supposed to be. Cracks open up under Cusack’s limo’s wheels as he zig zags desperately among, and sometimes through, collapsing buildings. Sure it’s impossible to care what happens to the characters, but it’s entertaining to watch. Once.
It’s not quite as impressive the second time they do it, though. And the third time you’re spending more time looking at your watch more than the screen. “2012” is one trick pony, and that one trick isn’t good enough to prop up the films two and a half hour running time.
Ultimately, “2012” is more interested in the human toll this kind of catastrophe would take and the tough choices it would require. Which is a noble goal, but one that is completely beyond the scope of Emmerich as a writer and a director. He doesn’t seem to know how to make it sound genuine instead of maudlin, or how to approach it with balance of tone.
It’s not the worst film he’s ever made, and better than quite a few of them. But it is very dour, lacking the conflict needed to make the drama work and the joy to make the adventure work, and there’s quite a bit less of the Earth falling apart than in it than it’s leading people to believe.
Over the top scenes of destruction aside, “2012” is generally unimaginative in every way, from conception to execution. It’s not particularly bad, but never has the end of the world seemed so quaint.