The Mayans warned us about this, and director Roland Emmerich takes immense pleasure in proving them right. I don’t know what his problem is with planet Earth (if you’ve seen Independence Day, Godzilla or The Day After Tomorrow, or had your eyes assaulted by 10,000 B.C., you know what I’m talking about), but Emmerich just loves to kick the crap out of this planet and its landmarks. And the destruction seen here has no peer. Yellowstone explodes, California falls into the ocean , Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer statue crumbles and St. Peter’s Basilica smushes some folks.
The plot involves some nonsense about an abundance of neutrinos given off by the sun suddenly heating up the Earth’s core, shifting the planet’s crust and causing earthquakes and tsunamis galore. Chiwetel Ejiofor (Redbelt) plays Dr. Adrian Helmsley, the scientist who figures out what’s going on. He tells the president (Danny Glover) and his adviser/stock villain Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt), who set into motion a secret international plan that involves building arks to save the super-rich, some nice artworks and pairs of zoo animals.
Meanwhile, our representatives of “regular people” are led by John Cusack (veteran of the disaster films Serendipity and Must Love Dogs), who plays Jackson Curtis, a science-fiction writer who penned a novel full of events eerily similar to what ends up happening in the film. His ex-wife, Kate (Amanda Peet) has been remarried to a plastic surgeon named Gordon (Tom McCarthy, presumably doing this paycheck film so he can direct more films as lovely as The Station Agent and The Visitor), and his kids like Gordon more than they like him.
Cusack becomes hip to the impending apocalypse through a series of events too foolish to explain, but that doesn’t really matter. The plot is often as silly as the rest of the movie, but nobody is really coming to this movie looking for a tight story. We want destruction, and we get it in spades.
Luckily, the destruction is fun to look at. The sequence in which Cusack and his family escape from Los Angeles, outrunning an earthquake from one end of the city to the other in a stretch limo that has the best drive train known to man, is without exaggeration the single least believable thing I’ve ever seen in a movie. But I watched it with the kind of giddy, astounded glee that’s very hard to come by. Movies this demented and outrageous don’t come around every day.
And unlike the incomprehensible shaky-cam action sequences of Michael Bay’s movies, Emmerich prefers to step back and admire the destruction, letting us see, say, the Washington Monument topple and crush a group of people while using long shots that really allow us to appreciate the carnage. Emmerich at least seems to understand that one of the main goals of making a movie is to tell the story in a manner that allows the audience to understand what’s going on.
Unfortunately, the melodrama buried beneath the destruction is pure disaster movie boilerplate. We’ve got noble sacrifices, parents using their last moments to tell their children they love them, and an estranged husband trying to earn his family’s love back. There’s even a little dog trying to outrun the destruction. The problem is that while the characters are pleasant enough, they’re never terribly interesting, and we have no reason to want them to live any more than any of the digital extras being hurled about in the background.
The fact that the movie is so ludicrous and entertaining keeps us from thinking too closely about how offensive it can be in this respect. Every disaster movie asks us to focus our sympathies on the survival of a small group of characters while others die by the bucketload in the background, but the sheer scale of the destruction here is so great that if you think about it too closely it’s really hard to find it anything other than borderline despicable. Billions of humans are dying, but as long as the little dog makes it, everything’s okay.
At 158 minutes, the movie is about 45 minutes too long, but the script, co-written by Emmerich and Harald Kloser, never allows for much real human behavior to emerge, instead preferring to pile on clichés and focus on spectacle. Questions are raised about the ethics of selling seats on the arks, and Ejiofor is given a super-cheesy speech about how we as a race must show compassion or we won’t deserve to survive, but the movie only pays lip service to these ideas, instead racing breathlessly to the next action sequence. But while the subpar character writing can make occasional stretches of the film a slog, the sheer pileup of sentiment, cliché and nonsensical plot developments can actually kind of serve to enhance the film’s delirious tone.
The absurd material benefits greatly from a terrific cast that does what it can with what it is given. Ejiofor is, for my money, one of his generation’s finest actors, and he has a natural gravity to him, used so well in movies such as Serenity and Dirty Pretty Things, that lends the movie some emotional heft when it really hasn’t earned it. Some of the other actors, though, prefer to match the movie’s mood. Cusack gives some quality mugging, when he’s not busy trying to drive a Winnebago faster than a volcanic eruption, and Woody Harrelson has a small, but incredibly loud part as a crackpot radio host who just happens to be right. His performance is almost as over-the-top as the movie itself.
It’s hard to defend 2012 on an emotional or character level, but the movie usually moves too rapidly from set piece to set piece for us to realize that. And movies this crazy need to be celebrated. As a spectacle, the film is unparalleled, the sheer scale of its insanity matched only by the boundless brio with which Emmerich takes the planet apart brick by brick.