Sunday, November 15, 2009

How I Survived 2012


You know that much-used, much-abused action-movie gimmick in which our hero or heroes manage to run/drive/fly just beyond the reach of a rapidly following wall of fire/water/lava? (It would be fun to research what movie started the gimmick; I would assume its overuse began in the late 70s, but I imagine it’s an element as old as the silent era.). In 2012, Roland Emmerich’s disaster-movie extraordinaire about the end of the world caused by the disintegration of the Earth’s core and the collapsing of its crust, this gimmick is used to ludicrously hyperbolic extents.

First, the story’s savior father Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) drives his family in a limo ahead of an earthquake rolling up the street behind them, through a gauntlet of collapsing overpasses, skyscrapers, and parking structures spilling an avalanche of cars.

THEN a small plane keeps a few feet ahead of a growing chasm, flies through shifting canyons of skyscrapers toppling like dominoes, and leaves Santa Monica to fall into the ocean beneath it.

THEN, at the wheel of a Winnebago this time, Jackson manages to evade an obstacle course of volcanic eruptions and flying chunks of lava, as he races across Yellowstone National Park.

THEN a massive Russian cargo jet takes off as Las Vegas crumbles beneath it and barely manages to rise above the towering resort casinos in its way.

And THEN Emmerich overuses another standard action-movie element: the-vehicle-flying-over-the-impossibly-wide-chasm. Keanu Reeves did it in a bus – going uphill no less – in Speed (1994). Cusack does it a couple of times in the limo – and once with the Winnebago!

Yes, 2012 is a very silly movie but, wow, it’s kind of like a thrill ride. And I’ve always considered thrill rides to be rather silly, but they’re also kind of thrilling. So what do you do when the poor workers, shut out of the gargantuan ark/ships, constructed to save heads of state and anyone who can pay a billion Euros, are rioting at the gates, plummeting into a chasm when pressed from behind, and the blonde bombshell playmate of a wealthy Russian shows her little lap dog how he can save himself by crawling over a cable to the secret passageway that leads the Curtis family and friends to safety? Well, you either walk out or sit back, enjoy the thrills, and shout, “Yee-haw!” There’s just no other way to survive.

So I sat back and enjoyed the silly thing. I loved how Emmerich borrows unabashedly from (or pays tribute to) When Worlds Collide (1951) (ark/ship constructed to save the human race); The Poseidon Adventure (1972) (capsizing cruise ship; silly song during the credits); The Towering Inferno (1974) (cameo by the aging actor – then it was Fred Astaire; this time it’s George Segal); Dante’s Peak (1997) (massive volcanic explosion); Deep Impact (1998) (gigantic tsunami and the loved ones that embrace each other as the wave approaches; African-American president); The Core (2003) (similar problem with the malfunctioning core); and War of the Worlds (2005) (the determined father trying to save son and daughter).

I enjoyed the performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor (spelling is correct) as the dedicated scientist who tries to make government bigwigs acknowledge the impending danger. I enjoyed John Cusack as the divorced writer of a science-fiction novel that serendipitously parallels the film’s final moral dilemma. Danny Glover does a touching job as an altruistic president who refuses to save himself. Woody Harrelson is wacko as only Harrelson can be as a radio talk-show host who has gotten wind of the impending disaster and knows about the plan to build ark/ships (he thinks they’re space ships) at a dam in Tibet.

I always love to see disasters wipe out famous edifices. This time, besides smashing the White House with an aircraft carrier, Emmerich hits Rome with an earthquake that cracks the Sistine ceiling right between the famous pointing fingers of God and Adam and rolls the cupola of Saint Peter’s over a throng of praying Catholics.

And just when we might be getting bored with all the destruction, the film turns kind of 50s sci-fi, very reminiscent of When Worlds Collide, as the passengers fortunate enough to have had a loose one billion Euros board the huge ark/ships, which are also loaded with animals and artwork like Michelangelo’s statue of David. The design of the ships – sort of a cross between a cruise ship and a submarine – are like something out of an episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

(Unfortunately, I couldn't find an image of one of the huge arks - my favorite gimmick in the movie. But the above image shows a glimpse of one being threatened by a collision with Air Force One. "Air Force One!" says the helmsman. Now, that's a bingo, and my favorite line in the movie.)

The captain of the American ark, with his sharply chiseled face and fascist uniform, like something an officer on a Star Wars Imperial cruiser would wear, starts going through the launching phase, and the whole moral dilemma of what to do about the unfortunate workers who didn’t have a billion Euros arises. The panicked mobs throng the gangways - just as in When Worlds Collide - also reminiscent of the mobs of underworlders who get flooded out in Metropolis (1927).

I love all the techno silliness as the ship’s bridge goes through the countdown before collision with the tsunami, which involves bracing the arks with massive clamps. Love it when the American ark collides with another ark, and a computer screen on the bridge shows a graphic display of the two ships and the pulsating warning: “Collision.” Then, is that an iceberg ahead? No, it’s Mount Everest (and a huge joke on Titanic)!

I felt like I was a kid back in the 60s when I used to go the 35-cent Saturday afternoon matinee to see silly sci-fi movies, some of which we look up to as classics now. Well, some of those classics were just as hokey as 2012, just as devoid of any sort of plausibility, but what did you do? You sat back and had fun and wondered what you would do if the Earth’s crust fell apart and caused humongous tsunamis that threatened to submerge the continents. Try to raise a quick billion Euros? Better yet – start acting like a dog.


The Film Doctor said...

Nice review, in part because you are very nice to the movie's excesses. I'm still recuperating from watching it, and I have a hard time contemplating it. I admire your ability to figure out all of the previous movie references. I mostly saw lots of Titanic references and one key scene in Only Angels Have Wings. Also, I kept brooding on how John Cusack and Ejiofor are both too cool to be in this film. 2012 literally chews its mise en scene to pieces, and something about its glib mass murder admidst all of the disaster movie cliches left a bad taste in my mouth.

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comments, FilmDr. I knew you'd see this over the weekend.

Glad you appreciate Ejiofor. He was impressive - injecting some genuine emotion in a film that is basically emotionless - and he did that better for me than Cusack - although Cusack did a good job.

I felt the whole thing was such a fantasy that I totally did not take in the mass murder. The Day After Tomorrow was a much more serious disaster movie. When this movie got to the part with the arks, it was such a fantasy-adventure scenario that I gave no thought to the billions who had drowned.

The Film Doctor said...

I can see how you could enjoy it as a fantasy, but I found the movie emotionally manipulative. There's a disjunct between enjoying gee-whiz destruction and then feeling bad for the victims (with cuts to children weeping). I guess this is typical of disaster films. Did you find the ending oddly reminiscent of The Poseidon Adventure?

Jason Bellamy said...

Glad you managed to enjoy this.

"I’ve always considered thrill rides to be rather silly, but they’re also kind of thrilling."

Well said. Still...I just can't do it.

If you haven't yet, check out this video by Steve Santos. Good stuff.

Ed Howard said...

Great, fun review; I'm sure I wouldn't enjoy the actual movie as much.

I won't be seeing this, so I'm just curious: what's the reference to Only Angels Have Wings?

Richard Bellamy said...

FilmDr. - If I've ever seen Only Angels Have Wings it was a long long time ago, and I know it's about someone's heroic act landing a plane, but what's the "key scene" that alludes to this movie? The Russian landing the big cargo jet?

Ed - I know 2012 might be an agony for you, but you might get a kick out of the whole ark thing at the end - it was so cheesy-50s/60s-sci-fi.

The Film Doctor said...

You see a similar last airplane almost plunging to its destruction at about 6 minutes and 30s seconds on this Youtube clip. I got the impression that the same kind of scene was used multiple times in 2012.

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks, FilmDr. The link didn't work, but I found the clip you mean: the plane diving into the canyon and barely making it up over the side. They sure used that a lot in 2012 - including with the huge jet - which was just as ridiculous as the Winnebago jumping the gorge.

Daniel said...

Well I can't say I enjoyed it nearly as much as you, but I can enjoy the fact that you enjoyed it, if that makes sense.

And your inclusion of the still photos here drives home the point for me that they, as tremendous works of art, are actually more interesting to me than the film was. Definitely there are some amazing spectacles in this movie, but the fact that they were being seen by us through the eyes of such improbably able characters took away from the effect. In other words, the visuals that we saw outside of the eyes of the characters (the White House destruction, the tidal wave over the house in Tibet, the Sistine Chapel) were more impactful for me than, say, John Cusack making some quip as they're driving through Hollywood.

So yeah, I just couldn't let go of reality enough to warm to this at all, but believe it or not it wasn't for gaps in logic. In that respect the only issues I had were outdated technology. For example, are we to believe that in 2012 the president has a tube TV in the Oval Office? Are tube TVs even still being manufactured in 2009? Generally I was just impressed by a lack of technological innovation, even if it is only three years from now (think about how quickly phones change in three years).

Aside from that I was able to forgive most of the other ridiculous logical gaps. But I couldn't forgive the running time - yikes.

Richard Bellamy said...

Daniel - thanks - yes, it was long. And I'm totally with you on the visual enjoyment level. I too loved what I SAW more than what I heard (dialogue - ridiculous!) or more than the characters (that Russian billionaire!). I loved the whole "fantasy" of the strange-looking arks floating around in the flooded Himalayas - heading for a collision with Mount Everest. Have to say, I've never seen that before!

Daniel said...

Augh, the billionaire was one of the worst characters I've seen in years. To be perfectly honest I had a hard time tolerating any human on the screen, making the visual spectacle look that much better. Too bad there was so much talking and, even worse, so much romance.

Richard Bellamy said...

Totally agree with you on the characters. I liked Helmsley, the scientist, though he was probably too good to be true, and I liked aspects of Cusack's character.

I'm planning a post on Deep Impact because the characters there are brilliantly and touchingly written in comparison. The character of the ex-wife's new husband - Gordon, I think - was irritating in the sense that I felt bad for Cusack, but even though I knew Gordon had to die, he at least deserved a more heroic death than being ground up in the huge gears. Ouch!

Daniel said...

Haha, I know. His termination was surprisingly abrupt. It's like come on, man - he's the reason everybody got out! Funny to see the billionaire become a martyr as well.

You know, despite the pain you have a funny way of making me somehow appreciate the ridiculousness of these movies...

Richard Bellamy said...

I was driving home after receiving your comment about the bad characters, and I was thinking that all this back and forth makes me want to see 2012 again. The movie is ridiculous and extravagant but it's kind of like the wild imagination of kids playing pretend:

- Hey, guys, let's pretend that like the Himalayas get flooded or something and then like people survive on these big ships that are kind of like a cross between space ships and submarines or something.

- Yeah, yeah, and I know, one of them almost collides with Mt. Everest!

- Great idea!

There's something to be said for that kind of wild, childlike imagination. I like that.

Jason Bellamy said...

I was thinking that all this back and forth makes me want to see 2012 again

My god! We need to schedule an intervention!

Hokahey: Please step away from the disaster movie!

Richard Bellamy said...

Jason - I thought you were going to say that all this back and forth makes you want to see it! In fact, as I watched, part of the fun was noting the many points when you would have said, "Oh, my God!" I have revealed some of the cringe points in this review but not ALL!

As for intervention - the only rehab that could possibly work for me is the release of some well-made movies to see. If I can't see a well-made movie, I'll see a big CGI fest rather than nothing at all.

Fletch said...

Place me somewhere between you and Daniel on my enjoyment scale for 2012. I somehow talked myself into wanting to see it just to see how bad it would, and it didn't let me down.

As for the arks, my wife had a good point - they looked like whales. A wise design choice.

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comment, Fletch. I read your post and I agree with the ridiculous bits that you point out. The ships - they're hard to describe. Whales, that's good. By the way, I wonder if some whales will get stranded in the Himalayas?