Tuesday, March 23, 2010

You Win This Time, Roland Emmerich

I feel a little hypocritical singing the praises of the latest Roland Emmerich disaster film, "2012," after being so hard on Pierre Morel's one-man-army actioneer, "Taken," yesterday. Both films are utterly formulaic, have cardboard characters, indulge in cringeworthy stereotyping, and play to the audience's basest desire for visceral thrills and noisy conflagrations. But the difference between them is plain. "Taken" rehashes its familiar action-movie elements in a new configuration, but does them in a fairly cheap, exploitative way. "2012," on the other hand, shoots for the moon - practically the only thing by the end of this film that isn't reduced to rubble.

If you've seen one of these recent "disaster porn" epics, you've seen them all. An improbable cataclysm strikes a major US city, an everyman protagonist is forced to fight for his family's survival against overwhelming odds, strangers from different walks of life are thrown together to find their common humanity, and though a few sympathetic characters may be lost along the way, the most photogenic leads survive to rebuild and repopulate. Roland Emmerich is responsible for some of the most famous ones - "Independence Day," and "The Day After Tomorrow." And he's borne the brunt of the criticism for their worst excesses.

Maybe this is why "2012" feels like a rebuke to Emmerich's most ardent detractors. Rather than reigning in or toning down his scientifically sketchy catastrophes, he goes bigger – with shifting tectonic plates bringing about the end of human civilization. The special effects sequences are bigger and wilder than ever, filling the screen with disintegrating cities, crumbling landmasses, and societal upheaval on a truly massive scale. Global landmarks are systematically destroyed and the leveling of Los Angeles is turned into a visual roller-coaster ride. If people outrunning fireballs and avalanches makes you roll your eyes, then "2012" apocalypse with its total rejection of the laws of physics and common sense may leave you aghast.

Or it may delight you. The film is so over the top, so gleeful in its orgy of destruction, it borders on the cartoonish. It's impossible to take it seriously, except possibly as allegory. And it works because the filmmaker is self-aware. Emmerich and his crew know that the special effects are the main event, and they wisely subordinate everything else. We get a few likable characters to follow through the mayhem, but aside from a few personal frictions, there's little to distract from the action. John Cusack plays the lead, with Amanda Peet as his ex- wife, and two young two kids to round out the family unit. They're not well fleshed out, but they don't need to be.

In fact, all the characters here tend to come off better than in most disaster flicks by being fairly limited in presence. We do get a villain in the cutthroat bureaucrat played by Oliver Platt, but he's terribly likable and prone to making more sense than any other character onscreen. There are also a few Russian caricatures and eccentrics for requisite comic relief, but their laugh lines are fleeting and there's no one who doesn't come off as sympathetic. In fact, it's amazing how much pathos Emmerich can summon with minimally defined characters. Some of the most affecting scenes involve doomed peripheral players who can't share more than five minutes of screentime collectively.

The film has its problems. It's too long, it's repetitive, and the final third loses a lot of momentum and ends up just throwing clich├ęs at us in the vain hope that they'll all come together in some coherent fashion. But I have to say, it's really nice to find a film that knows it's dumb entertainment, and doesn't try to get smart by bringing in social commentary, like "Day After Tomorrow" with its environmental messages, or "The Book of Eli," or "I am Legend," which took far darker, more serious approaches to similar material. While "2012" gets a few nice sentiments about global-connectedness and social responsibility across, in the end Emmerich knows what he does well, which is to blow things up real good.

Real, real good.

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