A quarter of a billion dollars was spent in the making of this movie. A pie chart depicting how all those millions were allocated would have a fat slice labeled “publicity” and a much fatter one labeled “special effects.” The slice for “story and character development,” on the other hand, would be so skinny there wouldn’t be room for a label on it.
This may be a minor drawback in the case of a picture like “2012.” It is a drawback, nonetheless. Director Roland Emmerich has previously given us two apocalyptic spectacles – “Independence Day” and “The Day After Tomorrow” – which I rank with the great guilty pleasures of our era and have enjoyed countless times. Those were effects fests too. But consider how memorable and well drawn were the characters in them, played by Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Randy Quaid, Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Ian Holm.
Not that Emmerich or anyone at Sony is likely to be troubled by this movie’s dearth of interesting, much less memorable, characters as long as it continues to wreak havoc on its competition at the box office. When the dust settles, however, my sense is what we’ll find over time is that the filmmaker’s latest ranks not with his classic disaster epics but with second-rate, more forgettable fare such as his 1998 “Godzilla.” “2012” is the kind of movie that’s certainly worth seeing but doesn’t leave you with the feeling you ever need to see it again.
Emmerich falls back on the same end-of-the-world boilerplate employed by Steven Spielberg in “War of the Worlds” and M. Night Shyamalan in “Signs” – for that matter, the same one Emmerich himself employed to better effect in “The Day After Tomorrow”: set up a scenario in which the entire human race is threatened with destruction and then focus on one family’s fight for survival.
The patriarch in this case is a failed writer-turned-L.A.-limo driver played by John Cusack. He’s separated from the wife (Amanda Peet) he ignored while failing to become a famous novelist and, as the movie opens, is attempting to improve strained relations with his kids by taking them camping in Yellowstone. This turns out to be a good news/bad news proposition.
The bad news is ancient Mayans predicted the earth would be devastated by an unimaginable cataclysm right about this time. The worse news is they were right: giant solar flares are boiling the planet’s core and, any minute now, its surface will begin to crumble and slide. The good news is Cusack bumps into a wackjob played by Woody Harrelson, who informs him the end is near. Not just that but the government knows it and is secretly building a fleet of spaceships to save the privileged. As fate (and seriously iffy screenwriting) would have it, he even has a map.
The balance of the film is a mindless albeit mesmerizing CGI thrill ride. Cusack loads his family into his limo seconds before their house disintegrates and for the next two hours, in a succession of cars and planes, hightails it for China and the top secret spot where the crafts are being readied. Along the way the gang is repeatedly but a step ahead of collapsing firmament – almost to the point of laughableness – and international landmarks are reduced to rubble. To be fair, it must be said the world has never been trashed in such realistic detail.
Neither, on the other hand, has it been demolished so pointlessly. Millions were wiped out in “The Day After Tomorrow,” for example, so that audiences might better appreciate the threat posed by climate change. Why are they wiped out here? In order for audiences to appreciate the state of the art armageddon Emmerich was able to whip up with a little help from 1000-plus artists at 15 effects companies.
If characters with more than one dimension, a plausible story and some sort of viewpoint are moviegoing musts, you may leave “2012” feeling a tad shortchanged. For those seeking nothing more than computer generated spectacle, however, I suppose going without them won’t be the end of the world.