Break stuff - 2012

Originally published in the Trinidad Guardian on November 27, 2009.

There’s something giddily, wonderfully insane about Roland Emmerich’s
2012. The film is a disaster movie, but it’s so utterly over the top that it can’t help but founder in its final moments, when the earth is drowned out in a digital recreation of the biblical flood. You know, the one that happened after 40 days and 40 nights.

Emmerich has indulged with a perverse delight in blowing stuff up on a grand scale in the past. He started out tentatively, wrecking pyramids in
Stargate, moved up the ladder to global landmarks with Independence Day, then lost his way with Godzilla, which failed to level either New York or the box office. He returned to good form with The Day after Tomorrow, his first stab at global disaster, but chickened out after his big tsunami, settling for apocalypse by wind chill.

In 2012, this quirky romance with wreckage goes global, as Emmerich racks up the disaster level to hitherto unseen proportions. This is the movie that Armageddon might have been if Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck had died merciful deaths on the asteroid, and a world stupid enough to send roughneck drillers into space met its righteous end.
As the levelling of monuments proceeds, we are treated to another inventive destruction of the White House, a fleeting Poseidon event and splitting earth emitting gouts of steam everywhere. By the time the oceans surge over the Alps, it’s clear that character development didn’t have an overwhelming presence in the storyboarding of this film.

The movie starts with surprising delicacy as Adrian Helmsley, a terribly earnest Chiwetel Ejiofor, races around the world trying to piece together the evidence of an epic calamity in the making.
Since we’ve already seen the trailer, we know what’s coming, so it’s hard to resist the urge to shout at Helmsley to pick up the pace and get past all the technobabble about solar flares and neutrinos to the bits where things fall apart.

It’s not as if this is textbook science and Roland Emmerich never let an immutable fact of nature get between him and a tasty action scene. If John Cusack irritates you as he drives away from running cracks in the earth and falling rocks from the sky, remember that this is the director who had Jake Gyllenhaal successfully outrun cold.
Not Steve Austin, the temperature.

The master of postmodern disaster gets things going at a brisk pace, indulging in appropriately paced explosive foreplay, but like a teenager maddened by his first smell of womanhood and too many beers, he drops his directorial pants and plunges right in tossing the screaming white family, into a madcap race against cracking roadways, collapsing buildings and wildly plunging vehicles as they escape the destruction of Los Angeles.

The actors of colour get all the noble roles in this polyphony of collapse. Ejiofor champions people’s right to face their deaths well informed. Thandie Newton looks appropriately forlorn and overwrought at unspecified hurts related to the fate of art. Her daddy, the President, is played by Danny Glover with a righteous confusion gilding his unassailable uprightness.
Newton and Glover read their lines as if they learned them from a script with all the descriptions of the special effects taken out, a document which must have been around ten pages long.

All of Roland Emmerich’s character transgressions might be forgiven but for the final fifteen minutes of the film, in which he indulges in the least interesting part of any disaster film, the hero’s confrontation of a small but critical problem that he can only surmount through great sacrifice.
After much wailing and swimming and screaming and manufactured nervous tension that’s mostly attributable to the score, nobody important dies. Even Irwin Allen knew that a real disaster film must have some actual human disaster in it, some sense that the viewer loses something that has won their attention during the course of the film.

I’d have traded some of the cool flaming debris flying around in Yosemite or a falling building or two for some actual emotional payoff as the film winds down. Hell, even Helmsley knocking his boss on his ample butt wouldn’t have been too bad.
As it was, as the three arks sail off into the sun splashed new world, I wished so hard for three more well placed flaming missiles from the skies of an angry planet. As a wise songwriter once wrote, you can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you can get what you need.
Not this time.
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