by Jef Burnham
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After writer/director Roland Emmerich’s atrocious The Day After Tomorrow and his bewilderingly tepid 10,000 B.C., I expected nothing good to come from his latest effort, the highly marketed, 2012. Fortunately for the millions who flocked to the theater during its opening weekend, it is a far better film than the majority of Emmerich’s previous works. This is not to say, however, that 2012 is in any way a great film, or even a good film, but a great cast, impressive pacing and special effects, and interesting themes set this head and shoulders above movies like Emmerich’s Godzilla.
Normally, I avoid saying too much about the cast, but it really is the cast that drives this film more than anything. The film boasts the always terrific Chiwetel Ejiofor as the scientist in charge of the Ark operations, Woody Harrelson as a shell-shocked conspiracy theorist who happens to be right, and Danny Glover as the President of the United States, all co-starring alongside John Cusack as our compulsory everyman, Jackson Curtis. Oliver Platt, Thandie Newton, Amanda Peet, and Thomas McCarthy also star.
Predictably, however, many of the characters are paper-thin. The Curtis children, for instance, seem to have been given five seconds’ consideration in the writing room. The son, Noah, likes cell phones and hates his father. The daughter, Lilly, likes hats and pees the bed, and that’s it. But the biggest offense of thin characterization goes to Emmerich’s Russian characters, who are, in their best moments, laughable and disposable. I’m hard-pressed to understand the recent resurgence of contempt for the Russian people in Hollywood, most notably vocalized in the trailer for the upcoming Russian spy movie, Salt, starring Angelina Jolie. But that’s a topic for a different study.
The real action doesn’t begin for an hour or so and many people are complaining that the film is boring until everything starts falling apart, but I am not one of them. The subsequent action of the film only works as a result of the length of time we spend with the characters beforehand. This may sound obvious, but given the number of complaints I’ve heard about the lack of action during the first part of the movie, it needs to be reasserted. If we saw our characters fighting for their lives among the impressively realized crumbling cities and debris of a megavolcano without characterization, the film would be no better than this year’s #1 piece of soulless, masturbatory cinema, G.I. Joe.
More than anything in 2012, I was surprised to find myself invested in the theme, which unfortunately loses its developmental steam during the last hour, where it fuels the obligatory, cliché speeches about love and the future that always fail to jerk tear with their transparently faux-sentimentality. But for the greater part of the film, the theme of capitalism bringing about the demise of the working classes in the end times looms over our characters with terrifying repercussions. As Jackson Curtis and his family struggle to reach the fabled Arks that are to be the salvation for the last of man, we know that the Custises could never hope to pay the 1 billion Euro price tag of a ticket aboard the Arks.
I was still greatly invested in 2012 and its characters, through all of its weaknesses, up until the last hour or so of its 2 hour 38 minute running-time, when it takes a considerable nose-dive into the blandness that typified the entirety of 10,000 B.C. In the last hour, the themes are upended for the purpose of the aforementioned insultingly unrealistic speeches, characters are killed off ad nauseum as no one blinks twice at the loss, but the most drastic of the changes is that the adventure digresses from the excitement of the family hurtling across land and through air, dodging the debris of a crumbling Earth, to John Cusack trying to pull an industrial screwdriver out of a gear. In terms of spectacle, Emmerich got it all backwards. He lost whatever inspiration he had been working from a little over halfway through his writing process, which culminates in a painfully groan-worthy final exchange of dialogue. The best part of this final hour is, in fact, a moment where a giraffe seems to mock someone as they drown, but even that feels unintentional.
Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.
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