2012 is Roland Emmerich’s latest exercise in disaster pornography, a genre label I can’t exactly say is a bad thing. Emmerich seems to be the only Hollywood filmmaker out there capable of putting these films together and turning a profit. Wolfgang Peterson, another German director working in Hollywood, made a superior attempt at this with Poseidon, unfortunately his earnest attempt at remaking the disaster classic was met with an unfairly cold reception, so Emmerich is pretty much the only game in town for the disaster genre, for better or worse. Emmerich has destroyed the White House, frozen New York City, and overrun Madison Square Garden, and after his ill-fated attempt at creating a barbarian genre-flick with 10,000 B.C., he has decided that destroying iconic landmarks isn’t good enough, the entire world must go. Here he demolishes Los Angeles, crushes Vatican City, ruins that statue of Jesus in Rio, and engulfs Las Vegas in ash, ensuring everything will stay in Vegas for awhile. Lots of other stuff gets blown up real good too. There are characters caught in the middle of all this, but it wasn’t really worth paying attention during those parts. Almost every scene of destruction is exciting, but very little of what is there sticks with you. The best bit comes early where John Cusack flees a rapidly crumbling L.A. with his family, and the chaotic spectacle is stunning. The problem is that it rings false and very little of it has much weight. Time passes with some good actors playing uninteresting characters before another scene of destruction occurs, and yet despite the world ending as we know it, there is little to invest in what is going emotionally. It’s just an excuse for Emmerich to blow up the planet because, well, he can.
Everything I saw leading up to the release of this movie was impressive, even though films like this are generally an easy sell, however it was impossible for the director to not to slip into his usual tics that completely ruin his concepts. Roland Emmerich has always been a director who has blindly adhered to the Blake Snyder school of “saving the cat,” a vulgar practice that involves rescuing the cute animal an imminent threat in order to win over the audience. I would argue that if you have to ask yourself whether or not you should save the cute animal from danger, you probably shouldn’t have the little fucker in the script to begin with. This cynical audience-pandering is the worst of the worst, especially when human characters are killed off without much thought, while the film fusses over a damn critter. But maybe it’s because the humans themselves aren’t very interesting. Granted, I would much rather spend two and half hours with John Cusack than, say, Matthew Broderick in Godzilla, but then again, there is no reason I should have to spend two and a half hours with this movie at all. Cusack spends the movie trying to get from L.A. to a place in China where sci-fi Noah’s Ark ships are being built to preserve humanity. Along the way he meets Yakov Smirnoff, his two bratty sons, his bimbo girlfriend, the chick who got naked in The Whole Nine Yards, Hitman Harrelson’s son, and that badass black guy from Redbelt and Serenity. Very few of these characters are interesting, and the time between each spectacle seems to drag, which isn’t helped by the fact that the destruction gets less and less interesting each time we see it. Emmerich is good at constructing safe, non-threatening, popcorn roller-coasters, and he’d be better at it if he didn’t always design them to stop at various points during the ride to look at something completely dull. It just can’t deliver the goods where it counts during its unreasonably long running time, and it wears out its welcome very quickly. Movies like this work well as lean, mean, destruction machines, ninety minutes of chaos and mayhem with characters that take fifteen minutes to win over your investment before they spend the next seventy five getting out of terrible situations and occasionally killing the ones that don’t. Filmmakers like Roland Emmerich just can’t help themselves, they have to over-complicate things, and that’s why this apocalypse is one worth sleeping through most of, at least until the next year when we’re all supposedly doomed.