Thursday, November 12, 2009

Film review: '2012' a wretched exercise in disaster porn

John Cusack runs for cover in 2012.


By John Thomason

Director Roland Emmerich is expert at conditioning his audiences to delight in human suffering.

A purveyor of the most soulless brand of disaster porn, Emmerich’s lowbrow forte is the special-effect-hemorrhaging eradication of masses of ant-sized people, their exterminators ranging from aliens (Independence Day) to Japanese monsters (Godzilla) to global warming (The Day After Tomorrow).

But simply watching the earth crack, cave in and swallow populations of helpless people into the fiery cauldron of Mother Nature’s vengeance is never enough without “comic relief.”

Take the first action set-piece in 2012, when John Cusack’s washed-up novelist/chauffeur Jackson Curtis careens his apparently impenetrable limousine through Southern California, with ex-wife, two kids and ex-wife’s smug boyfriend in tow, dodging falling skyscrapers and zipping past the quaking asphalt as the entire world crumbles around him. Doomsday may be uprooting the populace, but this 21st-century example of the nuclear family still has to deal with traffic.

Curtis’ limo grinds to a halt behind a yellow car inexplicably snailing its way down the quickly evaporating road, oblivious to the apocalypse around it. Cut to the sedan’s predictable inhabitants, a couple of old ladies whose eyes barely clear the steering wheel, crawling toward the last early-bird special they’ll ever eat.

Emmerich asks that we snigger at this cruel cutaway, and, crueler still, shows the impeding automobile meet its fate as Curtis’ limo speeds by in the foreground. I’m not sure what’s more disheartening and, frankly, despicable about this scene – Emmerich’s hurtful intent or the audience’s Pavlovian response, a chorus of stultifying applause.

There are several such moments in 2012, a film that aspires to a pat message of humanism but couldn’t be less humanist if it snuffed out its characters in slow motion. Like the sex scenes in porn films, the action sequences are the only element given any thought, and they appear at intervals no longer than about 10 minutes so as not to bore its ostensibly ADD-addled audience. Also like porno, the connecting scenes are simply arbitrary and inauthentic bridges to the next explosion.

Its story is a compilation of expensively shot tragedies intercut with cast members staring with mouths agape: Watch Yellowstone National Park self-destruct! Watch the Eiffel Tower tumble to its death! Watch a jumbo jet hurtle off an icy tundra! The whole thing grows rather tedious in its second half, because you can only look at so many toppling replicas of world monuments before you grow desensitized.

And while nobody watches porn for the story, it’s worth nothing that the characters in 2012 are almost all shopworn stereotypes from Independence Day:

The Bill Pullman role of sympathetic, ideologically anonymous, nation-rallying fake president is played by Danny Glover; the Randy Quaid part of the self-sacrificing conspiracy theorist who was right all along is played by the pickle-hoarding, camper-residing radio talker Woody Harrelson; the Will Smith part of redemptive, heroic Everyman is handled by the considerably less macho Cusack; and the Jeff Goldblum role of the scientist with the brains to figure out how to save the principal characters from extinction is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, a Frank Capra idealist who is shocked that his government could knowingly let the world end on its profit-hungry watch.

To this end, the film has added a clichéd corrupt politician portrayed with over-the-top nastiness by Oliver Platt.

As in the much superior Deep Impact, there is no stopping Armageddon from arriving on Dec. 21, 2012 (“I thought we would have more time!” is one of the film’s common, recycled refrains), so the government has exported to China the building of giant arks that will transport a select few people to repopulate the gene pool on the reconstituted, post-apocalyptic Earth.

Because the end of days is an action-movie inevitability rather than a subject of intellectual debate, Emmerich mercifully spares us a lot of the pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo relating to the film’s very crux – just a mention of the Mayan Long-Count calendar here, a reference to Earth’s geological realignment there.

My guess is that Emmerich isn’t holding back on spreading this anti-science propaganda because it would be in bad taste to do so; more than likely, it’s because the film isn’t smart enough to advance even the most crackpot of theories – this is a movie with the intelligence of a chickpea. If you’ve done the tiniest sliver of research on the subject, you’ll note plenty of facts the movie has wrong.

But who fact-checks porn, anyway?

John Thomason is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

2012. Director: Roland Emmerich; Cast: John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Amanda Peet, Woody Harrelson, Oliver Platt, Thomas McCarthy, Thandie Newton, Danny Glover, George Segal; Rated: PG-13; Distributor: Columbia; Opens: Friday; Venue: Most commercial houses

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