2012 (2009, directed by Roland Emmerich, 158 minutes, U.S.)
BRIEF INTERVIEWS WITH HIDEOUS MEN (2009, directed by John Krasinski, 80 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Roland Emmerich has spent an estimated quarter of a billion dollars to wreck the world one more time in 2012, a film that has drawn audible sneers whenever it and its calamity-rich trailer rear their head. Emmerich has souped-up ideas from his past hits Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow to bring us his biggest and baddest apocalypse yet, only to drive home the fact that the end of the world somehow isn’t what is used to be.
Emmerich a sworn disciple of what looks like an increasingly dated 90’s school of blockbuster that simplified the basic designs of Spielberg and Lucas into a perpetual motion machine, the throttle wide-open and the landscape a blur. He’s flagrantly guilty of the worst indulgences of blockbuster directors; paper-thin characterizations, sentimental, unearned emotions and hyperactive camerawork are the clay with which he works. But if a thrill-ride is what you’re looking for, at his best Emmerich delivers spectacle with the clarity of a comic book panel.
Chiwetel Ejiofor (of Dirty Pretty Things) is Adrian Helmsly, the first government scientist to realize something is going wrong within the earth’s core. Our planet’s molten center is being heated by solar flare activity, causing the earth’s poles to shift, with resulting earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis being unleashed everywhere at once. John Cusack is as humbly ingratiating as ever as Jackson Curtis, a failed author separated from his wife (Amanda Peet) and kids, now driving the limo of a Russian oligarch. The oligarch is taking part in a plan to rescue a lucky few aboard giant arks being built in the Himalayas. When Jackson gets wind of the plan he scoops up his family for a death-defying journey across the globe to stowaway with earth’s last survivors.
This sort of big pop entertainment is often most interesting in the details; the fact that Danny Glover is now suitable to cast as the President, that noted Hollywood progressive Woody Harrelson is easily cast as twitchy nutjob (despite the character being right in all his crazy proclamations) and the Middle East is such a hot spot that the director doesn’t dare show a single frame of it in this worldwide disaster (leaving the unfortunate message of “P.S.: They died too”).
Emmerich has admitted in interviews that he can’t blow up the world forever and 2012 does feel like he’s throwing every disaster on the fire at once, like the artless but dazzling finale of a fireworks show. Flying unsteadily along the collapsing San Andreas Fault, 2012 delivers a bravura CGI light show that feels like the state-of-the art, throwing cars, skyscrapers and giant donut displays at us from all angles at once. California is seen slipping into the sea, the White House gets crushed when a tidal wave throws an aircraft carrier at it and a volcano ruins every picnic in Yellowstone Park. You’ll feel like applauding, especially since death is everywhere but never graphically onscreen.
With Independence Day Emmerich struck a cord by imagining that all Hell could break loose in what now seems like the carefree decade of the ’90’s. By The Day After Tomorrow the gravity of global climate change was beginning to hit the public and the film reflected this a certain grim awareness in its tone. 2012‘s uneasy reception points to the fact that unlike Emmerich’s earlier films, this blockbuster seems out-of-step with the mood of our current moment. Flu pandemics, international financial collapse, unceasing war and major environmental disruptions have shaken us to the core while 2012 wavers uneasily between nightmare and spoof. Any action is justified in getting Jackson’s family to the ark but never is there much time spent mourning of the world of extras that is slowly sliding into that river of lava. And while we can’t help but cheer on John Cusack’s scruffy and lovable family, one yearns for the film to acknowledge that more and more it is those screaming extras that most resemble us.
– – – – – – – –
And if men have left the world in shambles, can you imagine their state of their relationships? Brief Interviews With Hideous Men gets right to the heart of men’s ability to objectify women and even each other right out of existence. Then it just sort of stays there. Directed by The Office’s John Krasinski, Brief Interviews is loose adaptation of the late David Foster Wallace’s novel on the same name. About half of its scenes feature its male volunteers voicing their opinions on relationships directly to the camera, the interviewer later revealed to be Sarah (Julianne Nicholson), a research professor studying men’s desires. Although the men’s attitudes range from worshipful to openly contemptuous, sooner on later they all reveal their pathological need to control. Wallace’s descriptive language is too arch when heard spoken aloud and further diversions with Sarah as she weeps with her ex-boyfriend only hammer home the same unsubtle point yet again. The film ends at the beginning, with Sarah being given the go-ahead for her research. “What is it you want answers to?” her colleague asks her. The film’s final answer is a puzzled shrug.