Roland Emmerich’s 2012 is slightly better than Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow — the hack director’s two previous opuses involving mass devastation. But that’s a bit like saying that imbibing a thimble of urine is better than eating a shit sandwich or employing an embalmed corpse as a surrogate dining table. That one must pay ten George Washingtons for the privilege of drinking a soupçon of pee is hardly a recommendation. But the piss remains compelling. For it has become every dutiful American’s duty to sit through vile cinematic “entertainment” in order to remain on the same page. Still, there’s a part of me pondering 2012‘s potential.
“Something like this can only originate in Hollywood,” says a character early in the film. And indeed, Emmerich is right on this point. Emmerich is only a mite more talented than Uwe Boll, his fellow German sellout. But one shouldn’t compare two cultural criminals who have both severely setback the intelligent possibilities of mass entertainment. The film presents a primitive political viewpoint to entice the kooky charlatans now banging out insipid and predictably contrarian viewpoints for the New York Press. Two African-American male characters are presented here with noble intent — a humanist geologist played by Chiwetel Ejiofor at loggerheads with the cold and clinical Oliver Platt (here, with an American accent) and Danny Glover’s President Thomas Wilson (beckoning phony comparisons to Woodrow, whose first name was actually Thomas), who stays behind at the White House as giant waves and dust clouds ravage the nation. And while it’s heartening to see African-Americans shift from “magical black” side characters and wiseacres into take-charge positions, the film also serves up a distressing sexism. The Speaker of the House is, three years hence, a “he.” When a giant plane heads to a safe point in China, the women are compelled to stay downstairs while the men are summoned to the cockpit to witness recent developments. President Danny Glover insists that the people have the right to know about forthcoming disaster because “a mother can comfort her children.” Why can’t a mother kick ass? These misogynistic politics are at odds with the film’s purported humanism. Make no mistake: This is a film designed for an Armond White pullquote.
On the other hand, I cannot deny the sheer pleasure I experienced in seeing the two centers of vapid American entertainment — Los Angeles and Las Vegas — destroyed by cheap-looking CG effects. (It should be noted that Emmerich also manages to obliterate the Sistine Chapel, complete with a crack forming between God and Adam. But the man is running out of landmarks to destroy. Will public memory permit him repeats?) I cannot deny being amused by the fact that one million Euros, not dollars, is the asking price to get on board one of the arks destined to save the remainder of humanity. (There’s even a nod to Douglas Adams’s Golgafrincham, where one of the arks is damaged, proving unsuitable for the flailing crowds clamoring to get on board.) I was even amused at times by Woody Harrelson’s wild-eyed, pickle-eating, radio-ranting mountain man. But Harrelson serves the same purpose as Brent Spiner’s wild-haired scientist in Independence Day: a forgettable cartoon providing as much human depth as a TV dinner. Not that anyone will remember the formulaic similarities. As Harrelson says at one point, just after urging Cusack to “download my blog,” “You lure them in with the humor. Then you make them think.” It’s safe to say that Emmerich cannot follow his own crude advice.
There comes a point in any Roland Emmerich film in which anyone with a brain must give up and ponder why such superficialities remain a draw. For me, it came about ninety minutes in, as certain characters defiantly survived even the most liberal geophysics. It is also profoundly insulting for Emmerich (and his co-writer and composer Harald Kloser, who is overwrought in both of his “professional” duties) to offer us a character who reads books (Ejiofor’s Adrian Helmsley, “moving on up” just like Sherman did a few decades ago) and a shah using an e-reader, while also offering us this shoddy science behind the Earth’s destruction: “Neutrinos are causing a physical reaction.”
Here is a filmmaker so utterly stupid that he takes us to “the deepest copper mine in the world” in the opening minutes, features buckets of ice, and yet provides only a single consumer fan to cool the expensive computer equipment residing at the bottom. Here is a filmmaker so happy to whore himself out to product placement that the most important government representatives all use Vaio laptops. Here is a filmmaker so tone-deaf to politics that the President of the United States actually utters, “‘I was wrong.’ Do you know how many times I’ve heard that? Zero.” At the risk of invoking Godwin, Roland Emmerich is Hollywood’s answer to a dutiful Sturmabteilung. He was only following orders. And he will be rewarded for his hubris and ignorance by the considerable cash that this film will generate worldwide.
John Cusack, who is one of our most underrated actors, gives this material more sincerity and dignity than it deserves. The man (or his agent) clearly needed the cash or a way to boost his box office standing. He is, much like Dennis Quaid in The Day After Tomorrow, the Believable Presence. The guy to identify with. That guy is a writer named Jackson Curtis, the author of Farewell Atlantis, which has sold only 500 copies. Curtis is driving a limo to pay the bills. And while every other actor in this film understands that this assignment represents a fat paycheck, and is only partially exonerated, it is Cusack alone who obdurately refuses to ham it up. He is therefore just as culpable and responsible as Roland Emmerich. Let him suffer a metaphorical car accident worse than Montgomery Clift’s.
The film has lifted a good deal from 1998’s Deep Impact — the broken family gathered at the beach as a giant wave is about to hit, the older African-American President addressing the nation with the grim reality, the millions killed along the coastlines, and the efforts to alert a senior scientist of the impending catastrophe. But Deep Impact, as problematic as it was, had two half-decent screenwriters (Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin) attempting to imbue some humanity into the improbable scenario.
But 2012 doesn’t even provide the unadulterated fun of an unintentionally hilarious B movie. Emmerich, with considerable resources at his disposal, has made a dumb and unfulfillable movie. And instead of Emmerich using his exploitative skills to make his audience think, he has produced the cinematic equivalent of an audience member running out of toilet paper when she most desperately needs it. His audience is doomed to run around the house with pants around legs, hoping to seek out a Kleenex or paper towel substitute and praying to the deities that nobody else is home. But the film is so long (it runs a needless two hours and 38 minutes) and the quest so fruitless that it goes beyond any uncouthly rectified inconvenience. As such, 2012 is, to paraphrase Jefferson, the movie that the American public deserves.
[UPDATE: In a rare drift in sensibilities, Armond White has panned 2012 in what appears to be a hastily written review. The big surprise is Roger Ebert, who has awarded this film three and a half stars. I note Ebert’s review largely because he points out (correctly) that the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling has been inexplicably relocated within St. Peter’s Basilica — a detail that I failed to note in the above review.]