Some movies speak for themselves. One such movie is 2012, which comes billed as the end of the world, Roland Emmerich style. This review could simply state “Roland Emmerich destroys the world for real this time” and that would probably be sufficient. If you’ve seen any of his other movies, you know more or less what to expect from Emmerich. And since you know what CGI effects are capable of in 2009, you can probably predict what the destruction of earth circa 2012 might look like.
An airplane flies through the collapsing L.A. skyline — the first of many things that Roland Emmerich destroys in his latest world-ender, “2012.”
And since you’ve seen the trailers, you know what you’re buying going in. The only question here is whether 2012 delivers what you expect respectably and entertainingly, or whether it’s a cliche-ridden, implausible, over-the-top exercise in gratuitous mayhem.
Well, why can’t it be both? I submit that’s exactly what it is. 2012 is what it is: a spectacular popcorn disaster epic that appeals to a mass PG-13 audience. It’s a special effects thrill ride that will not be particularly disturbing or depressing. How can “the end of the world” not be depressing, you ask? I wouldn’t presume to give away the ending, but like all Emmerich mass-consumable destruction opuses, this one comes with a certain tempered conclusion to make all the world-ending that transpires over 150 minutes somehow seem okay, if you see what I mean. Never mind that untold billions have perished. This movie is not about who dies, it’s about who survives!
Things are always darkest before the dawn. In 2012, that means earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, the shifting of the earth’s crust leading to the complete realignment of all the continents, the reversal of the magnetic poles, and a flood not pictured in Noah’s worst nightmares. At one point, someone mentions that the north pole is now the south pole, and that it’s located at Wisconsin. You don’t hear that in a movie every day.
I confess: I liked it. 2012 works on its chosen level of largest natural-disaster picture of all time. You want shit blowing up? You GOT shit blowing up, awesomely. You want it filtered through a Hollywood dysfunctional-family storyline in order to make it a palatable human movie rather than a documentary about destruction? Why not: We’ve got John Cusack playing the divorced everyman dad, with two kids who like their stepfather better than him. The question isn’t whether the stepfather’s days are numbered, but what page of the script he’s gonna die on.
And do you want a government perspective to provide a “what if” hypothetical that just-plausibly-enough looks at how a crisis of world-ending proportions might possibly be handled? You got it: Here’s Danny Glover as the president, Thandie Newton as his daughter, a geologist adviser played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, and the always-reliable Oliver Platt playing the part of the cynical amoralist bureaucrat you think you’ll inevitably end up hating, if not for the fact that, well, he’s just so damned pragmatic and right all the time.
Could the world’s governments keep the secret that they keep here for three years? Not a chance. Could they successfully undertake a project like this in silence, or for that matter, at all? No freaking way. And if they could, why are they allowing the crazy guy played by Woody Harrelson to broadcast his radio show from ground zero?
Yes, there are scenes here that are laughable. One involves the fate of a stupid dog as thousands of screaming people seem doomed. I swear to you this scene is played out as if we honestly cared about the dog’s fate. Maybe somebody did. I sure didn’t. I’m also certain this scene was meant as tongue-in-cheek irony, simply because no filmmaker could possibly be sincere about such an obvious and ridiculous cliche. Laugh I was surely meant to, and laugh I did.
But this movie is also suitably involving. The destruction is spectacular, and the characters — however hackneyed — serve their purpose and imbue the narrative with enough emotion and humanity to keep the enterprise from being a hollow exercise.
One thing is certain: I can abide a mayhem epic like 2012 — even at 2 1/2 hours — far more than I can an unwatchable mess like Transformers 2. Say what you will about the shortcomings of 2012; at least you can see what happens and feel involved in the action, no matter how prolonged. (Yes, the movie is too long and wears out its welcome. But it is not boring.)
The movie delivers what it promised — sound and fury and convincingly gargantuan FX — but it actually looks and feels like a movie with characters and a story, instead of a 150-minute trailer for itself. And if it seems like I’m praising this movie for not being Tranformers 2 — well, so be it. The difference is that one movie features destruction within a context and action you can follow, and the other does not.
There’s a scene in both films involving the destruction of an aircraft carrier. In Transformers 2, it was arbitrary, unnecessary, gratuitous, inconsequential, and had nothing to do with anything. In 2012, it wasn’t exactly necessary, but at least it had a certain ironic edge to it, and involved characters that mattered to the story.
Hey, this isn’t a great movie. But as an FX-driven crowd-pleaser featuring every natural disaster in the book and a screenplay that must traffic in all the disaster cliches that were invented in every disaster movie before this one — well, this is about as good as I can imagine it being done.
Rating out of 4: