"Q: What is it about you and the end of the world?
Emmerich: It's a love affair."
iesb.net interview with the director, Roland Emmerich
When Irwin Allen was plying his trade in the 70s, he would have killed puppies to get his hands on CGI. Allen was what Labour, 30 years ago, would have called its "Disaster Movie Tsar". His cheesy yet sincere epics relied on special effects of the pre-computer kind when words like miniatures, glass-painted mattes and stop motion animation were still being bandied around. Despite his bludgeoning personal style, his work is fondly remembered by this reviewer. I don't think I ever really recovered from The Towering Inferno, the best 'does what it says on the tin' title ever – Snakes On A Plane, tcha – and such great elevators.
CGI is to the disaster movie as eggs are to soufflés. The art and craft of computer generated imagery allow the naffest movie to rise to any occasion rendering (aha!) any outpouring of the imagination possible (albeit expensive) to visualise. Yes, there are drawbacks. Yes, there are believability issues and yes, this creates caring deficits but if it's spectacle you're after and a rudimentary cipher-like American nuclear family to root for, then Roland Emmerich has got a movie so far up your alley, you'll be singing 'Everybody Wants To Be A Cat.' We just knew from the extraordinary teaser and subsequent trailer that this was going to be the biggest blockbuster on the block and the movie is made in such a gung ho spirit, it's hard to be ruthlessly cynical. No, seriously. It's also made a killing (about six billion souls in the movie itself) in its first weekend. 2013 anyone?
If 2012 was a gym workout, we'd all be utterly exhausted and completely spent forty minutes in. This movie produces visually stunning climaxes every ten minutes or so, throwing them out as if no physical effort was involved at all. It dares you to dare to imagine more than it actually delivers. This isn't the infantilism of George Lucas' stuffed frames of everything he can throw in having the curious effect of twice removing you from being even idly entertained. It's the cinematic equivalent of being in an actual earthquake and I have to say, once my son's fingernails were prised from my arm, that Emmerich succeeds in thrilling his audience and allowing swathes of black humour to percolate, some quietly and others usually very loudly under the surface. Regardless of your own feelings on the matter, 2012 delivers what it promised to deliver. It's a damn fine apple so to speak and if you hate apples then stay away. Personally I have been interested in visual effects ever since I got hold of a copy of John Brosnan's Movie Magic in the early 70s. It's not quite as exciting now with the explosion of DVD Extra interest and just the words "Oh, it's all done with computers these days," but back in the day, the ingenuity on offer was startling. I'm not belittling the best CG technicians. It's just that what they do and how they do it I find really hard to comprehend. Great FX shots still knock me out and although I was more moved recently by a twentieth viewing of Local Hero, that doesn't dent my appreciation for the boys and girls in the dark back rooms with render times on their minds.
If you are a fan of independent European art house cinema and despise the direction in which the mainstream is heading then look away now. 2012 is the apotheosis of Hollywood spectacle. You cannot get more apotheotic than 2012. The effects, regardless of anyone's taste and opinion, are jaw dropping. If you are willing not only to suspend disbelief (and draw and quarter it too), you may have a barrel load of fun. Director Emmerich may not like me saying this but he has successfully mined comedy gold in this mega-budget romp, a movie that never challenges you to take it seriously for a nanosecond. All the actors are excellent (no, seriously) given the ridiculous nature of what they're being asked to pull off (stunned shock mostly) and as ciphers they work perfectly well in the context of a disaster movie. There's a bum note in the subplot involving George Segal (very little point in that subplot at all unless it was to see an ocean liner flip from a tsunami's impact… ah! Of course!). It was just nice to see Mr. Segal back on the screen.
Let's face it, no one's going in to see 2012 hoping to see some proof that Chiwetel Eijofor deserved that OBE. It's enough that the actor is playing a scientist morally sure of himself and has charm to spare. There's an exactness to Eijofor's performances that brings to mind some of the best technique on screen these days. But let's not go over the top because the movie itself goes so far over the top and so often, it's hard to suppress a grin at times of mortal peril for our protagonists. Stuff happens in this movie that makes you smile because it's not only loudly ludicrous, it's also delivered in an appropriate manner. You can dismiss 2012 for a lot of reasons but you can't fault the craft. I'm trying to think of a subject where this much CG artistry could be called into place. End of the world scenarios are just perfect for CG. The image of Los Angeles broken into pieces and slipping into the sea will stay in my head awhile I think. Maybe that's just wish-fulfilment on Emmerich's part, a sort of steroidal take on biting the hand that chucks him hundreds of millions of dollars. Goodbye the City of Angels.
I don't think I need to explain the plot. 'Shit Happens' covers it nicely. Oh, alright then. The sun has been bombarding us with neutrinos, atoms that have heated up the Earth's core to a critical temperature. Governments and the rich create arks to weather the apocalypse and when things start to go wrong, Emmerich isn't kidding. The tectonic plates that hold the countries in place are melted unleashing earthquakes of such severity that the whole of L.A., as mentioned, slides into the ocean. If only Bill Hicks were alive to appreciate the gesture. Arizona Bay indeed. The only nod to character is the time spent with hotshot geologist Eijofor who represents the US's role in creating arks for survivors and the fractured nuclear family who by dint of some narrative twisting that made the pips squeak, manage to get to China in time (or do they?) where the arks are being prepared.
Now I would imagine, though I've not read any, that reviews will focus a little on what indy darling John Cusack is doing as an everyman action hero in the middle of this explosion of a movie. Yes, cynics among you would simply say 'getting paid', but Emmerich does have a track record of quirky casting. Matthew Broderick in Godzilla? Does this work for the movie? I'm still not sure but then what is there for the hero to do in a disaster movie except survive or die heroically. To be fair to the character, any one of a number of actors would fit the role comfortably. It's not Shakespeare. But to see Cusack driving like a maniac as L.A. literally disappears behind him, I kept thinking about his puppeteer in Being John Malkovich – in other words, his singular presence was yanking me out of the movie but the action was still good enough to deliver what it promises. Watch out for one of the most brazenly silly climaxes of a movie in a movie chock a blockbuster full of them. If one of the arks is in trouble as it has to be at the end, what bit of the world might it conceivably smash into as a final 'Wow!' to eclipse the others?
Emmerich, I would hazard a guess, is not a man of religious faith or if he is, he's tempting damnation by the bucket load. Not only does Rio's Jesus take a dive off Corcovado mountain, but the Sistine Chapel presages the Vatican falling to pieces and crushing those hapless souls whose prayers amounted to essentially "Please god, make two and two not equal four..." At this point it's worth mentioning that the six billion or so deaths in the movie (I'm only exaggerating by the infinitesimally small amount) are presented in wide shot and happen as a consequence of tectonic upheaval. You don't get to know any one of the thousands who slip from their office blocks into the molten core of the gaping holes and as this is a disaster movie, this doesn't really impinge of the visceral thrill of the carnage on offer. There is one death in the film that's keenly felt but as this death had to happen to facilitate the dynamics of the family relationship, it became inevitable if regrettable at the time.
I cannot recall a single piece of the score by Harald Kloser and Buffy alumnus, the unfortunately named Thomas Wanker. Now this could be a good thing (ha!), the mix of the movie being a seamless whole rather than featuring any stand out theme. I'm coming around to accept that with the exception of James Newton Howard's work for M. Night Shyamalan, composers are not being given the chance to shine too often in the mainstream. It's not even stitching anymore, more of an orchestral drone pitched to suit scenes on offer. I yearn for a return to old school film scoring.
So, if you want to go "Wow!" a lot, check it out. If overblown FX behemoths aren't your thing, give it a wide berth because it really is the FX behemoth of all FX behemoths. It's the end of the world as Emmerich shows it... and I feel fine.