by Scott Mendelson
Shock of shocks, Roland Emmerich's 2012 is actually a relatively satisfying genre picture. It avoids the over reliance on family melodrama and romantic entanglements that plagued The Day After Tomorrow. Unlike that global warming epic, this new entry actually delivers on the big-bucks carnage, as the last two hours have a pretty steady flow of destruction, epic death, and near-misses. But most importantly, by filling the cast with stalwart character actors and letting them actually act more often than not, Emmerich has created the best-cast and most cheekily entertaining disaster film since the The Core. The film snob in you may feel guilty in the morning, but 2012 is a better film than any of us could have expected.
Dragged by my disaster-loving wife (she loves Air Emergency, Surviving Disaster, and the like), I went into 2012 expecting the worst. Roland Emmerich hadn't made a good movie since 2000, and his batting average was a pathetic 2/7 thus far (Independence Day and The Patriot being his lone winners). But the thing actually works. The key is that they spent so much money on special effects that they couldn't hire 'stars'. So instead we have a 2.5 hour disaster movie fronted by Chiwetel Ejiofor (acting god), Oliver Platt (character acting god), and Thandie Newton (a vastly untapped resource). Woody Harrelson has great fun as an accurate doomsayer, and Danny Glover wears his Shooter dentures as the President (dig how he says 'catastrophe' during his speech to humanity). Yes we have John Cusack and his ultra-wholesome family (the Curtis clan) that must be reunited, but they weren't nearly as front and center or as syrupy as feared. Oddly enough, this $260 million mega-disaster epic works best as an acting treat. We couldn't care less about the fate of the Curtis family, but we darn well care about the battle of wills between Ejiofor's occasionally naive idealist and Platt's not-always-wrong realist. There is also surprisingly solid work from such pros as Blu Mankuma, George Segal, and Stephen McHattie (he and Lance Henriksen really need to make a movie together).
The film's biggest fault, ironically, is in its unending disaster scenes. While they are copious and technically impressive, too many of them are burdened with the false suspense of watching our archetypical nuclear family escape yet another round of peril. On one hand, we can ignore the characters in peril and sit back and watch the carnage. But, on the other hand, the film has a disturbing undercurrent, where we are supposed to care more about that the Curtis family survived that flood or this earthquake than about the billions who did not. I've always said that the key to Titanic was that Cameron made you feel for every other person on that ship who lost their lives, rather than making Jack and Rose the only victims that mattered. 2012 tries to acknowledge the death of an entire planet, but too many of the disaster scenes are more about thrilling escapes than tragic annihilation. Owing to the PG-13 rating and the family-friendly target, there is a near lack of aftermath to any of the devastation. There are probably fewer onscreen dead bodies than in the equally bloodless Cloverfield.
Still, there is a minimum of melodrama, and the movie is meaner about life and death that you'd expect (one much-hyped farewell moment doesn't go as planned). It's not art, and there is too much unnecessary humor. During the climax, are we really supposed to cheer the revenge of a spurned woman, knowing that a man and his two young sons have been condemned to death? But it's a surprisingly solid popcorn B-movie that works as big-screen entertainment. The movie gets more juice out of its Ejiofor/Platt verbal duels (Ejiofor isn't always right and Platt isn't just an unfeeling evil bureaucrat) than it does out of its end of the world CGI. Despite the 158-minute running time, the film only drags at the very end, where it reaches its natural conclusion at the two-hour mark but still unloads one more unnecessary emergency to drag out the finale. For much of the running time, the film is almost leisurely, and it's an oddly relaxing experience. Yes, the film kinda more or less avoids dealing with the whole 'everyone on earth is going to die' plot thread, but we've got Deep Impact for that.