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 isÂ 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 moralisticÂ 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?