November 12, 2009


Ah-ha, I think I found your leak.

Grade: D +

Director: Roland Emmerich

Starring: John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Amanda Peet, Thandie Newton, Oliver Platt, Thomas McCarthy, Woody Harrelson, and Danny Glover

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 2 hours, 38 minutes

In every Roland Emmerich disaster flick, there are always the digital money shots that not only sustain Emmerich’s inexplicable filmmaking career but seemingly redeem the poor audience members who plunk down their hard-earned scratch to witness tsunamis swamping Manhattan and aliens imploding the White House.

They also usually come about midway through any one of his excruciatingly long apocalyptic forays – Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow – leaving the rest of the time wasted with the same character archetypes. There is the intrepid scientist who warns the noble U.S. President and some skeptical member of his staff about impeding doom, along with a third-party hero who just wants to save his family and the world, in that order. And, always along for the ride are barely realized secondary players who supply annoying comic relief and/or cannon fodder for all the CGI cataclysms.

So it is in 2012, Emmerich’s latest act of paranoia profiteering. Scientific advisor Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor, mortgaging his talent for a paycheck) discovers three years out that on December 21, 2012, the occasion of the end of the Mayan Long Count Calendar, the moon and stars will align for the first time since the demise of the dinosaurs, igniting solar flares and flinging neutrinos into Earth’s core that will heat and melt the mantle, causing massive tectonic shifts and, more importantly, lots and lots of F/X earthquakes.

World leaders, including President Thomas Wilson (Danny Glover, slurring his lines like a punch-drunk pugilist), are forewarned, but the cursory, slipshod preparation montages are merely an appetizer for the calamitous main course. Chasms open, buildings crumble, tidal waves crash down, and volcanoes erupt. Our principal tour guide through the Book of Revelations is middling author Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), whose chance encounter with another Emmerich archetype, the nut-job conspiracy theorist (played here with ease by Woody Harrelson), sends him on a mission to rescue his estranged wife Kate (Amanda Peet), her new boyfriend (Thomas McCarthy), and his kids from peril.

The disaster scenes are loopy, but they do constitute popcorn-chomping amusement to a point. Where this and every Emmerich cinematic shipwreck runs aground is its woeful attempts to interject character development, sentimentality, and morality into their narratives. Endless aerial escapes from danger are punctuated by unending tearful telephone goodbyes (yes, apparently satellite and cell phone technology will survive the End of Days as long as cockroaches). Scenes of a tsunami engulfing Washington, D.C. are juxtaposed against Curtis and his wife blithering about why their marriage hit the skids.

The rendezvous point for the lucky or lucrative few is a series of metallic arks anchored in the Himalayas that will house man and beast until the flood waters recede, a comical incarnation of Strangelove’s mine-shafts. When Helmsley and comely First Daughter Laura Wilson (Thandie Newton) protest the fate of those who slaved to construct the mammoth boats, a grouchy bureaucrat (Oliver Platt) sarcastically invites them to give their boarding passes to a couple of poor Chinese workers. The moment is cloying enough. What’s unintentionally hilarious is Helmsley and Wilson’s reaction: They shrug their shoulders and climb aboard their ship, summarily leaving the peasants and Emmerich’s principled pretense to a watery grave.

Emmerich doesn’t just pander to tableaux of death and destruction; he relishes in them. Indulging in new levels of rank nihilism, the director conspicuously razes St. Peter’s Basilica upon the heads of the Papacy and thousands of praying parishioners. This is the second or third time he has demolished the White House, this time using a tidal wave carrying the USS John F. Kennedy (the motive behind Emmerich’s choice of ship is peculiar considering the actual “Big John” is decommissioned and berthed outside Philadelphia).

Ultimately, Emmerich rationalizes the end of the world and the deaths of millions as an excuse for Helmsley and Wilson to hook-up and a way to get Kate’s boyfriend out of the picture so Curtis and his family can reunite. Lovely. If the apocalypse ever actually arrives, let’s hope every copy of 2012 is among its first casualties.

Neil Morris

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