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‘2012’ puts disaster genre on a new level of bad

POSTED: November 18, 2009 4:57 p.m.
/Columbia Pictures

"2012" gives viewers scene after scene of characters running with loved ones away from various perilous situations.

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Everybody run for your lives — it's a Roland Emmerich movie!

Director Roland Emmerich loves to destroy the Earth. He used aliens to devastate much of it in "Independence Day," trained "Godzilla" to tromp all over New York City and blanketed the world with snow in "The Day After Tomorrow."

Apparently, Emmerich found all those scenarios limiting, because in "2012," he goes for the terrestrial jugular by tampering with the very core of the planet. How does he do this, you ask?

Solar flares reach such unprecedented peaks that they make the molten core of the Earth boil, which sets the continents adrift, sparks an endless series of earthquakes and volcanoes and reverses the magnetic field of the whole globe.

To put a human face on the ensuing carnage, we watch John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Amanda Peet, Woody Harrelson, Thandie Newton and Thomas McCarthy drive, fly, hike and emote their way toward safety.

Emmerich paints disaster in the broadest strokes in cinema history, using the Earth as a canvas on which he will depict cheap tragedy on a scale most filmmakers have the taste to avoid.

But Emmerich knows that if you destroy the Earth from the inside out, you give yourself the chance to combine virtually every disaster movie plot device into one bulging mammoth of a movie.

Buildings collapse á la "Towering Inferno." Ships capsize like in "The Poseidon Adventure." Volcanoes erupt, tsunamis flood continents, and on and on.

"2012" consists of three types of scenes. First, we have the "scientific explanation" scene, in which egghead types spew jargon-laden nonsense intended to lend the illusion of plausibility.

Second, we have the "family drama" scenes, in which various children and parents say last goodbyes, express regrets and do their best to make us care about the characters - just before they die.

The characters rotate, but all these scenes play out like this. Son, talking on cell phone: "Dad, I've always loved you." Dad, on landline: "Your mother and I are so proud of you." Son: "Thanks Dad ... Dad? Dad!" Silence, because some calamity has killed Dad.

Finally, we have the most recurring scene in "2012," the "screaming while fleeing from death" scene. One scene after another shows characters hauling ass in the opposite direction from computer-generated peril.

Cusack gets to drive away from crumbling Earth before it swallows up his ex-wife and children in two different scenes. Four times - yes, four - McCarthy pilots or co-pilots an airplane that must take off just before an earthquake, volcanic ash or avalanche engulfs his wife and adopted children - who are Cusack's biological kids, of course.

And since this is a disaster movie, most of the fleeing people don't make it. Which gets very depressing by the end of this
2 1/2-hour movie. I'm not spoiling anything by telling you that most of the human race gets wiped out, which is a bit much even for a disaster movie.

Disaster movies have always been a delicate mélange of mass deaths, personal drama and broad comedy. But Emmerich knocks that formula out of balance. After a few billion people die, it's hard to laugh only seconds later. Especially since Emmerich tries so hard to make us sad about all the death.

Oh well. The biggest mistake we can make when it comes to a disaster movie is to take it seriously. Is it a good movie? The very notion that we should consider it seriously enough to make a quality judgment is just absurd.

This movie is one big ridiculous campy predictable maudlin mess. It's audaciously conceived, terribly written and full of phoned-in performances.

But as disaster movies go, you'll never run into one with such massive scope. If you enjoyed Emmerich's past work, you'll revel in what should be the biggest blow-up of his career.

Just remember that while body count can be a measure of guilty pleasure, it is not a measure of quality.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.



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