It's oft been lamented that people never learn. This is sadly true, and doesn't look to be abating any time soon. For example, how many times does the world have to spectacularly fail to end in any way before people will stop giving undue credence to these sorts of stupid end-of-the-world predictions? The venerated 1999 came and went without even any pesky trouble from that utterly underwhelming Y2K bug. Yet these sorts of evidence-free prognostications of doom and futility continue to be taken seriously by people who are otherwise functional and able to remember to breathe, for better or worse. For another example, people keep going to Roland Emmerich movies despite the fact that he's never made a good one in his life, somehow expecting things to be different. How many false predictions does it take to shake some sense into these people?
We learn in the pre-title sequence that because of some sort of problem with neutrinos transforming in ways that neutrinos can't, the world will fall apart in the year 2012 and nobody can do anything about it. A huge conspiracy is formed to keep the truth from people, which works in precisely the way such a conspiracy wouldn't in real life, and as the titular year swings around, things start to fall apart, most important of these things being the marriage of Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), because it's not a Roland Emmerich film without a heartwarming marriage-reconciliation story taking front and center. Jackson is one of those standard everyman types who's slightly above the average guy but who just never lived up to his full potential, so that he'll get a chance to do so before the film is out. While taking his kids to Yellowstone, he bumps into a crazy conspiracy nut who broadcasts regularly about the big cover-up, which isn't big or efficient enough to silence him, of course, but has silenced dozens of other would-be whistleblowers. He is, of course, right about everything, and is of course, barking mad, a combo rarely seen outside of crappy movie scripts; one gets the feeling that Emmerich and M. Night Shyamalan are distant cousins or something, given the way both of them feel that they should portray lunatics as being more clued-in than the rest of us. Armed with words of wisdom out of the mouth of madness, Jackson rescues his family, including his estranged wife's new boyfriend, and begins to run from the crumbling world. Over and over.
It's rare that one watches a film and gets the feeling that what he is seeing up on the screen is somehow due to some colossal clerical error. If one has seen Independence Day, one already knows more or less what to expect. There are no new ideas here. There's the cast of half average guys and half government officials, the disaster that hits around forty-five minutes in, the crazy dude who was right all along, some unlikely survivals, a mass rendezvous by all of the principals in some exotic locale, some heart-tugging speech by the primary governmental character, some re-bonding between the separated couple, and lots and lots of factual errors. Emmerich's rehashing of his most successful film is positively shameless. Yet I was not expecting to see the film rehasing itself over and over during the middle hour. There are five-count them, FIVE-scenes of the same group of characters implausibly fleeing a natural disaster in a vehicle of some sort: one car, one camper, and three planes. Three planes launching from crumbling runways, two of which feature the need to thread the needle between two collapsing skyscapers just after liftoff. The car also threads its way through a falling building, and between the camper and plane escape #2, we get to see John Cusack outrunning an exploding super-volcano on foot. These scenes follow the typical screen rule of "only physical contact with actual fire is fatal;" if one is swallowed by a cloud of volcanic ash while safely encased in an airplane, one is not incinerated. (The plane, also, is allowed to escape, because billowing clouds of ash are dark and look innocuous compared to fireballs and lava.) How this entire section of the film got in without anyone noticing that it was basically chasing its tail an absurd number of times is unfathomable; I'm quite tempted to believe that some script pages got double-printed and accidentally shuffled into other scenes.
It would be unreasonable to expect the film to display any sense of intelligence after such a series of scenes, and I didn't, but you know you're in trouble when the sarcastically-suggested "wouldn't it be ridiculous if they did this," sorts of scenes you invent for fun as you watch the film unspool actually proceed to show up in the real film. If you expect that the collection of expensive cars the Russian diplomat has brought along on his plane trip are just there for set dressing or to show his decadence, you're not familiar enough with Roland Emmerich. If you expect words like "mutate" or "hydraulic" to be used in such a way as to indicate that the author had any idea at all what they meant, you aren't familiar with Roland Emmerich. What you should expect are scenes of elephants dangling from helicopters, and tsunamis said to be 1500 meters high cresting over the Himalayas. You shouldn't expect to care all that much about the fates of the characters, and you should be glad that you don't, as several meet gruesome and undeserved fates that might have been upsetting if the film had done its job and made you give a damn.
Is 2012 entertaining? Oh, hell yeah, though almost certainly not in the way the creators intended. The scenes of John Cusack, greatest driver on Earth, outracing an earthquake had me and my viewing party laughing uproariously at its sheer excess of unbelieveable stupidity. Seeing as how we were supposed to be watching the world fall to ruin, we were probably supposed to feel some sort of awe or dread, a sense of mortality that the film, save for one fatalistic presidential address, didn't even try to shoot for. When all is said and done, the ending of the world as seen herein seems less of a tragedy and more of an excuse for wacky adventures-it might seem difficult to depict the Apocalypse as somewhat less than a particularly big deal, but Emmerich manages it somehow. The scenes of mass destruction are, for what it's worth, rather stunningly rendered, and as a piece of escapism, it's still much more fun than this summer's biggest blockbuster shitpile, Transformers 2. But if you don't see what's wrong with giggling through an entire film about the near-eradication of humanity, then frankly you are part of the problem that is Roland Emmerich's ongoing career.
-review by Matt Murray