United States, 2009
Directed By: Roland Emmerich
Written By: Harald Kloser, Roland Emmerich
Starring: John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Amanda Peet, Thandie Newton, Olver Platt, Danny Glover, Woody Harrelson
Running Time: 158 min.
Rated PG-13 for intense disaster sequences and some language
3 out of 5 stars
Quick, name a year less cool than 1996. Nothing is less trendy than the mid-‘90s — do you know anyone who still gets excited about Bill Clinton or the Spice Girls? Why am I bringing up 1996? Because two trend-setting films were released that year: Independence Day and Twister. Independence Day put director Roland Emmerich on the map, and together with Twister launched a long-running trend of disaster movies that included Volcano, Armageddon, and The Core.
Now: do you remember any of these movies with any particular fondness? I rest my case.
So it’s been a while since disaster movies were big. Emmerich, though, has never really been able to move beyond them. He followed Independence Day (Aliens destroy earth!) with Godzilla (giant lizard destroys Matthew Broderick’s career!), and then (after directing The Patriot) made The Day After Tomorrow (global warming destroys a Dick Cheney lookalike’s composure!). And after taking a short break last year to direct the costume epic 10,000 B.C., he’s returned with yet another scenario for the earth’s destruction, entitled 2012. Y’know, like the year 2012, the year that the Mayans predicted the world would end. (Actually, they didn’t — but that’s probably another topic for another time.)
So here’s the problem: the disaster movie trend is at least 15 years old now; it’s been through its paces. Recent disaster movies have either been out-and-out parodies or have at least been forced to try something new to grab people’s attention. The Day the Earth Stood Still destroyed the world with a cloud of robotic locusts; Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs destroyed the world with a spaghetti tornado; 2012 destroys the world with…earthquakes?
Yep, earthquakes. Plain old earthquakes, along with some volcanoes and tsunamis. (Actually, technically speaking, neutrino bombardment from the sun melts the earth’s core, which causes the crust to drastically shift, which…wait, you don’t actually care, do you?) Now granted, these are some really big earthquakes, but…still. You can play Spice Girls music really loud, but you’ll still be playing Spice Girls music.
But anyway, here’s the big surprise: 2012 is actually kind of fun – at least, much more fun than either of Emmerich’s last two films were. The guy can still direct action sequences with the best of them — and, unlike 10,000 B.C., which focused a bit too much on its less-than-interesting characters, he’s made the action the focus of the film. The destruction of San Francisco alone is something to behold (imagine a near-collision between a prop plane and a subway train — yeah, it’s as cool as you’re imagining), and that sequence is just the beginning.
Unfortunately, the whole thing is just far too long — a full two-and-a-half hours, and only about an hour of that is action. The rest is devoted to half-baked science that doesn’t really make sense and a bunch of brooding characters who take their personal problems far too seriously (particularly since, y’know, the world’s ending). Emerich’s films have been suffering from this for a while now: Independence Day treated itself like a comedy, which made the character interactions bearable; every film he’s made since, though, has been increasingly serious (and increasingly drab). As with The Day After Tomorrow and 10,000 B.C., we still have to wade through a lot of boring, unfunny dialogue to get to the awesome explosions. (An amusing Woody Harrelson briefly shows up as a crazy pirate radio host, but sadly, Emmerich kills him off within the first hour.)
All that being said, 2012 holds up surprisingly well, and is easily the best film Emmerich has made in years. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement, but if you’re looking for some quick thrills, you could do a lot worse. Just make sure to get a large popcorn…you’re gonna be sitting in that seat for a long time.
About the author: Luke Harrington is a resident of Tulsa, editor for MovieZeal.com, staff writer for The Christian Manifesto, and freelance entertainment critic. He holds a degree in film studies from the University of Nebraska. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.