[24 March 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Granted, the characters are as cardboard as a Dominos Pizza crust (yes, even after the big overhaul - sorry, current sales team). The storyline is also so scattered, stupid, and silly that it can barely contain its own retarded ridiculousness. Almost all the actors are in it for the paycheck or the needed commercial profile (sadly, someone forgot to tell Chiwetel Ejiofor or Woody Harrelson) with a few barely able to keep a straight face through all the forced fear mayhem. Yet without a doubt, Roland Emmerich’s 2012 stands as the greatest disaster movie of all time if for one sequence and one sequence alone - the complete and utter annihilation of California.
As the film’s first major F/X set-piece, the German born genius of the mindless action apocalypse (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow) knew he had to craft a real showstopper, and for decades, pundits have been speculating that the next “great” quake would turn LA and its surrounding San Adreas fault line friends into a great big pile of Pacific floaters. Emmerich decided to run with that idea, creating one of the most mind-bloggling examples of CG chaos ever created, a sequence so sensational it raises goosebumps on your flesh as its systematically lowers your overall IQ. In fact, when viewed in the latest incarnation of the home video format - Blu-ray - one gains a deeper appreciation of the moviemaker’s warped vision, and how he turned it loose on our Left Coast cousins.
Everything begins with a forced family trip to Yellowstone, the discovery of a dried up lake bed, the sudden arrival of the entire US military, and a discussion between John Cusack’s disgruntled dad/novelist Jackson Curtis and Harrleson’s crazed conspiracy theorist/radio personality Charlie Frost. We soon learn that neutrinos are melting the Earth from the inside, and soon all photorealistic Hell will be unleashed. There’s even a hint of this when Jackson’s ex (Amanda Peet) and her doctor beau watch their local grocery store turn into a literal illustration of their strained relationship. One massive crack down the middle later and the portents of possible annihilation are ready and waiting.
Contemplating the possibility that the planet has an expiration date, our hero takes his hateful little children back to their still shacking-up-with-a-snobby-plastic-surgeon mother, and then revs up his on the side limo service to take a pair of reprehensible Russian children over to their big wig father’s private jet. These former Commie cusses make it very clear that they have expensive pre-paid passage on “ships” guaranteed to carry them to safety. All our lead has is his earnest desire to stay alive. Soon, Jackson has put two and 2010 together and is racing back to his brood, hoping to save them from the oncoming end of the world.
He just makes it. During a delightful pancake brunch, the ground starts shifting and the homes begin buckling. Within moments, the entire West Coast is turned into a real life version of a carnival funhouse, complete with gas jets aimed at raises a few skirts (and corpses). Jackson rescues his former spouse, those ungrateful kiddies, and the interloper boyfriend, and together they head back toward the airport. There, a hired plane awaits, ready to take them out of the slowly building bedlam. As the stretch vehicle makes it way through collapsing suburban streets and around catapulting cars, it finds itself smack dab in the middle of an Irwin Allen optical orgasm. Indeed, downtown LA is crumbling in all its glass and metal skyscraper madness. As one metropolitan monolith after another bends and sways, our luxury car full of possible casualties runs over, around, and even through these atrophying architectural marvels.
During this game of supersized urban dodge ‘mall’, Jackson and his family are witness to several sensational moments of imagined carnage: old ladies are flattened by massive mountains of earth; a car-filled freeway falls into itself, eating autos and passengers as it evaporates and disappears; a huge gasoline tanker truck flies through the air and smashes into a filling station, the resulting fireball one of the more minor moments in the movie’s plentiful pyrotechnic display; and perhaps the most exciting and iconic of them all - the giant donut from Randy’s bakery comes cascading down the street, acting as a rolling advertising symbol of ruin. By the time they get to the airport, they can barely take off fast enough. As the runway actually disintegrates below them, Jackson et. al are airborne, and appear safe…
…or are they? Indeed, in an example of theatrical thrill ride chutzpah that few filmmakers would even dare attempt, Emmerich sends the gang BACK through Los Angeles (or what is left of the dying city), their small single engine aircraft bobbing and weaving through the same shattered buildings they were avoiding mere minutes ago - and this time, things are even more precarious. As the Earth opens up, swallowing entire neighborhoods in its mighty maw, we see subway cars shooting out of the ground and into inferno-like fires. Offices full of people plunge headlong into the widening abyss. Entire shorelines capsize and start submerging into the ocean. Just when it looks like our refugees will find a way to survive this cataclysmic event, a look back highlights the horrors that await: slowly, methodically, LA slinks and slides into the water, the entirety of the coast crashing and succumbing to the awesome destructive power of a computer generated natural calamity.
This opening salvo in what will soon be a literal tidal wave of wanton devastation is indicative of Emmerich’s approach throughout 2012. As the man who allowed aliens to obliterate the White House and gave New York a frozen flooding that few would soon forget, he knew this latest example of big screen disarray had to be the best. Sure, Yellowstone turning into a giant volcano is rather cool, and envisioning Sin City as a literal illustration of earthly Hell was another moviemaking masterstroke. But once the tsunamis show up and start land surfing over everything in their path, the disasters grow kind of repetitive. Indeed, one constantly finds themselves focusing back on the loss of California, and remembering how wacked out and wonderful such obliteration was.
That’s why, when you go back through the litany of famous cinematic disasters - the capsizing of the ORIGINAL S.S. Poseidon, the fire atop San Francisco’s poorly constructed Glass Tower, the original bellbottomed and leisure suited ‘70s earthquake and all the various natural and manmade events in between, nothing tops 2012‘s methodical dismantling of America’s entire left side. If and when someone decides to turn Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka’s amazing fact/fiction novel Warday (about a limited nuclear war and its impact on the US) into a major motion picture, we might then get another candidate for the best reckless disregard for the value of human life. Until that time, Roland Emmerich rules the end of the world sweepstake - and 2012 is his drooling, delightful disasterpiece.