Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
November 2009

Appetite for destruction

Emmerich destroys the world again and - you guessed it - it all seems a bit too familiar

Columbia Pictures
Director: Roland Emmerich
Screenplay: Roland Emmerich and Harald Kloser
Starring: John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Amanda Peet, Danny Glover, Oliver Platt, Tom McCarthy, Thandie Newton and Woody Harrelson
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 38 minutes
Opened November 13, 2009
(out of four)

Aren't we over this type of movie by now?

OK, I suppose the early box-office numbers conclusively answered that for me. In which case, the question is, Shouldn't we be over this type of movie by now?

Even amid less-than-complimentary reactions to 2012, a consensus of tempered praise has nonetheless emerged - that being, "Yeah, but what a spectacle!" That's right, we have a film being applauded not for its artistry or its excitement or its humor or its style or its acting or any kind of tangible quality; but rather with something like, "Well, whatever it is, there's lots of it!"

So that's what we're calling it, I suppose. A spectacle. But is it, though? I mean, what is that supposed to be worth? Haven't we seen these landmarks get destroyed before? Haven't we seen those same explosions? Haven't we seen everything in 2012 enough already? And given that fact, why do we need 160 more minutes of it?

I'm not knocking the genre, nor even the concept of a disaster movie. But with 2012, director Roland Emmerich seems to be exploiting the idea that spectacle in and of itself is worthy of our time and attention. Is the constant barrage of CGI explosions and CGI weather-related catastrophes really all that much more sophisticated than a fireworks display or a laser light show? And at least those only last for an hour or so.

Watching 2012 is not unlike riding in a motion simulator at a theme park or shopping mall. When the airplane carrying five of the movie's major characters is being navigated through a fiery Los Angeles apocalypse, with buildings crumbling all around them, we never feel like we (or they) are in any actual danger. We're just pulled one direction or another in a transparently predetermined manner, free from any sense of actual involvement or urgency while bright colors explode around us. We're constantly aware of the fact that the plane and its inhabitants are completely separate from everything that's happening around them. The people are almost incidental.

If this is what people mean by "spectacle," should I have to pay a cover charge every time I witness a car accident or watch my clothes tumble in the dryer?

Emmerich's version of Pure Spectacle is spectacle without any aesthetic quality, of any kind, whatsoever. So instead, let's call it by another name - an empty exercise in computer generation. Congratulations, Roland, you've done it again.

The film gets its premise from the well-documented (though completely false) idea that Mayans believe (or believed) the world was going to end in the year 2012, due to a specific set of circumstances. In order to tell the story of just such an event, the film gives us every angle - among them a scientist (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who helps discover the problem and tries to solve it; a crazy, paranoid radio DJ (Woody Harrelson) whose predictions have fallen on deaf ears; and a writer (John Cusack) who has written a book that seemingly parallels the events of the movie.

Needless to say, the characters, their friends, their loved ones and their bosses will have to fight for their lives against every single kind of natural disaster there has ever been, all rolled into one. Also, people have to fall in love and wind up together.

At least in his early days, Emmerich had a grasp on the material itself and not just the special effects. His Independence Day was a campy goof-off of a movie, and it knew it, and it was the better for it. Maybe the destruction of the entire world calls for a slightly more serious edge, but . . . yeah, you know what? No it doesn't. It doesn't call for a more serious edge at all. Not when the entire purpose of the film is destruction-as-entertainment. If you're going to take that self-serious tone with us, what's the point?

Emmerich also indulges another annoying tendency of his, which is to make his films extraordinarily long (at least given their slight material). Godzilla was 2 hours and 20 minutes. The Patriot was nearly three hours. 10,000 B.C. felt like three hours. And now 2012 clocks in at 2 hours, 38 minutes. Why does it take this long to destroy the world, you might ask? Only because Emmerich and Co. continue to throw random obstacles in the characters' way - so they can prove their valor in the face of great danger over and over and over and over and over again. While surrounded by expensive special effects, of course.

Look, I like action as much as the next guy. (Explosions, too!) But at a certain point, it has to stop just existing for its own sake. The idea of making a movie solely as an excuse to have things crash and explode is something that ought to have run its course.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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