Cusack slumming it in blockbuster territory.

Roland Emmerich is as frustrating a director as you’re ever likely to find, best rivalled in this by the insufferable Michael Bay; both directors are capable of crafting an epic scope and visually stunning scenes of carnage, but neither can seem to work with anyone capable of knocking out a solid script. Emmerich’s latest disaster film, 2012, with all of its grandeur and odd moments of narrative cohesion, is a reminder that if he hired someone who could actually write, he’d probably have a great film on his hands.

2012 is not a great film, nor is it even a particularly good one, but it is easy to argue that it delivers the basic goods, just like his previous disaster films Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow; it is a mixed bag of good and bad, with the bad fleeting between bearably cringe-worthy and horrendously overpowering. As a summation of Emmerich’s various talents and flaws as a director, the film is a suitable travelogue, for it is aesthetically pleasing and chaotic, but also cheesy and overlong. It does offer a rare quality for Emmerich, though; a little food for thought, with a distinct air of nihilism permeating throughout this film, even if he does typically resolve to the supposed innate goodness of humankind.

The film opens in present day, with the sun emitting an uncharacteristically large solar flare, which is causing the Earth’s core’s temperature to rise drastically. This discovery causes scientist Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to travel to Washington D.C. to warn the White House about the impending danger. Smarmy and mostly dismissive Chief of Staff Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt), after some squabbling, takes him to see President Thomas Wilson (Danny Glover), who appoints Helmsley to devise a plan to prevent as much damage as possible. They decide to create a number of “arks” to basically protect the wealthy (who have paid $1bn for a ticket) and “important” people of the world. We then cut to 2012, with writer Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), along with his ex-wife Kate (Amanda Peet), children Noah (Liam James) and Lily (Morgan Lily), and Kate’s new boyfriend, Gordon (Thomas McCarthy), getting caught in the apocalyptic maelstrom, with earthquakes tearing the face of the world as we know it to shreds.

It is easy to say what works about 2012, and that is the stellar visual effects; although it takes far too long to get to the destruction scene money-shots, once the film gets there, it unleashes a torrent of carnage that’s quite beautifully realised for the most part, beginning with Curtis driving his family in a limo through California as everything around him falls apart, shot like an amusement park ride that sees all manner of things – such as a rolling doughnut sign, and a tanker – flying past the viewer in a frenzy. It’s easy to see where the $200m they spent on this thing went, because the destruction is awe-striking, even if it appears that no budget was left to hire a scriptwriter…

Speaking of which, as has plagued Emmerich perennially, the script just isn’t up to grade. It has some interesting ideas scattered about – particularly that culture is arguably our most important commodity, and that most humans are fundamentally selfish – but once again, Emmerich stalls things with a dreadfully schmaltzy family subplot, as well as a slow pace, making the film run in at a porky 158 minutes. Everyone, I think, knows who is going to die out of the original group of five, and if you’ve seen any disaster film from any director, you know how much these films feed off of the reconstituted family scenario (see: Knowing).

2012 does benefit from some fun performances, though, particularly Woody Harrelson in a fairly unadvertised role as Charlie Frost, a radio host and conspiracy theorist who has believed the Mayan prediction for years. Harrelson is probably the performer most aware that the film is trash, and as a result, he hams it up to the nines, screaming and prancing around like a loon with a psychotic expression for most of his screen time. Cusack’s Curtis makes a sympathetic and likeable lead character, and his kid characters are appropriately cute while not being too irritating, while Danny Glover makes a welcome return to mainstream cinema with a decent turn as the President. It would also be remiss not to mention Ejiofor’s performance: the material is hardly prime rib, but Ejiofor reminds us again why he is such a fast-rising talent.

So, yes, there’s enough to like to make 2012 just about worth recommending on the carnage front, but it’s also undemanding to the point where it seems insulting: when our characters try to board one of the arks without a ticket, they simply use a back door, where they are met with no resistance at all. Also, the film makes a good effort to muse on how shrewd bureaucrats can be in times like this, but ultimately back-peddles with the expected cheesiness, when what the suits were saying, although harsh, was probably true most of the time. Most criminal of all, though, is how the family plot stunts the film so often, and how it lazily fixes things between all involved.  If trimmed by a good half hour and re-written with less compromise, this could have been a great genre film instead of a mediocre one.


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