I'm not gonna lie: I enjoyed the hell out of Roland Emmerich's "2012," the latest bit of disaster porn from the same man who brought us "Independence Day," "The Day After Tomorrow" and the execrable 1998 remake of "Godzilla." Emmerich has become a bit of a joke amongst film buffs -- he probably rates thismuchlower than Michael Bay on the hate-o-meter -- but the movie lover in me has to admire his seemingly endless quest to perfect a formula that Irwin Allen probably thought he perfected back in the 1970s. (Mick LaSalle from the San Francisco Chronicle says it better than I can.)
What sets "2012" apart, aside from its downright brilliant CGI sequences, is the sense that everyone in the movie is in on the joke. Emmerich knows how ridiculous it is for him to make another disaster movie, so he pushes the genre as far as it can go by destroying the entire goddamn world. You get the airplane escape and the White House destruction from "Independence Day"; the shadowy government plan from "Deep Impact"; Michael Bay's casual attitude toward the killing of millions of people; seafaring and underwater adventures from "Titanic" and "Poseidon"; the towering fireballs of "Dante's Peak"; and the ham-handed racial harmony message from "Volcano."
And it works because Emmerich has populated his film with really good actors who all understand the mission at hand. It's an entire movie full of people winking at the audience while they're winking at the audience -- the one-liners are so corny, they parody themselves.
Consider the scene inside the supermarket, where Tom McCarthy's doctor tells his would-be wife, Amanda Peet, that he feels like "something is coming between us." Just then, a crack opens up in the supermarket floor right between the couple while they hold hands. Emmerich and his co-writer (and composer), Harald Kloser, couldn't have thought that was a genuinely funny line, and neither can Peet and McCarthy. But we laugh anyway, because it's so clearly not funny that it becomes funny again.
The whole movie is like that, a cheerful send-up of an entire genre. We should be horrified by a lot of the images in "2012," but we're so astounded by their audacity that all we can do is giggle. The sequence made famous in the commercials, in which limo driver Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) outruns a series of earthquakes in Los Angeles, is awe-inspiring on the big screen. Ten minutes race by in a blink, and look as if they must have cost about a billion dollars to achieve.
The full cut of this sequence, seen in the theater, is as exciting as anything I've seen all year.
But somehow the actors win the battle against the visual effects. Cusack, whom you could reasonably assume would phone it in for a movie like this, is as engaging as ever, particularly in the few scenes he shares with Woody Harrelson.
Ah, Woody Harrelson. It's so easy to forget about him! But then he shows up and hit another home run, first in "Zombieland" and again in "2012," where he rehashes Randy Quaid's conspiracy nut from "ID4," only with a bigger helping of crazy. I defy anyone to see Harrelson's performance here and tell me "2012" takes itself seriously.
This scene is a clever nod to "Titanic," in which old Rose is shown an animated simulation of the boat's sinking.
Is "2012" better than "Independence Day"? Oh, surely not. Few popcorn movies could ever hope to be as fun and funny as that, and no one here has the star power of Will Smith or Jeff Goldblum. But it does feel like the nail in a genre's demise; what else is there left for Emmerich to destroy? Heaven and Hell?!??