For all the elaborate apocalyptic imagery in Roland Emmerich’s latest F/X marathon 2012, there’s not a single witty or memorable sight. Not much story either: U.S. geologist (Chiwetel Ejiofore) discovers that the Earth’s crust is shifting due to enormous solar flare eruptions. Neutrinos heat up the Earth’s core “like a microwave,” which gives Emmerich’s CGI team the chance to design various destruction scenarios. It’s a demolition field day—breaking landmarks from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., to the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica.
Emmerich’s destruction derby is extended through multiple subplots that string together the Chicken Little geologist, a divorced-dad novelist (John Cusack) and his estranged family, an end-of-days radio kook (Woody Harrelson) and, oh yeah, another black President of the United States (Danny Glover). The president’s daughter (Thandie Newton) is involved with saving the Louvre’s art treasures—key to a government conspiracy plot that involves Princess Diana’s death and the secret construction of modern-day arks.
2012’s narrative is super-banal and so are its special effects. All the crumbling and explosions that looked so cool in the TV commercials go by extremely fast. Videogame style replaces logic and physics. It lacks the imaginative weight of the disasters Spielberg visualized in War of the Worlds that conveyed a scary sense of reckoning. For critics who objected to Spielberg’s evocation of 9/11, Emmerich’s catastrophes are blame-free. They also lack the subversive, psychological pull that made WOTW and Final Destination 3 so magnificently surreal, powerful and cathartic.
King of the Dumbed-down blockbuster, Emmerich (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow) confuses asinine storytelling with populist escapism. He’s more manipulative than craftsmanly—always saving dogs, killing off low-wattage co-stars and stretching credulity to the point that, to give in, commits one to the illicit destruction of cinema. Strangely, Emmerich’s shamelessness parallels Richard Kelly’s enervated take on sci-fi horror in The Box, another over-long genre botch.
Kelly, king of dumbed-down nihilism, takes a short Twilight Zone TV episode, “Button, Button,” and extends it unendurably—to the point that there’s no longer any moral snap to the story of an American couple (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) accepting a million dollars to activate a box that will kill a stranger.
Of course, Kelly’s into serious grim-reaping, unlike Emmerich’s hackwork, but they both get the same demoralizing result. Each film features a scene where a child is isolated from its parents and tormented with possible abandonment or death. Kelly literalizes it by detailing the child’s sensory deprivation, and that’s essentially what Emmerich does to the popcorn audience.
Directed by Roland Emmerich
Runtime: 158 min.
Directed by Richard Kelly
Runtime: 116 min.
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