'2012': Apocalypse, Wow!
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
If Roland Emmerich, the director who has put the planet in peril with big, dim special-effects blockbusters like "Independence Day," "Godzilla" and "The Day After Tomorrow," actually did create "2012" to be a tribute to and comedic take on every disaster movie of the past 40 years, like a filmed equivalent of a Mad magazine parody that mocks the excesses of the genre so precisely because it knows the genre so well, then he's made a work of pure genius. The overall effect of "2012" is like being strapped into a chair in front of a three-by-three matrix of big-screen TVs playing "The Poseidon Adventure," "Earthquake," "The Towering Inferno," "When Worlds Collide," "Airport '75," "Deep Impact," "Armageddon," "Meteor" and, yes, even "The Swarm"; not one after the other, either, but instead all at the same time. It's unlikely that this was what Emmerich had in mind, however, so instead we have to take "2012" for what it is: a high-octane, big-screen soft-core guilty pleasure orgy of destruction in which the director tours the globe taking in the glory of the world's most amazing buildings and locations before smashing them to smithereens, as if Ken Burns and Zeus were on a mean three-day bender.
Between the end of Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Washington, D.C., St. Peter's in Rome and a variety of other tourism destinations, "2012" has something like a plot, as Chiwetel Ejiofor's scientist advises the White House on what to do as a cascade of neutrinos from the sun starts microwaving the Earth's core, meaning that in a short while the whole planet will do its imitation of a 7-Eleven burrito left in the microwave too long. The president (Danny Glover) and his massive Machiavellian chief of staff (Oliver Platt) are working on the secret multinational plan to save some (not all) of humanity, with Ejiofor always at the ready with limber-tongued exposition and wide-eyed sincerity. Across the country in California, John Cusack's divorced novelist-turned-limo-driver is getting ready to take his kids to Yellowstone National Park, which is about to become a much more lively and much less safe vacation spot if you believe Woody Harrelson's wild-eyed radio ranter who's as crazy as he is right.
Cusack becomes our everyman, scrabbling together just enough advance notice of the impending disaster so he can get a head start on avoiding lava bombs, sudden chasms, ash clouds and any number of natural disasters coming at him from all sides; if they ever make a live-action adaptation of "Frogger," Cusack's now the No. 1 candidate for the title role, based on his swerving and dodging here. Emmerich's entire filmography in recent years has been based in heroes outrunning things the laws of physics say they shouldn't (fire, weather), so, in many ways, it's good to know he's in his wheelhouse here. The computer-generated PG-13 eve of destruction and distraction in "2012" is spectacular, and the movie also has a wicked mean streak that leads to at least three or four moments of guilty, bleak laughter when it lands sucker punches by turning clichés to carnage. And the final revelation of the plan to save a handful of humanity, while silly-ish, is in fact less stupid than the very stupid thing I thought it was going to be, which may represent the film winding up as a warm experience by lightly vaulting my already-low expectations with one small skip.
I think I liked "2012" more than I should have because I kept imagining it as a '70s disaster movie, the kind where the cast members are featured on the poster, each in a small box, with Elliott Gould as Cusack's everyman, Sidney Poitier as Ejiofor's savior-scientist, Ernest Borgnine as Zlatko Buric's bloated Russian plutocrat with a golden ticket for the escape pod, and Walter Matthau as Platt's blunt bureaucrat. The cast are as adequate as they are irrelevant (though Platt's clearly having a ball). The effects are as big as they are dumb. The violence and destruction are as complete as they are just-kidding PG-13 bloodless. I had enough disaster-nostalgia to make "2012" pass as a bit of broad, goony, stupid fun. A lot of serious film lovers will decry "2012" as a plotless, illogical, clichéd, demented popcorn flick (and that's because it is), but this is that rare case where the apocalypse, at least in terms of big-budget blown-up spectacle movie-making, is hardly the end of the world.
Also: On the set of '2012'
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine.