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The Mini-Review: '2012'

At this point, I’m not sure which has become more tiresome: Roland Emmerich’s penchant for emotionally overwrought end-of-the-world pictures or his penchant for giving said pictures time-specific titles. With the exception of Godzilla, which advertised its subject with forthright specificity, his titles have exhibited a peculiar insistence on emphasizing the when at the expense of the what: Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and now 2012. (Even his relatively Armageddon-free caveman film--humankind evidently hadn’t yet built enough to bother annihilating--was called 10,000 B.C.) I shudder at the thought of such potential future projects as A Week from Thursday, Maybe Sometime in the New Year?, and Whenever.

One advantage to Emmerich’s narrow frame of vision, of course, is that it’s easy to have a sense of whether one will enjoy his latest film based on whether one enjoyed the ones that came before. All the pesky x factors that make ordinary movies such a crapshoot--standout performances, narrative ingenuity, emotional authenticity--have been banished from the proceedings, leaving only Emmerich’s spectacular CGI catastrophes and his maudlin, fraudulent melodrama.

Alas, like his last comparable effort, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012 features a good deal of the former in the early going and far too much of the latter as the movie progresses. How can it be that so prominent a purveyor of the larger-than-life is unfamiliar with the concept of saving the best for last?

The conceit this time out--not that it matters in the slightest--is that a series of escalating solar flares has produced a “mutated” form of neutrinos, which are penetrating the Earth’s crust and heating up its core. The ancient Mayans somehow foretold that this solar calamity would take place in 2012, but the movie makes no effort to explain how they knew: Emmerich’s in this for the earthquakes and super-volcanoes; leave the geo- and metaphysics to someone who cares.

The protagonists are all strictly off the shelf: a likable Everyman (John Cusack), his ex-wife (Amanda Peet), their two kids, and her new boyfriend (one guess how this awkward family situation will be resolved!); an idealistic scientist (Chiwetel Ejiofor); a scheming bureaucrat (Oliver Platt); a noble president (Danny Glover) and his still nobler daughter (Thandie Newton); and various other do-gooders and blood relatives whose cataclysmic deaths we can mourn lightly.

For a while it’s watchable enough, at least for those with a taste for the ridiculous. Emmerich rends the Earth’s crust like damp tissue, slides California into the sea, and turns Yellowstone into nature’s most glorious roman candle--with Cusack & Co. forever one step (literally) ahead of the tectonic carnage, watching the ground disappear behind them as they flee on foot, by limo, by RV, by prop plane, and by cargo jet. (Emmerich evidently couldn’t fit any camels into the budget.)

But just as the cyclones and tsunamis of The Day After Tomorrow ultimately succumbed to a terminal case of narrative frostbite, 2012’s ludicrous thrills begin burning themselves out by the movie’s midpoint. There are tidal waves yet to come, and some wan echoes of Titanic and The Poseidon Adventure, but even the bath largely gives way to bathos. There are tearful farewells, acts of selflessness, the steady exploitation of children in danger, and more moral handwringing than you’d find at an alternative daycare discussing which snack foods are and are not appropriate for kids. As the movie approaches its two-and-a-half hour mark, you, too, may feel that The End can’t come soon enough.