Friday, November 27, 2009

Destruction 101

The following column is reprinted from the december issue of Providence Monthly (including the stuff my youthful editors somehow deem neccessary to leave out):

Eyes Wide Open
by Scott Duhamel

It ain’t exactly a mental nutcracker imagining bits and pieces of writer/producer/director Roland Emmerich’s childhood interests. He had to be the kid ensconced in his German backyard meticulously cobbling together stick castles, toy railroads, or plain old ant farms, and then eagerly destroying his creations with the heavy heel of his boots or a fiery homemade explosive, all of it carried out with architectural precision and guided by a childhood mantra to truly search and destroy.

With movies like Independence Day (1996), Godzilla (1998) and The Day After Tomorrow (2007) Emmerich has become the contempo movie-movie Master of Destruction, a true bastard child of The Wizard of Spectacle, Cecil B DeMille (The Greatest Show on Earth, The Ten Commandments), the dictatorial director of such overwrought Hollywood glossies as, and The Duke of Disaster, Irwin Allen, the cheesy maestro responsible for the box office bounty claimed from The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. Emmerich is front stage and full center once again, singlehandedly bringing the world to its collective knees with 2012, a swaggering treatise of full scale destruction and computer-generated film imagery, chock filled with directorial barnstorming worthy of DeMille, the sharp, aged cheese once favored by Allen, and Emmerich’s sure-handed air of plasticized movie chicanery—Destruction 101: Snap, Crackle, and Pop Goes the Weasel.

As much as it’s tempting to simply eviscerate Emmerich and his ultra-popular movie work, one can’t help but acknowledge and examine the age old thrill and desire attached to the extremely voyeuristic and indelibly thrilling act of bearing/ sharing witness to havoc being wreaked. Movies suit themselves ideally to this guilty pleasure, the surface mix of pleasure and fright directed at the sight of a familiar or imposing object being rendered asunder is easily transferred to the buzz of awe and appreciation derived from watching an expensive set, an elaborate set piece, or some high-level special effects being torn down, blown up, or rocked and socked. No less than the ever high-thinking Susan Sontag straightforwardly claimed that disaster was one of the oldest subjects of art, and that even pop art like mainstream Hollywood science-fiction was based around a concern with the aesthetics of destruction, the peculiar beauties of making a large scale mess.

2012 offers a plethora of such aesthetics: earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and tidal waves, roving dust clouds, blistering sunrays, Los Angeles dropping into the sea, a White House collision with an kinda/sorts immovable object, the crumbling of Las Vegas, the implosion of Yellowstone National Park, India drowning, an endangered cruise ship cousin to the Titanic and the Poseidon, and (no doubt about it--the unadulterated crowd favorite) a walls-come-tumbling-down disaster slide show at the Vatican. All of the obliteration rolls out like a well-polished and well-financed demolition derby, fully ludicrous and overtly preposterous, making Emmerich a sort of Alfred Hitchcock without layers, depth, or even a point-of-view, yet excusing much of his celluloid bamboozlement since the whole shebang seems overridden with an eye-winking (and gold-digging) self-consciousness.

As the disaster formula demands, 2012 is anchored by an everyman central figure with the attendant personal (i.e. familial) problems, a sci-fi novelist played by John Cusack (who, with this role and other ones like Con Air or America’s Sweethearts, seems to be making a truly concerted effort to join the Nic Cage Club for Serious Movie Actors Who get A Pass for Slumming in Blockbusterville.) Cusack’s failed writer and his kids (Liam James and Morgan Lily) wind up hooking up with his ex-wife and her new beau (Amanda Peet and Tom McCarthy) and, Looney Tune-like managed to miraculously stay a hop, skip and a jump ahead of every harbinger of destruction while people like Woody Harrelson (a high priest of conspiracy), Danny Glover (the U.S. Prez), Chiwetel Ejifor (big timey geologist), and Oliver Platt (imperious cabinet member), chew the scenery with the prerequisite mumbo-jumbo whys and great whatists.

Despite the first class special effects, despite Emmerich’s dazzling ability to render his filmic earth asunder, the movie never amounts to much more than another joyless ride of the schlock express. The plotting is laughable, the characterizations trite, and the suspense is largely missing and mostly well below even juicier B-movie standards. The on screen depiction of highly recognizable geographical landmarks and buildings blowing, up real, real good can’t help but conjure (however shadowy) images that connect to the iconography of 9/11 yet 2012 is absolutely devoid of political content. Finally, there is not a death within the whole whiz-bang death trip that will affect an audience in any significant manner, even in the traditional disaster pic tradition of high camp. It’s all weightless and thoroughly soulless, mere popcorn Armageddon, a dose of hot-buttered apocalypse. Hint: When in doubt, root for the dog.

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