Cinema Thoughts


The latest CGI disaster-porn blockbuster from director Roland Emmerich is an insane roller coaster ride in the mould of his previous films.



The latest CGI disaster-porn blockbuster from director Roland Emmerich is an insane roller coaster ride in the mould of his previous films.

When Sony Pictures hired Emmerich to make 2012 they clearly weren’t doing so in the hope that he would make an intimate examination of how governments respond to a global crisis.

Armed with a huge budget he has constructed an overblown cocktail of his greatest hits: Independence Day (in which the world is devastated by aliens); Godzilla (in which a city is devastated by a lizard);  The Day After Tomorrow (in which the world is devastated by global warming).

Now with 2012 he has crafted a film in which the world is devastated by an ancient Mayan prophecy which sees Earth’s techtonic plates going crazy after a solar flare.

The story has a similar template: alarmed scientists (Chiwetel Ojiofor and Jimi Mistry) discover the disaster; an everyday guy (John Cusack) struggles to protect his family amidst the chaos; the US president (Danny Glover) tries to be stoic; the chief of staff (Oliver Platt) enacts a secret plan and various other characters all respond differently to the coming apocalypse.

In essence, this is a modern day remake of 1970s disaster movies like Earthquake with advanced CGI and production values. It is very cheesy and workmanlike, although the sheer scale of destruction was beguilingly impressive.

Going in I had a fair idea of what to expect (clichés, perfunctory performances, clunky dialogue, overblown set pieces, absurd scenes where characters cheer and clap in unison) and it all came true, but a few things stuck out.

Firstly, it is very long for a mainstream film at 158 minutes but actually passes quite quickly, mainly because the action sequences come thick and fast and have a bizarre, rapid absurdity to them.

Secondly, the CGI is impressive on one level in its reconstruction of a global apocalypse but the use of it is often flawed as the tension is frequently undercut by the ludicrous just-in-time escapes, worthy of Indiana Jones at his luckiest.

Thirdly, the product placement is so ubiquitous it becomes vaguely humorous. There are lots of Sony Vaio laptops. There are lots of Sony TVs. Everyone uses a Sony phone.

The only thing missing were PS3s but it’s handy to know if the world ends, Sony have got the consumer electrical goods sorted.

The fact that the three most noteworthy aspects of the film are the length, the visual effects and branded electrical products tells you a great deal.

The acting? Well, it’s pay cheque performances all around with everyone trying to make the clunky dialogue sound OK.

Cusack and Ejiofor have been shrewdly cast though, as they are likeable actors who lend the production a sheen of credibility it doesn’t really have.

But seeing the likes of George Segal, Danny Glover and Thomas McCarthy in wafer thin roles is alarming. Is this really the best major studios can offer talent like this?

Despite the critical mauling this film will undoubtedly take (deservedly for the most part), the gnashing of teeth over it is not just about the film. It is partly because this is film is going to make a lot of money.

As I came out of it, the reasons for its impending success became clearer:

  • The concept is simple to understand around the globe (“The world ends in 2012. Or does it…?”).
  • Given that the world’s economic infrastructure actually appears to be dissolving gives it an added topicality in the current climate.
  • Disaster movies by Roland Emmerich tend to do well.
  • The mystical Mayan crap is actually going to be taken as fact in the same way The Da Vinci Code was.
  • Lots of nationalities are (clunkily) represented in the form of token Americans, Russians and Asians.
  • It is carefully designed to appeal to certain countries as there are shots which look like they could be specific for certain territories. (For instance, in one scene Cusack finds a London tube map (!) but I reckon in different countries he finds something relevant to where the movie is shown. Ditto for a similar scene involving famous world figures in which I (and UK audiences) saw a famous lady and her dogs. I’m sure in other countries it will be another relevant figure.

But the final fact worth bearing in mind in mind is that this is essentially a summer blockbuster which just happens to be opening in November.

Sony’s original plan was to open this last July but back in January they opted to shift it to November. A smart move because there’s not a huge amount of blockbuster competition that there is in the summer.

My guess is that the bad critical buzz and word of mouth will dent the grosses a bit, but watch out for how many people see this in cinemas, on DVD/Blu-ry and on TV.

Sometimes I’m asked why films like this and Transformers 2 do so well and part of the reason is that they are so heavily marketed with tantalising eye candy (“Ooh, look at the CGI destruction!”) that it is the cinematic equivalent of class A drugs. People know it’s bad, but still go anyway because they want a bit of escape.

I could be wrong. People might be put off by the lack of a decent script and stay at home, but this feels like a Hollywood fairground ride many will be queuing up for.