There’s a marked difference between Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay, though it’s sometimes hard to pinpoint exactly what makes the two directors different given the subjet matters of their movies. Both directors are famous for over-the-top action sequences, larger-than-life heroes, and generally punishing their audiences into abject submission. Bay’s directorial resume includes such cinematic bombast as Bad Boys 1 and 2, Con Air, Armageddon, and both Transformers movies. He also tried his hand at a tad bit of character-driven stories with The Island and Pearl Harbor, but middling box office returns sent him right back to the safe territory of blow-the-heck-out-of-everything movies.
Emmerich, on the other hand, has a curriculum vitae that includes a similar cachet of explosion-riddled celluloud: Stargate, Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, and now 2012. True, he has also attempted projects that are at least in the same metaphorical continent as what we might consider subtlety (The Patriot being his most notable, though its black-and-white, good-and-evil depiction of the Revolutionary War was hardly true-to-life), but his hallmark is, like Bay, blowing lots of stuff up.
Where the two directors differ, though, is in how they approach their audiences. Bay seems to have a general contempt for his viewers, as if each subsequent movie is another blow to a mythical schoolyard bully upon whom he is still trying to exact retribution. “Oh yeah?” he screams with each round of lightning-quick cuts and exploding flotsam, “Take that! Still not had enough? Well here’s some more!” Repeat ad nauseum, and thus Transformers 2 was born.
No master of understatement himself, Emmerich seems to understand that people go to his movies (and here is the key difference) to have a good time. Yes there are political messages (ID4 implored earthlings to recycle, Day After Tomorrow aimed an icy claw at Vice President Dick Cheney) but this is the director who brought us Will Smith’s very funny one-lining Captain Steven “Maybe I’ll just leave this here with you” Hiller and Mathew Broderick’s do-gooding geeky scientist in Godzilla. People see Emmerich’s movies for the whiz-bang effects, but they also identify more with the characters (as opposed to Bay’s caricatures), and the story is more often than not the vehicle that carries the scenery–again, a moviemaking philosophy which is diametrically opposed to that of Michael Bay.
That brings us to Emmerich’s latest opus, the aw-heck-just-blow-up-everything 2012. If you have seen the trailer (click the poster above if not), you have pretty much seen the movie or at least know what’s going to happen when you pay your $8.50 at the box office. Not content with eviscerating buildings, cities, or countries, Emmerich now does away with pretty much the whole world. But you already knew that. The question, though, remains: is it a good movie?
The answer is more than a simple “Yes” or “No” (Bay would do well to note this concept). Is the movie entertaining? Certainly. Is it engaging? More often than not. Does it have its missteps? Absolutely. But when it’s all said and done, and the bucket of popcorn is sitting at your feet next to your empty soda cup, will you like the movie? Yeah, probably.
Believe it or not, what carries this movie isn’t just a load of special effects. It’s actually a pretty solid story about a regular guy named Jackson Curtis (John Cusak) who is down on his luck and forced to make some incredible choices and sacrifices in order to save his family. What makes it more interesting, though, is that he and his wife Kate, played by Amanda Peet, are divorced, his children call him by his first name, and he also manages to find good qualities in his ex wife’s new boyfriend. In fact, the new boyfriend Gordon is also a pretty decent guy who really does seem to care for Kate, and has his own share of heroics and self-sacrificing moments throughout the movie.
Not to belabor the point, but it’s these sorts of character-driven stories beneath all the special effects that are the hallmark of Emmerich’s films. No, we’re not talking Shawshank Redemption or anything, but by making the protagonist just a regular dude who’s trying to save his family, one can strip away all the visual trappings of 2012 and find a nice heartwarming story underneath.
Characters aside, though, I must admit the reason I was so eager to buy my ticket to see the movie was to bear witness to some of the most epic destruction sequences ever committed to film. And I was not disappointed. Like True Lies did with the action hero genre, 2012 simultaneously pokes fun at the disaster movie genre by going so over the top that one can’t help but admire and enjoy it. Skyscrapers tumble, mountains explode, entire coastlines are laid to waste, and when the Yellowstone caldera explodes we are treated to one of the most gargantuan explosion scenes ever in the history of movies. It’s awesome, man. The sheer spectacle of it all is just fantastic, and a whole lot of fun to watch.
At the same time, though, there’s a healthy dose of death and sorrow to go with the high-energy explosiveness, but in a film about the end of the world that sort of thing is to be expected. We see entire crowds crushed beneath falling buildings, watch people plummeting to their deaths, and witness mass-scale human terminations of genocidal proportions. And while it’s not bloody per se, it is pretty intense and even a tad depressing. But hey, it’s a film about the end of the world–what would you expect?
There’s a few subplots here and there to tug at the ol’ heartstrings too, but the story of a brave scientist trying to reconnect with his estranged father, a president who, for inexplicable reasons, refuses to be saved during the evacuation of the White House, and a heartless Russian billionaire with all the money in the world but lacking the one thing money can’t buy (spoiler alert: he’s lonely. Awww.), are all just window dressing and almost serve as distractions. Also, the runtime of 3 hours is a bit much to take, and a few scenes could definitely have been trimmed out.
Nonetheless, 2012 is an enjoyable movie–comparisons to Michael Bay notwithstanding, I had a good time and enjoyed John Cusak in his first true action role since Con Air. And while end-of-the-world movies can be a bit of an emotional drag, this one had enough eye candy to make me want to see it again. Here’s hoping the DVD has a stellar director’s commentary…