Movie Review: 2012

First there was Independence Day: Roland Emmerich’s cliche-ridden remake of Star Wars, War of the Worlds, and V: The Miniseries all rolled into one. Not a good film, by any stretch of the imagination, but at least it had Will Smith’s charm and acting chops to give it a modicum of watchability. Then there was The Day After Tomorrow, a true cinematic trainwreck, so silly it may have done more harm to the cause of global warming activism than 10 Michael Crichton novels, and deserving the Lifetime Oscar of Cheesiness for its unbearably corny final sequence in which the multi-racial citizens of Los Angeles are covered in volcanic ash that obscures their skin color, and the audience is actually supposed to be moved by the alleged symbolism of racial reconciliation and tolerance. Barf.

2012, Emmerich’s latest venture, fits squarely within his oeuvre. As you may have guessed, this is not a compliment. But in fairness, it’s not all bad. Much as I can watch Independence Day on late night cable TV and find myself enjoying the action (at least until Jeff Goldblum starts babbling about “viruses”), I imagine that one day I’ll find this playing on TV again, and I may give it another go. The action scenes really are gripping, the special effects are phenomenal, and John Cusack and Co. are decent enough actors that you do sort of care about what happens to the characters. Sort of. (Woody Harrelson is here too, in what will not be remembered as his best movie role of 2009).

I’m not going to lay out the plot for you. If you haven’t seen the commercials a dozen times already, you’re probably the Unibomber sans TV set and computer, so you’re not even reading this anyway. If you have seen the previews, then you already know the story: The world is about to end, just when the ancient Mayans predicted it would. Scientists figure this out and provide a half-assed scientific explanation as to why it’s happening (don’t try to analyze this too much, or you’ll just get frustrated). We get to watch Cusack and crew escape the destruction, time and time again. A plan is hatched to save a small fraction of the population from global armageddon. Yadda yadda yadda.

The film is chockfull of some of my biggest cinematic pet peeves, including: (1) crazy man observing something ugly or awful and exclaiming how “beautiful” it is, with wide eyes and a cackle; (2) Russian characters delivering bad, simplistic dialogue in affected, overwrought accents, as if there’s something inherently sexy about Russian drawl that somehow makes up for bad writing; and (3) divorced father wanting better relationship with his kids, competing with ex-wife’s new financially secure boyfriend, and eventually winning back his family. I could go on, but I won’t. Fortunately, with a bit of effort, I was able to ignore these irritants, and allow myself to get wrapped up in the special effects and the drama.

Less forgivable, however, was the sheer number of times that Cusack and family barely escape death by a hair. There are literally 237 different moments in the film where Cusack or another character take actions that — if taken one second later — would have wiped out the whole cast. Volcanic fireballs land around the bus, but never quite hit it. The plane takes off at the precise instant the runway breaks apart. The chasm opening in the road spreads just slowly enough for the car to outrun it. Over and over and over this happens, and it becomes tedious. You become so jaded by the technique that you develop immunity to the tension the film means to convey in these scenes.

There is one scene in this movie, however, that is simply maddening. Really inexcusable. I don’t want to completely spoil the plot for you, so let me try to set this up without giving away everything: Suppose you know the world is going to end, and you have the ability to save a minuscule percentage of the population from death and destruction. How would you select who gets saved and who doesn’t? Not an easy task, to be sure. Certainly one fraught with hazard, without any clear-cut, morally unproblematic answers. But you wouldn’t know that given the way Emmerich has things play out onscreen. No, we’re treated to lots of moral posturing and handwringing from two of the films protagonists, as they lament the inequity of it all. This is all so cheap and easy and unpersuasive. What else were the powers-that-be supposed to do? Then things go really down hill.

At one point, the scientists realize they’ve misjudged how much time they have to load all the lucky passengers into the escape ships, so the Bad Guy orders the doors closed. Now, a large percentage of those selected to be saved are going to die after all. Enter Good Guy and Good Girl, with more hand-wringing, moral preening and posturing. And speechifying. With maudlin music in the background. They preach about how important it is to open the doors and let the people in. But as resonant as the filmmakers clearly intended this scene to be, they somehow don’t notice that it falls flat for one simple reason: Either there is time enough to let the people board, or there isn’t.

If there’s any tough decision to be made here, it is simply determining whether trying to save the not-yet-boarded passengers’ lives is worth risking everyone else’s lives. This is a question of timing and logistics and risk trade-offs, not of conflicting moral views about the value of the lives of the unboarded. But Emerrich tries to push on the audience this utterly contrived morality tale of good vs. evil, which it manifestly is not, since it doesn’t fit the facts of the scene.

Then, just when you think things can’t possibly get any worse, they do. Various international heads of state take turns piously testifying about how the doors should be opened and the people allowed in. There’s even some incoherent garble about how if the absent Italian prime minister were present, he would definitely join everyone in singing Kumbaya, as if the Italian guy’s opinion carries extra-special moral weight or something. Trust me, this is just all so incredibly cheesy. At one point, I almost stood up and yelled at the screen, “Hey, why don’t you all get a room!”

Final thought question: What does it mean that I often found myself agreeing with the explanations and rationalizations of the Bad Guy in this scene, often for the very reasons he himself articulates? This surely isn’t what the filmmakers intended. Maybe it means I’m a bad person. Then again, maybe it means this is a bad movie.

In conclusion: If you found the message of racial reconciliation and healing at the end of The Day After Tomorrow to be moving or thought-provoking, then this movie is totally for you (loser). If not, you should congratulate yourself for not being a dumbass, and then prepare yourself to cringe and hide under your seat during the overtly moralistic dreck in this movie. But while 2012 gets a thumbs down from me, I won’t say skip it. It’s enough of a feast for the eyes, that you can probably justify plopping down your hard-earned cash for an almost 2 1/2 hour escape from your otherwise dreary life. What else are you gonna do with $10?

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27 thoughts on “Movie Review: 2012

  1. I think the movie with the racial reconciliation at the end was Volcano.

    I’m boycotting this movie out of principle.

  2. Oh crap, am I misrembering films? I may be. How embarrassing. If it is Volcano, I’d make the comparison with Volcano then, since that really came to mind whil watching 2012. But if that’s not an Emmerich film (is it?), then I guess I’m being unfair to the filmmaker. Crap.

  3. There’s no way to be unfair to this filmmaker. He should be sentenced to watch his own movies on endless loop for his crimes against humanity.

    This whole genre is tired. I stopped watching disaster movies after Earthquake. They all suck.

  4. AICN’s Harry Knowles wrote: “The problem with 2012 is it wants to be a hopeful tale about how the world came together, but really – it’s how the governments and aristocracy of the world came together with cheap slave labor to save themselves and a few others.”

  5. I see what Knowles is saying, but I guess I disagree with him in a way. The good guys in this film are making Knowles’ argument, and the filmmaker obviously sympathizes with them. I personally did not, because there really were no constructive criticisms to be made — just moral posturing and hand-wringing. But whatever — the cheesiness is what really grates, quite apart from these other side issues.

  6. I think I’ll netflix it.

    BTW, I don’t recall the Mayans talking about neutrinos heating the earth like popcorn and that’s how it all ends. Silly, silly silly. If you’re going to base a disaster movie on an ancient prophecy, even one as remote and ambiguous as the Mayan (which wasn’t really a prophecy; they simply thought counting to 13 was good enough, and that when the generation of Mayans that live to reach the 13th they would simply add the 14th and onwards), surely you would base the impending disaster at least somewhat related to the original prophecy. It’s probably the lamest point of the whole movie. Here they take the “fear” that in 2012 the Mayan calendar ends, thus the whole world ends, and then when they (Emmerich and his fellow writers) think about how exactly the world ends, it has absolutely nothing at all to do with the Mayan beliefs. That does a disservice to the “fear” of what’s to come in 2012. I hope a better, more talented writer screenplays a better film to pounce on this fear before 2012 and truly frighten us of that impending day.

  7. Emmerich is at it again, destroying Los Angeles again, only this time he’s got better technology to play with than he did back in 1996 with Independence Day. I think he may have a complex of some sort. What do you think?

  8. The ashen-faced multi-racial reconciliation was indeed at the end of Volcano. The only reason I know this is because said film was Eric[ D. Snider]‘s Bad Movie this week.

    It’s heartening to know that this movie is at least as terrible as I expected. Thanks for taking (another) one for the team, Aaron.

  9. I think Day After Tomorrow ends with reverse Mexican immigration. Basically all the Americans pull up tents and head south. Which would be funny in a weirdly ironic way.

    Of course it sucked to be a Canadian. On the other hand maybe we were all ready for it and were out skiing when the Americans were fleeing to Mexico. My best camping trip ever was in Banff one Christmas when it was 50 below out. But I digress.

    I think some of the best movies are ones which unintentionally deconstruct themselves. That’s why, while I hardly love it, Jurassic Park 2 is vastly superior to the original. That’s because the bad guys in the original are a crappy fat programmers, a T-Rex and a few Raptors. In the sequel the bad guy is this big game hunter who is literally the only intelligent guy in the whole movie. The people who cause the most havoc are the environmentalists who keep trying to treat giant monsters as cute and cuddly kittens. Seriously, rewatch it again. The villains and heroes have this weird reversal going on.

    Although I still could have done without the gymnast vs. the raptor. It brought back horrible memories of watching Gymkata back in the 80′s.

    So maybe this all fits? Maybe the bad guys really are the good guys. Of course I’d actually have to watch an Emmerich movie to decide. And that’s just not worth the payoff.

  10. Suppose you know the world is going to end, and you have the ability to save a minuscule percentage of the population from death and destruction. How would you select who gets saved and who doesn’t? Not an easy task, to be sure. Certainly one fraught with hazard, without any clear-cut, morally unproblematic answers.

    I disagree. Observe:

    It could easily be accomplished with a computer. And a computer could be set and programmed to accept factors from youth, health, sexual fertility, intelligence, and a cross section of necessary skills. Of course it would be absolutely vital that our top government and military men be included to foster and impart the required principles of leadership and tradition. Naturally, they would breed prodigiously, eh? There would be much time, and little to do. But ah with the proper breeding techniques and a ratio of say, ten females to each male, I would guess that they could then work their way back to the present gross national product within say, twenty years . . . I hasten to add that since each man will be required to do prodigious… service along these lines, the women will have to be selected for their sexual characteristics which will have to be of a highly stimulating nature.

    Sounds about right.

  11. That’s a fun read, Aaron. While I haven’t seen the movie yet I have seen enough previews to wonder just how sick the character identification really is. I mean, is there a sense that the writer/director is trying to attatch the viewer to a tiny handfull of leading players whilst billions of forgotten souls are dying around them? I fear that may be the case — that the audience is experiencing relief when the good guys escape (those 237 times) while liesurely taking in stride humanity’s almost complete demise. That would be utterly morbid — utterly morally bankrupt.

  12. Tracy, I’m afraid I never saw that one. I’ll put it on my list. Right after I get around to watching the entire Nickelodeon collection on my Comcast On Demand.

    Evan, shall we assume you’ve been locked away in a North Korean labor camp for the past 20 years? That’s the only explanation of your idiosyncratic cinematic tastes that will excuse your otherwise coming off as a complete nitwit. :)

  13. You really can’t watch Volcano without also watching Dante’s Peak. They’re like twins that must be seen together to fully appreciate their specialness.

    Yeah, twins; really stupid, boring twins.

  14. Saw it tonight (as part of a group date). Words can’t describe how bad this movie is. You must experience it to truly understand.

    Suffice it to say that it seemed to me that the makers of this movie were overtly mocking the audience throughout by pushing the sucktitude further and further throughout. They must have been yanking our collective chains as a prank right? Right??

    At first I thought they were insulting us with the crappiness. Now I prefer to assume they were going for campiness and hoping we would get the joke. If so I say well played ye jesters.

  15. I’m with you, Geoff J. I saw it tonight. That was the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen put on a screen. A small Cessna airplane completely engulfed in the pyroclastic surge from a supervolcano that doesn’t immediately incinerate like a match over a flame?? An earthquake in the “north Cheasapeake Bay” deposits an aircraft carrier into downtown Washington DC?? A billion dollar ship designed to save humanity, whose engines won’t start unless the doors are closed?? And don’t get me started on the Himalayan flood…

    With each successive scene, the suspension of disbelief became increasingly difficult until it collapsed under its weight. And that was only by minute 30. It doesn’t work as science, it doesn’t work as drama… it doesn’t even work as camp.

    The much ballyhooed special effects were idiotic, and took no account of physics or gravity. Towers being hit by the same seismic shift falling into each other? Oh, please.

    I’ve seen plenty of bad Sci Fi B-movies, but this one takes the cake. When they were throwing their $260 million at this train wreck, did anyone view the dailies and realize how bad it was?

    The sad part is the fact that this dumb flick — like the stupid Transformers movies — will make a profit. I guess I forgot to get the lobotomy with the rest of the movie goers when I went to see this.

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