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2012 Review – The End of the World Never Looked So Good

2012 Review – The End of the World Never Looked So Good” width=”560″/>

There’s a scene early in Roland Emmerich‘s 2012 where John Cusack, his estranged wife, their two adorable children, and the smarmy new boyfriend have to escape Los Angeles, which is collapsing into the Earth. (It turns out the Mayans were right about the end of the world, which is brought about right on schedule by solar flares and the melting of the Earth’s crust.) As skyscrapers and bridges crumble around them, they flee for their lives, first in a car, then in a prop plane. It is an orgy of computer-generated obliteration, the kind of scene that has been Emmerich’s stock-in-trade since Independence Day, and I swear to you: It may be the most rousing ten minutes of footage I’ve seen this year.

For longer than I thought possible, 2012 blocks out every response beyond the gut-level. Yes, Emmerich’s characters remain laughable one-dimensional stick figures; yes, his dialogue makes an audible clunk every other line; yes, the movie is obscenely long. Hard-hearted critics pride themselves on resisting “empty spectacle,” eye-candy effects with nothing behind them. But long stretches of 2012 inspire nothing other than awe.

Perhaps I rationalize, but one explanation is that the spectacle on display here isn’t really “empty.” The scenes of destruction composed by Emmerich’s team — earthquakes, tsunamis, rains of earth and fire — have an enveloping majesty; they transcend mere expensive photorealism and cross over into art. Sometimes, there’s even a certain grace to the disaster: I loved when Emmerich trained his camera for long seconds on an old man clutching the side of a sinking cruise ship, as we see a huge wave slowly start to bear down through the window behind him.

Even when 2012 isn’t an exhilarating display of the best special effects in the history of the medium, it’s not bad by genre standards. Emmerich’s typically absurd, heavy-handed melodrama is leavened somewhat by actors like Cusack, Thomas McCarthy, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Oliver Platt, Thandie Newton, and Zlatko Buric (hilarious as a gruff Russian billionaire), who don’t easily allow themselves to be lowered to the level of schmaltz and kitsch. The movie is legitimately funny when it wants to be (though it’s also often quite callous in juxtaposing heartrending scenes of suffering and death with some glib sight gag). And the action set pieces are filmed and cut together with a downright Spielbergian sense of pacing and rhythm.

Things do eventually go south for the movie, as for the planet. The running time — 160 minutes — is inexcusably long for something like this, especially since the third act gets bogged down in an interminable climax that’s set, for some reason, in the murky bowels of a giant boat and involves things getting stuck in metal gears. (I was reminded of Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow, which took time out from its climate-disaster plot to have its characters attacked by wolves.) At forty minutes shorter, with fewer speeches and maybe fewer characters, 2012 might have been pretty much perfect.

Still, I have to believe that Roland Emmerich’s career has been building to this. Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow were meant as spectacle, but were too damn lumbering and boring to be worthy of the name. 2012 is the most convincing apocalypse ever put on film, which is no small achievement in itself. But for at least a couple hours, the movie is also something far more important and harder to accomplish: it’s fun.

To get an alternate movie review of 2012, go to AMC Filmcritic.com

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