Movie review: '2012' is a perfect disaster

Roland Emmerich directs this look at a global disaster and the people who manage to survive.
By Dan Kois
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 13, 2009

If a film critic awards four stars to a movie directed by Roland Emmerich -- Hollywood's reigning king of catastrophe, the critically scorned director of "Independence Day" and "Godzilla" -- will the world come to an end? That's a question the ancient Mayans never asked, but it's the one facing me after the enormously satisfying, astonishingly accomplished, reprehensible-yet-irresistible "2012," the crowning achievement in Emmerich's long, profitable career as a destroyer of worlds.

Starting with the long-held misapprehension that the Mayan calendar picks 2012 as the date of humanity's doom, Emmerich fleshes out that bit of pseudo-history with some pseudo-science -- some nonsense about solar flares, and neutrinos heating the Earth's core -- and throws hundreds of millions of dollars and an expertly chosen cast at it. The result is a movie that takes the manifold guilty pleasures of such past Emmerich extravaganzas as "Independence Day" and "The Day After Tomorrow" -- not to mention the Emmerich-inspired "Armageddon" and "Deep Impact" -- and amplifies and expands them until they fill up 2 1/2 overstuffed hours.

"2012" takes the disaster movie -- once content simply to threaten the Earth with a comet, or blow up the White House -- to its natural conclusion, the literal end of the world.

And boy, for aficionados of cinematic catastrophe, "2012" does it right. As a spectacle-delivery device, it has no peer. Other movies have explosions; "2012" has an atom-bomb-size detonation that wipes Yellowstone off the map. Other movies have earthquakes; "2012" sends California sinking, in flames, into the sea. Other movies kill thousands; "2012" kills zillions without breaking a sweat.

If all this makes you feel sort of queasy -- if you can't imagine why anyone would want to watch entire continents destroyed -- "2012" is not the movie for you. For "2012," needless to say, lacks all reasonable perspective. It's the kind of movie that expects that audiences, shortly after watching the entire population of India subsumed by a tidal wave, will urge on a fluffy white dog as she crosses a chasm and leaps into her owner's arms. It's the kind of movie that has a father conduct a heart-to-heart with his son shortly before belly-landing a jumbo jet on a glacier. It preys on an audience's willingness to cheer for heroes even as we consign faceless masses to the narrative dustbin. It recognizes the thrill of the vicarious experience and the appeal of the clean slate. Behind on your mortgage? Overdue library books? Don't sweat it.

So what makes "2012" a four-star movie? In an era in which Hollywood seems unable to execute even the most uncomplicated formulas, the ones that used to come easily, "2012" is, pardon the expression, a revelation. It gets everything right. The actors are right: John Cusack as a sardonic failed novelist, Amanda Peet as his wife, Tom McCarthy as her nice-guy new husband, Chiwetel Ejiofor as a conscience-stricken scientist, Oliver Platt as a snappish White House official, WoodyHarrelson as a radio-host crackpot. The storytelling is right: You will never be bored, for there will always be questions to answer. Who will survive? How will Cusack get his family to China, where salvation awaits the rich, the connected and the just plain lucky? What will Emmerich blow up next? And the dialogue is right: a rich blend of wisecrack and cheese, with a few moist-eyed goodbyes sprinkled here and there for good measure.

Most important, the special effects are so right. In fact, they are incredible. Emmerich is a virtuoso of panoramic cataclysm, and each of his dozens of wide shots is as densely packed with hellish detail as a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Power lines snapping in an earthquake, sparks flashing like distant fireworks; Honolulu on fire; mournful giraffes in slings, airlifted by helicopters through the snowy Himalayas.

Is "2012" art? Absolutely not. It reminds us that cinema exists not only to make art but also to expertly create sensation like no other medium. When done well, that can be just as valuable and just as astonishing. But is "2012" a sublime example of the kind of huge-budget entertainment that Hollywood does best -- indeed, the only kind of moviemaking at which Hollywood continues to excel? Yes. It is certainly the best movie of its kind ever made. It should (but surely will not) be the last movie of its kind ever made. After "2012," would-be Emmerichs will have a hard time impressing audiences with their asteroids and their space invaders. This is the way the world ends: with a bang.

Kois is a freelance reviewer.

**** PG-13. At area theaters. Contains intense disaster sequences and adult language. 158 minutes.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company