A quarter of a billion dollars was spent making this movie. A pie chart depicting the allocation of all those millions 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 it wouldn’t have room for a label.
This may be a minor drawback in the case of a picture like 2012. It is a drawback nonetheless. Director Roland Emmerich previously has given us two apocalyptic spectacles — Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow — that I rank with the great guilty pleasures of our era and have enjoyed countless times. Those were effects fests, too. But consider how well drawn were the characters played by Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Randy Quaid, Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal.
Not that Emmerich or anyone at Sony is likely to be troubled by this movie’s dearth of memorable characters as long as it continues to wreak havoc on its competition. Once the dust settles, however, my sense is we’ll find that the filmmaker’s latest ranks not with his classic disaster epics but with second-rate fare such as his 1998 Godzilla. 2012 may be worth seeing, but it doesn’t leave you feeling like you’ll 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, he’s 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 that 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 that Cusack bumps into a wack job played by Woody Harrelson, who informs him the end is near. Furthermore, 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, Harrelson 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. For the next two hours, they use a succession of cars and planes to hightail it to China and the top-secret rendezvous point. Along the way, the gang is repeatedly just a step ahead of collapsing terrain — 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, however, has it been demolished so pointlessly. Millions were wiped out in The Day After Tomorrow so audiences might better appreciate the threat posed by climate change. Why are they wiped out here? So audiences can 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.