4 out of 5

Directed by: Roland Emmerich

I started becoming aware of “film” – watching movies outside of the context of paying for entertainment spectacle with popcorn and whatnot – around that typical middle school age when one starts developing their own dreaded “tastes.”  Two things started happening concurrently: my adoration for Bruce Willis kicked in; I started getting into more independent film, leaning (in those early, educational years) into Stanley Kubrick and this newly discovered guy named Wes Anderson.

Besides the Die Hard trilogy, I’d been catching up with Bruce’s DTV 90s efforts, which were occasionally great, and occasionally not great but at least quality, and this then intersected with his resurgence into relevance in the mid to late 90s with Pulp Fiction, and 12 Monkeys, and Fifth Element, and then I’m touting the movie Bottle Rocket when Armageddon comes out.  I’d mandated a “must see Bruce movies on opening night” rule.  Armageddon then became two firsts for me: the first Bruce movie I outright hated, and the first time I was actively bored by a movie.  Maybe if I hadn’t started getting in to “film,” the spectacle would have been enough to entertain, but I couldn’t believe how shallow and manipulative and obvious and dumb the whole thing was, and how forced every “problem” that occurred in the plot was.

Now, good question: what in the god damned name of Methusaleh does this have to with 2012?

2012 director Roland Emmerich has been a purveyor of disaster porn flicks for quite a while.  They worked for me at a certain point, but after my damned opinions started getting their own legs, Will Smith’s smirk-for-the-camera goods in Independence Day lost their sparkle, and other flicks have just felt like mass destruction for its own sake – as per the disaster porn tag.  There’s something in common with Armageddon: Emmerich likes to fall back on world-unites-to-solve-a-problem vs. Michael Bay falling back on Megan Fox and explosions, but they both like banter, and they both like 2+ hours of noise and fury with generally hollow characters on which to prop that up.  Everything is contrived.  Every solution to a problem is presented solely for something to break, and for someone to die vaingloriously to fix it.  I thought about Armageddon a lot while watching 2012, and how their beats and general structure felt the same.  How there’s dumbass pseudo-science tossed in for credibility, and how we get a mixture of average joes and government types and families get reunited and etc.

But there is a major difference: 2012 might be a good movie?  Or rather: it might be one of the best examples of this kind of “everything’s exploding” blockbusterness, and both one of the most porn-y and unporn-y disaster flicks I’ve seen.  Emmerich entertained me, successfully, for two and a half hours, and while giving the movie four stars might be generous, it’s deserves some kind of extra badge for being top of its particular class.

The specifics are relatively unimportant, as they always are with these types of things, but here’s the gist: “scientists” discover that the Mayan “predictions” of world-endings in 2012 are true, based on something something sun and neutrinos, and now the world’s leaders are having meetings over the course of several years to try to figure out how humanity is going to survive whatever’s coming, while a wild man in the mountains (played by Woody Harrelson) manages to convince failed writer John Cusack of conspiracy theories of the same.  When things start to happen – things involving giant cracks in the Earth and tectonic plates shifting and many explosions and tidal waves – Cusack snatches up his ex-wife (Amanda Peet) and their kids and procures a plane and flies through falling buildings and whatnot, on their way to the secret government safehaven.  Silly, and prone to plenty of those plane-flying-through-buildings moments, but Emmerich (co-scripting with Harold Kloser) does a lot right that helps the movie to maintain its popcorn spell: it’s science doesn’t hold up a casual google, but it works within the context of the flick; that is, it doesn’t sound instantly like film babble, but has the vague scent of being at least culled from some vague theories that are backed up one sentence or two of research.  The “research” is, again, flawed, and unrealistic, but contextually, it works, and doesn’t immediately come across as a first draft idea that someone shrugged at and kept in.  There are some spaced out mug-for-the-camera moments, but it’s peppered in appropriately: when the stakes are high, which is quite often, we don’t break for a laugh – Emmerich keeps amping things up and up, only pausing so that we can get a breath before the next disaster.  And while our CGI has gotten so slick nowadays that large-scale devastation can pop up in any given movie, 2012 manages to mostly maintain a sense of scope: some of the effects are “floaty,” but very often we’re grounded by some foreground element – an escaping car, cuts to characters who actually matter, to a certain degree – that helps to put us in the frame of mind the film is hoping to effect, of being caught up in something truly uncontrollable.  It’s not “fun,” it’s rather frightening, in that good movie way where you know it’s fake but can get a bit of a chill pondering what the heck you’d do when everything around you is literally falling apart.  The character work is the other important piece here: everything’s maudlin and predictable, but I also liked that Emmerich and Kloser went full circle with almost every person they introduced; there’s no death that feels like it’s played strictly for sympathy or cheer-for-the-villain-falling-off-the-cliff – again, there’s a nice bit of randomness to things that dials up the fact that earthquakes and tidal waves ain’t choosy about who they kill.

I really don’t know how or why this was added to my viewing queue in Netflix, and I was not looking forward to it, based on all my blabbed-about reservations regarding Emmerich and disaster porn.  But hey, this was a pleasant surprise – a pretty good blockbuster flick – and, for something now over a decade old, still very effective from a CGI standpoint.