Thursday, November 12, 2009

Special effects devour the world

John Cusack carries the weight of a crumbling world.

It's getting more difficult to enjoy the end of the world -- at least at the movies. I really wanted to like 2012, the latest orgy of destruction from director Roland Emmerich (The Day After Tomorrow and Independence Day). I'm shamelessly partial to disaster movies and have a strong tolerance for the melodramatic plotting and portentous dialogue that usually keeps them from greatness.

As a disaster enthusiast, I had big expectations for 2012 and for Emmerich, a proven master of the destructive cinematic art. Emmerich kept me happy enough, but not without making it impossible for me to suspend even the tiny amount of disbelief needed to carry his demolition derby across the finish line. 2012, I'm afraid, is another case of multi-million dollar effects and a two-bit script.

This time out, Emmerich takes his cue from the Mayan calendar, creating a "story" based on the notion that the world will endure a horrible cataclysm in 2012. Never mind that many scholars say the Mayans predicted no such thing; it's a fine premise for a movie that wants to rip the guts out of the Earth and leave us trembling. Remember the quaint old days when destroying a ship (The Poseidon Adventure) or a skyscraper (The Towering Inferno) were enough to keep us riveted?

When it comes to global mayhem, Emmerich doesn't disappoint. Great explosions erupt on the surface of the sun. The Earth's core heats up. Neutrinos go wild. The crust of the Earth shifts, and before you can say "apocalypse for fun and profit," the globe descends into unprecedented turmoil.

Against this backdrop of doom, Emmerich attempts to weave a variety of stories. This means he employs actors, many of whom are required to spout some of the year's most banal dialogue. They're also asked to gape in faux astonishment at the effects or scream like kids on a particularly precarious amusement park ride.

The movie's main character is author Jackson Curtis (John Cusack). On a camping trip to Yellowstone, Curtis meets Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson). Harrelson plays a longhaired, hippie prophet who broadcasts his warnings over his personal radio station and who knows the world is coming to an end. He warns Jackson to gather his two children (Liam James and Morgan Lily) and flee Yellowstone.

For his part, Harrelson seems to be doing an impression of Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now. If there's a piece of scenery he leaves unchewed, I didn't see it. Thankfully, Harrelson redeems himself in The Messenger, an upcoming drama about ramifications of the war in Iraq.

Considering that he's making a gigantic B-movie, Emmerich populates his film with a competent and even impressive group of actors. Amanda Peet signs on as Cusack's former wife, and Danny Glover plays the president of the United States, a job that he must have wrestled away from Morgan Freeman, who until 2012 seemed to have a lock on such roles.

Three cheers for British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who appears as a geologist and who succeeds in making the movie's tripe-laden dialogue almost believable. Oliver Platt, another gifted actor, portrays the president's cruelly pragmatic chief of staff, and George Segal signs on as musician traveling on a cruise ship that eventually will be consumed by the giant tsunami that engulfs the world.

At two hours and 38 minutes, 2012 is way too long. But the first hour provides the grim pleasures we expect from this kind of entertainment. Los Angeles falls into the sea; Las Vegas is destroyed. Ditto for Yellowstone National Park, Washington, D.C., Rome and Rio. These expensively mounted cheap thrills include great chunks of heaving earth, flying fireballs, crumbling skyscrapers and spewed volcanic ash. To add to the excitement, a small plane flies through storm-tossed skies carrying Cusack's character, his former wife, his children and his wife's new husband (Thomas McCarthy).

Never mind more details. Know, though, that if you expect anything in this mega-movie to make sense, you've taken leave of your own.

But wait. Maybe one thing about 2012 makes perfect sense: This destruction festival is designed to create a great rumble at the box office. Know what? It probably will. Devastation sells, and, I'll admit it: Up to a point, I'm a willing buyer.

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