Roland Emmerich has destroyed the world so many times by now that it’s become blasé.
In Independence Day (1996), the writer/director had aliens raze the world’s major cities. In The Day After Tomorrow (2004), he flooded then froze the northern hemisphere. (By those standards, Emmerich’s destruction of New York City in Godzilla (1998) seems like such small potatoes.)
In his latest big-screen apocalyptic spectacle, 2012, Emmerich breaks apart the earth’s crust, rending the very continents themselves. But while Emmerich offers plenty of eye candy, his movie lacks any real “wow” moments. The end of the world never looked so cartoonish.
But it’s a wicked cool cartoon, full of destruction on a massive, massive scale. As the continents die, billions of people die with them—and moviegoers will no doubt find it all so very awesome to behold even if it isn’t especially suspenseful or emotionally engaging.
In place of engagement, Emmerich relies on his usual emotional shortcuts: Good guys win or, if they lose, they do so with a moment of slap-dash poignancy: bad guys/cretins/jerks/annoying people get their just desserts in almost-clever ways. Those little old ladies who drive too slowly on the highway and refuse to get out of your way? Yeah, even people like them get the kibosh.
Emmerich builds his premise on the kind of inflated pseudoscience that froze the world in The Day After Tomorrow. In that movie, Emmerich took global warming theories and exaggerated and extrapolated them into doomsday. In 2012, neutrinos shot at earth by the largest solar flares ever trigger a physical reaction inside the earth that causes the crust to shift.
The earth’s breakup just happens to happen in the year 2012, the same year the ancient Mayan calendar ends. Some fans of the end-of-days have interpreted that to mean the Mayans pegged 12/21/2012 as Doomsday. (Believe it or not, the Mayan calendar ends because the Mayans actually just ran out of numbers.) Still, because the Mayan theory has caught on in popular culture, 2012 will no doubt have its gloomy believers the same way Y2K did.
Emmerich doesn’t seem to really care whether the predictions about the Mayan calendar are true or not. In fact, he hardly even mentions the Mayans. Emmerich just wants an excuse to blow things up, and the Mayans provided a convenient excuse. Otherwise, Emmerich couldn’t give a crap. He’s just interested in big, big, big—as in “California slides into the ocean” kind of big. Who cares about Mayans when you have tidal waves taller than the Himalayas?
Emmerich doesn’t sweat the small stuff, like when the lead character, played by John Cusack, grudgingly brings his kids home days early from a camping trip at his ex-wife’s request yet still has to rush off because he’s late for work. Audiences aren’t supposed to wonder, either, how Cusack can drive a rickety old RV faster than a supersonic ash cloud blasted from the world’s largest supervolcano.
In fact, the real point of the movie might not be that the world is ending but rather than John Cusack can apparently out-drive anything, including ash clouds, earthquakes, and collapsing buildings. Cusack’s frantic driving gets to be ridiculously over-the-top, but it’s also meant to be crazy fun, too.
After a while, though, it all just gets to be a bit much. In the end, there’s no reason to care about the end. There’s no emotional heft, no existential weight, no substance to the spectacle. There’s plenty of bang, yet it elicits hardly a whimper. The end of the world is just old hat, and even Emmerich seems a little bored.