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Mr. Beaks Looks Forward to Roland Emmerich's Splendidly Stupid 2012

I bear Roland Emmerich no ill will. Without him, AICN wouldn't have its wonderful 'splodin' backdrop, humans wouldn't be able to outrun a cold snap, and mankind... (pause for emphasis) "mankind"... that word wouldn't have new meaning for all of us today. Emmerich has given us so very much. By brazenly melding the disaster cinema of Irwin Allen with the awe-for-awe's-sake aesthetic of 80s-era Amblin, the German-born auteur turned himself into a sort of substitute Spielberg. Visually, he's proven an astute mimic; storywise, he's demonstrated an impressive knack for pacing and an astonishing lack of shame. At this point, there's no use kicking up a fuss over Emmerich's lobotomized brand of science-fiction; though he's clearly playing up worst-case ecological/astronomical scenarios to make hay at the box office, at least he's doing so with films that evince all the intellectual rigor of THE SWARM*. Like Allen, Emmerich is more about spectacle than audience empathy; just as THE TOWERING INFERNO is about a big fucking building that catches fire (as opposed to exploiting one's fear of getting stuck in a blazing high-rise), THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW is - Stanley Kramer moralizing aside - about Manhattan getting clobbered by a tsunami and subsequently frozen within twenty-four hours. In a way, Emmerich doesn't make films as much as he strings together f/x money shots; if you accept that when you hand over your jacked-up admission, you really can't feel burned when, say, an invading alien race is undone by its preference for Apple computers. That said, all Roland Emmerich pictures are not created equal. Though he appears to have been disabused of his lofty artistic aspirations, he can still miss the populist mark at seemingly point blank range: e.g. GODZILLA reinvents when it should be stealing wholesale, while 10,000 BC plays like a sexually incurious fourteen-year-old's remake of ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (which presumably sold in the room as "Camilla Belle in a loincloth"). So while it appears that he rediscovered his disaster flick swagger with THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, another trip to the end-days well still stands a fifty-percent chance of yielding the next WHEN TIME RAN OUT. I mean, you can only hand the Earth its swiftly tilting ass so many times in so many ways. Not to worry. Whatever Emmerich's and Harald Kloser's screenplay for 2012 lacks in originality, it more than makes up for in rampant imbecility. Forget comparisons to the oeuvre of Irwin Allen, 2012 is the silliest script I've read since Louis C.K.'s POOTIE TANG IN SINE YOUR PITTY ON THE RUNNY KINE. It's like a vintage ZAZ spoof Brundled with a latter day Michael Crichton novel - better yet, call it the $200 million realization of THAT'S ARMAGEDDON (sans Donald Sutherland as "The Clumsy Waiter"). It's unwitting self-parody on par with BLESS THE BEASTS AND THE CHILDREN. In fact, it's so outlandishly sappy, Barry De Vorzon will have no choice but to come out of retirement and score this ode to mush-headed liberal earnestness. Again, I say this with all due respect. No one in this town is blessed with Emmerich's billion-dollar gift for devising fast-developing clusterfucks. And, in terms of narrative efficacy, he's refined his game: whereas INDEPENDENCE DAY ambles toward near-obliteration over a few days, 2012 sprints into the shit over the course of ten piddling pages. The first few minutes are dedicated to the 2009 discovery of piping hot neutrinos microwaving the Earth's core after a particularly violent solar storm; this alarms one of the President's wet-behind-the-ears scientific advisors, Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), but underwhelms cold-brewed chief-of-staff Carl Anheuser (?), who sagely suggests a head-in-the-sand approach to the impending planetary disaster. Next, we're at the Spain-hosted G8 Summit in 2010. Despite Anheuser's expedient policy of avoidance, the Earth's problems have not abated. As a) this is a Hollywood movie, and b) the President is a black (revealed in a total "Holy shit, it's Henry Fonda!" moment), we quickly conclude that c) the planet is fucked beyond belief. Thankfully, said President, Thomas F. "Goldie" Wilson (Danny Glover) confirms this for us when he bluntly informs the G8 delegates that "The world as we know it will soon come to an end." CUT TO: TIBET! Monks and stuff are being displaced so that construction can commence on "the biggest dam project in the world". Spoiler: they're not building a dam. Then comes 2011. Not a whole lot happens here. A rich Saudi prince makes nebulous arrangements with an MI-6 agent for his "very big family"; meanwhile, at the Louvre, the Mona Lisa is socked away for safe keeping. At last, we move to 2012, where we're introduced to the Los Angeles-based hero of this shit-gone-bad yarn, Jackson Curtis (prepare for sadness: John Cusack). Jackson is a barely published science-fiction novelist of thirty-three who's preparing for a Yellowstone getaway with his kids Noah (ten-years-old and mouthy) and Lilly (seven-years-old and kinda likable); it's Jackson's latest attempt to reconnect with his spawn, who are living comfortably with their mother, Kate (Amanda Peet), and her new husband, a cash-flush plastic surgeon named Gordon (more sadness: THE WIRE star and STATION AGENT director Thomas McCarthy). When Jackson reaches Yellowstone in under a day with the kids (making Burt Reynolds time in the limousine Jackson drives for his Russian "businessman" boss, Yuri), he finds that the entire park is closed off due to a massive geological study into the sudden draining of a rather large lake. Jackson, being the inquisitive sort, goes all Roy Neary and pokes around the area until he's apprehended by the government authorities, who hand him over to Helmsley. Any potential hostilities between the two saintly gentlemen are defused when it turns out that Helmsley is reading Jackson's poor-selling novel. They share a moment. A little later, Jackson encounters an Art Bell-type radio host (Oliver Platt, I'm guessing) who gives him the nutjob version of what's doin' in Yellowstone: the government is analyzing the effects of the speedily overheating core, which is about to set off a cataclysmic phenomenon called "earth crust displacement" aka "off-the-richter-scale earthquakes". While Jackson's getting up to speed on the fast-approaching chaos (which, according to the unhinged broadcaster, has hastened the building of ark-like spaceships), Westwood gets fissured but good by a sustained tremor. Before Jackson can glean more info from his crackpot, functionally alcoholic buddy, he's got to hightail it back home to make sure his ex-wife and her asshole new husband survived the quake. As is often the case in a Roland Emmerich screenplay, there's a good deal of crosscutting between the official and the human perspective - and while you know you're being crassly manipulated, you go with it because you're eager to see if the spectacle-mad filmmaker has the stones to go all the way with a doomsday scenario for once. For a while, I was completely unmoved by the plight of Jackson and his splintered family; then I envisioned Cusack glumly slumming his way through this nonsense next July 10th and wept uncontrollably for hours. Once I came to grips with a puffy-faced Lloyd Dobler cashing a seven-figure paycheck so that he might make another GROSSE POINTE BLANK (or even another WAR INC., which I just watched the other day and didn't hate), I pressed on into the mayhem-packed second act, where Emmerich thrills the reader with not one, not two, but three narrow escapes from disintegrating runways. The narrative gets a bit crevasse-happy for a good forty pages while several major cities (Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Washington D.C.) get reduced to rubble; we also get two sequences in which amateur pilot Gordon must navigate toppling skyscrapers directly after takeoff. In the meantime, President Wilson opts out of his spot on Air Force One, preferring to go down with the vestiges of civilization at the White House (which gets demolished by a tsunami carrying the USS John F. Kennedy). This leaves Anheuser in command of... very little, really, but he entertainingly runs what's left of the country with an avowedly racist zeal (the height of his George Wallace act being the moment he cruelly informs Helmsley that his White House gig was an affirmative action sop). In case you're keeping score, that's the decimation of civilization by a) earthquakes, b) tidal waves, and c) one very nasty volcanic eruption (from that dried-up Yellowstone lake, natch). The last hope for the survivors is mainland China, where the "arks" are being populated with rich folk and two of each animal species. Jackson and his brood hop a chartered jet with his Russian boss, who's either lovably pragmatic or loathsomely cutthroat; once they hit the snowbound remains of Asia, the latter nature seems to assert itself. There are other characters, other kids and a cute little dog that figure into the dire drama, and if you're up on your Emmerich, you should know where they're all headed. If I've any serious complaint about the screenplay, it's that the action of the final third is centered on a lot of people trying not to drown. This works for James Cameron and pretty much no one else. Will our dramatis personae make it to the Tibetan-built spaceships on time? Is there a big ol' perception shift that might subvert something in the previous sentence? Can Emmerich successfully lean on Glover to get Harry Belafonte cast as the character of "Harry", aka the elderly musician father of Ejiofor's aide? I hate myself for obsessing over such inanities, but Emmerich and Kloser are master bullshit artists, and, man, do they lay it on with the thickness and confidence of seasoned hacks. They've a system and a set of obligatory scenes, and they redeploy the latter cleverly enough to keep you reading even after you've dismissed the whole endeavor on page two. This is far more difficult than it sounds (and much less honorable than I'm willing to admit at the moment). This is also the ne plus ultra of Roland Emmerich's career. If you were thrilled by THE TOWERING INFERNO... if you were terrified by EARTHQUAKE... then you will be scared shitless by the Sony Pictures Entertainment production of 2012. Faithfully submitted, Mr. Beaks

*Not a knock on the actual quality of THE SWARM, which is indisputably one of the greatest films ever made.

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