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Cinema Sunday (11/15/09) November 15, 2009

Posted by monty in movies.
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I gave up years ago trying to reconcile my love of good movies – the ones that are inventively shot, featuring talented actors uttering dialogue that crackles – with my love of big, dumb, effects-laden spectacles.  As much as I appreciate subtlety and sophistication, there’s definitely pleasure to be found in seeing a movie that doesn’t aspire to be anything more than mindless entertainment.  In a perfect world, these action extravaganzas would be both entertaining and smart (Raiders of the Lost Ark being the perfect contemporary example), but if we waited around for that, we’d get one or two quality flicks a year.  So, to paraphrase Pauline Kael, we have to learn to appreciate great trash, because movies are so rarely great art.

Enter Roland Emmerich’s latest end-of-the-world wet dream, 2012. Emmerich made his reputation primarily by blowing up world landmarks (Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow), and he certainly doesn’t stray from his wheelhouse with his latest.  In the space of a butt-numbing two and a half hours, we see Los Angeles and the Las Vegas Strip get obliterated, Yellowstone National Park explode in a ball of flame, an aircraft carrier plow into the White House, and a flood inundate the Himalayas.  It’s a bad time to be a tourist attraction.

The funny thing is, I can’t deny that it’s a lot of fun to see a movie that delivers exactly what you’re expecting in precisely the way you expect it.  So what did I know going in?  There’d be a series of sequences at the beginning where scientists discover the nature of the upcoming destruction; there’d be a family in peril; there’d be at least one budding and/or recovering romantic relationship; there’d be an extended montage of destruction; there’d be one character who we’re supposed to view as comic relief, but who isn’t actually very funny; there’d be at least a few scenes of escape that defy both logic and the laws of physics; and there’d be some sort of rescue or redemption at the end, where the survivors move ahead to forge a new world from the ruins of the old.

At the risk of providing spoilers, I got all those things.

1) The movie does indeed begin with a team of geologists discovering, in 2009, that the sun is unleashing neutrinos (don’t ask me; I just went along for the ride), which in turn are heating up the Earth’s core and destabilizing its crust.  They know that this “crust displacement” will cause disaster on an unprecedented scale.  The task of convincing America’s leaders falls to Dr. Adrian Helmsley (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, one in a series of really good actors who must have had bills to pay), who travels to Washington, D.C and accosts Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt), an administration official who has the ear of the president.

2) The family in peril is played by John Cusack as a divorcée, Amanda Peet as his ex-wife, Thomas McCarthy as the new man in her life, and two anonymous rugrats as the kids.  Cusack’s character – Jackson Curtis – first learns of the impending catastrophe when he takes his kids on a camping trip to Yellowstone and discovers a fenced-off area festooned with signs warning No Trespassing.  Because he’s a responsible dad, Jackson and the kids scale the fence and are quickly arrested by the Army.  Here he meets Dr. Helmsley, and begins to learn that all is not well, geologically speaking.  When all hell starts to break loose in Los Angeles, Jackson speeds back to California – because apparently the Yellowstone to Santa Monica commute is an easy one to make – scoops up Kate and Gordon and makes for the airport, where he’s conveniently bribed an airfield mechanic to wait for him with a plane.

3) The love Jackson still feels for Kate accounts for some of the movie’s romantic “tension.”  The rest of it is fulfilled by Dr. Helmsley’s attraction to the President of the United States’ daughter (Thandie Newton).  Both are about as exciting as they sound.

4) The scenes of destruction are summarized above.

5) For comic relief, we’re given Woody Harrelson as Charlie Frost, a pickle-obsessed conspiracy theorist broadcasting his radio show live from Yellowstone.  Jackson meets him on their camping trip and learns more about what’s happening to the Earth, but he isn’t convinced by Frost’s “hilarious” ramblings, nor does he believe Frost’s stories of rescue craft being built by the world’s governments.  We also get a fat Russian billionaire, his fat kids, and his 20-something lover and her yappy dog.  Yucks aplenty.

6) The most ridiculous scenes of escape occur once Jackson returns to L.A. from Yellowstone and picks up Kate and Gordon.  First, they have to make it to the airport in Jackson’s limo by driving through a Los Angeles that’s falling apart around them.  Fortunately, besides being a failed writer, Jackson also appears to have been a stunt driver for the movies because he’s able to careen down streets that crumble beneath him, swerve around toppling buildings and freeways, and crash straight through a fallen skyscraper.  They arrive at the airport (phew!) to discover that the mechanic is dead, but the plane is waiting for them.  It’s their lucky day, because Gordon has taken “a couple” flying lessons, but, man – he’s a prodigy!  Soon they’re in the air and he’s swooping around falling cars and diving between collapsing buildings, and he’s still able to make some wisecracks, despite the fact that the world’s ending. (On a purely selfish note, I took a perverse pleasure in watching Los Angeles fall apart and slide into the sea.  Arizona Bay, indeed.  Bill Hicks would be proud.)

They make for Yellowstone, because Jackson now realizes he should have found out where the government is constructing these rescue craft (turns out it’s China, natch).  He tracks down Charlie, gets the information he needs, and, on his way back to the airstrip where he left his family, narrowly outruns the exploding mega-volcano that Yellowstone has become.  Emmerich specializes in things outrunning fireballs.  In Independence Day it was Will Smith’s dog; here, it’s Lloyd Dobler.

7) The eventual rescue – because it would  be a huge bummer for the world’s population to get wiped out in a big-budget holiday movie – is 2012‘s sole example of ingenuity, and I won’t ruin it here.  But it’s a clever little trick that I thought was worth the wait.

Of course there’s more silliness to be had in 2012, much too much for me to detail here.  And I feel like I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my sneaking suspicion that it’s a little irresponsible the way Emmerich conveniently glosses over the deaths of billions of people while we root for beautiful movie stars (and Oliver Platt).  I know you don’t want to bog down an action flick with ethical questions about the extermination of the human race, but when that is, after all, the subject of the movie, it seems a bit callous to just watch people plummeting from buildings (unavoidable shades of 9/11) and being crushed by chunks of falling concrete and not feel a little uncomfortable.

But the point that I think is worth making about this movie is that it’s almost above criticism.  It makes certain promises, and it delivers on every one of them in a way that’s wholly satisfying.  It’s not insulting like the latest Transformers movie, or brain-dead in the way G.I. Joe appeared from the trailer (haven’t seen it yet; it’s lurking in the depths of my Netflix queue).  There is, in fact, intelligence and wit in 2012 (a very, very slim amount, but I’ll take what I can get), and you get the feeling while watching it that Emmerich just wants to give the audience a rip-roaring time at the movies.  2012 doesn’t aspire to greatness; it aspires to entertain the people who plunked down $10 by giving them cinematic comfort food.

We certainly hope our movies will strive for more than that, but I can also respect a director for giving the people exactly what they want.


Current listening:

Modern after

Modern English – After the Snow (1982)

Last movie seen:


The Omega Man (1971; Boris Segal, dir.)



1. Amanda - November 15, 2009

Sometimes you just want to see something blow up. It’s really that simple. That’s why I watch Zombie movies. I have days where I just want to see one person being eaten alive by another person.

P.S. I was talking about Battle Royale today with a customer and it made me think of you saying, “Why doesn’t the first person just stand outside the door and kill everyone as they’re leaving?” Classic Rob indeed.

rcm - November 15, 2009

I still have mixed feelings about “Battle Royale.” I totally get why it’s a cult classic, but I also can’t help but feel that it’s a little, well … stupid.

2. Fred M - November 15, 2009

Larry and I will see this next week. In “Day After Tomorrow” I was rooting for the weather to kill everyone.

rcm - November 15, 2009

I did a good write-up on Day After Tomorrow on one of my older blogs. It’s long since lost, but I’d love to compare notes between what I wrote then and what I wrote today. I bet they’re remarkably similar.

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