Take a look at this week's release schedule: the distinctions between the choices couldn't be more clear. If I want to go and see a film, I'll go and see Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon. If I want to go and see a movie, I'll go and see Roland Emmerich's 2012. The first is intended to be analysed and contemplated and savoured. The second is simply meant to be enjoyed. Only the latter features a car being chased by an earthquake and a plane being eaten by a volcano. Germany 1, Austria 0.
Consume 2012 as a blockbuster movie - one with a high concept but a low IQ - and it is a hugely enjoyable disaster romp par excellence, with more than a dozen talking points and money shots and jaw-dropping moments of SFX. Dare to engage it on even the most basic critical level and cracks bigger than the San Andreas fault begin to appear.
The plot isn't so much a storyline as a succession of Emmerich-brand clichés loosely knotted together. Failed sci-fi writer Jackson Curtis (Cusack) is the Down-On-His-Luck Everyman™ who gets the jump on The End Of The World™ along with ex-wife Kate (Peet) and his precious kids (because The Children Are Our Future™). Elsewhere, Political Douchebag™ Carl Anheuser (Platt) and Unheeded Scientist™ Adrian Helmsley (Ejiofor) discover that Oh My God, They Were Right All Along™; cataclysmic events will soon see the world falling victim to a succession of eco-disasters that, coincidentally, will look awesome on film. Who Will Survive?™
As is standard in Emmerich's disaster movies (See:
The Day After Tomorrow
, Independence Day, Godzila), the human interest stories are, ironically, the least interesting; they're included because you can't have a film populated solely by expensive special effect showreels. Therefore, minimum effort is spent on scripting and character development and Roland's resources are instead poured into making this End Of The World really feel like the apocalypse. It's hard to see how he'll ever top 2012 in terms of global destruction. He's running out of landmarks to knock over for a start.
The big money shots are worth their weight in golden pixels, and there are plenty of them throughout the two-and-a-half-hour running time (take a cushion). The breathtaking LA escape is an early highlight - a highly ludicrous race through a crumbling city with a belching earth yawning beneath their tyres. Logic can't keep up with them either.
Later you'll bear witness to a volcano erupting out of what used to be Yellowstone Park, St Paul's Basilica doing a barrel roll over the praying minions below (where is your God now?) and, best of all, Emmerich topping his own White House do-over from Independence Day by casually lobbing an aircraft carrier onto the roof of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on the crest of a tidal wave. Subtle it ain't, but subtle wasn't invited to this movie - you'll be wanting The White Ribbon in screen two.
As far as large-scale chaos goes, 2012 is five-star stuff: each scene is a hugely impressive technical achievement and worthy of your ticket money. But alas, man cannot endure 154 minutes on pixel-power alone. Sadly, in its quieter moments, 2012's shortcomings are just as big and in-your-face as its pop shots.
2012 suffers an overload of unnecessary characters and plot-lines, and with it a tendancy to drag its feet between disasters. Chiwetel Ejiofor's moral-minded scientist provides the movie's soul-searching sensitive type, but does Thandie Newton's First Daughter really add anything other than an unnecessary love interest? Is his jazz musician father really included for any reason other than the convenience of him being on a large ocean cruiser when the tsunamis start rolling?
With so many extraneous characters comes an abundance of tearful goodbyes and an odd pattern of repetition - there are no less than three 'plane taking off in peril' scenes. You could genuinely cut 45 minutes out of 2012 and still be left with the same movie.
When your mind starts picking at loose threads, the critical mudslide begins. Six billion people die, but you won't see a single bloodied corpse or sight unsuitable for eyes under 12. It's the end of the world, and yes, it's spectacular, but there is precisely zero gravitas. Emmerich favours hoisting his camera high and dry to give audiences the best panoramic view, but it removes all tension from proceedings - you're always at a safe distance. There are no ground level shots; scale means nothing if you're always looking down on everything.
Also present and correct are the director's ill-advised attempts at comic relief (a small yapping dog, a baritone Russian oligarch), plot holes the size of Hannover ("We can't start the engines until we close that gate!" Um... who designed this thing?) and a protracted final act where the rapture finally starts to wash over you in numbing waves. Even the 'happy ending' poses more questions than it answers. 2012 is certainly one of those films that you will bond with others in pointing out its obvious flaws; it's leakier than the Titanic.
But to rate 2012 on its slip-ups instead of its successes is to completely miss the point of a disaster movie. It is supposed
to have you crowing in disbelief - that's the reaction Roland Emmerich wants. Logic and physics are not welcome here. Yes, planes usually go up and not down when they take off. But this is a film where the Earth literally shifts on its axis; you can forgive a little laziness in geography and a lot of laziness in accuracy. It's all part of the fun. Lighten up. For the same price, you could be watching an extremely depressing black and white German war drama.
See it, laugh at the sketchy characters and the clichéd scripts and the weird CG animals and the total lack of emotion in the face of John Cusack as he stares fiery death in the face like he's riding a virtual rollercoaster. But do see it, because you won't want to miss out on one of the most ridiculous, most spectacular and most talked about movies of the year.
Don't expect to watch a great movie, but do expect to have a great time watching it. And that's a Roland Emmerich Promise™.