Starring: John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Thandie Newton, Oliver Platt, Thomas McCarthy. Rated PG-13.
Cusack is a reliably interesting actor,
and if his movies are not always up to the standards of his best – among them, Say Anything…
(2000) – they are at
least watchable. That he has chosen to star in Roland Emmerich’s latest
disaster fantasy, the laughably overwrought 2012
, does no damage to his credibility, and reaffirms his talent
for bringing heft to an otherwise weightless exercise.
Emmerich, you might recall, trashed some of
the world’s most recognizable landmarks, including the White House, in 1996’s Independence Day, and later
the Northern Hemisphere with a second Ice Age in 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow. He continues his assault here,
Sistine Chapel, Rio de Janeiro’s statue of Christ the Redeemer and Yellowstone
National Park, while once again razing the President’s roof.
There is cultural symbolism in the movie’s
choice of targets, albeit of the most obvious kind: When the apocalypse strikes,
as it does so colorfully in 2012, it
will affect us all – disaster does not discriminate. In this case, Emmerich
invokes the popular myth of the Mayan calendar, whose “end date” has long been
misinterpreted as evidence of man’s imminent doom. Better evidence might be
movies like 2012.
Emmerich, who co-wrote the movie with
longtime collaborator Harald Kloser, has treated us to all manner of natural
catastrophe in the past, but this latest is a doozy. The sun’s neutrinos, it
seems, have caused nuclear reactions beneath the earth’s surface and whole
cities are tumbling into the sea. Explosions abound, followed by tidal waves.
But the world can breathe easy, sort of – America is on the case.
Give the director, born in Germany, credit
for knowing where his bread is buttered. As in Independence Day and Day
After Tomorrow, the heroes here are mostly true-blue Yanks, from our
President (Danny Glover), who oozes nobility, to the geologist (Chiwetel
Ejiofor, of Redbelt) who begs fellow
survivors not to lose their humanity. Ejiofor is a terrific actor, but his
material here, ranging from the weepy to the self-righteous, is beneath him.
In Emmerich’s defense, he has assembled an
excellent cast, including Thandie Newton (Crash)
and Thomas McCarthy (HBO’s The Wire), to complement the visual effects, which
are vivid if not terribly innovative. (He’s shown us these tricks before, after
all.) Watching Los Angeles disintegrate is thrilling, and not just for Celtics
fans. But the spectacle begins losing its luster as Emmerich keeps recycling
destruction. By the time he deep-sixes the hilltop sanctuary of Tibetan monks,
we’ve seen more than our share of large buildings reduced to rubble.
I suppose it’s missing the point to note that
the patriotism on display in 2012 is
embarrassingly shallow and unconvincing, as are Emmerich’s dutiful
genuflections to the value of faith. (Billions pray, only a few thousand are
saved, but hey, as Oliver Platt’s presidential adviser cleverly observes, life
isn’t fair.) This is not a movie of ideas, but of visceral thrills, and on that
level it is modestly successful.
But back to Cusack. As a onetime novelist reduced to playing chauffeur to the obnoxiously rich, struggling
to impress his kids and win back his estranged ex (Amanda Peet), he is the movie's emotional rock, and he plays the role with
a mix of sardonic wit and manic enthusiasm. He is Emmerich's best asset, and it's clear he's having fun, which is really the
only thing to do when you're the face of a movie like this one.