Tuesday, March 02, 2010

2012 - Screwball Disaster Comedy!

Movies: 2012 - On DVD today - but I wrote all of the notes after seeing it months ago...

Roland Emmerich is the Irwin Allen of the new millennium... even though there may be only a couple years left in it if his new film is correct. If you don’t know who Irwin Allen was, he produced all of those cheesy 1970s all-star disaster movies from POSEIDON ADVENTURE to the killer bee movie THE SWARM... but he started making science fiction movies like VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA which spun off into a cool TV show (if you are a little kid and your parents let you stay up late enough to watch it). Emmerich has followed the same path, from STARGATE to THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, with one very major difference...

He is a great comic director.

He knows his films are silly cheese, and isn’t afraid to make fun of them and include enough funny stuff to make the cheese not just tolerable but enjoyable. It’s hard to hate a movie that knows it’s silly.

In THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW he has a whole subplot about Americans sneaking across the border into Mexico to find work and warmth when the US climate becomes frigid. There were a couple of critics who made fun of that - proving that they are idiots. If you thought that subplot was serious, you probably shouldn’t be a film critic. His films all have a silly-fun factor and usually deal with crazy ideas with enough science to make them “What if that were true?” material. Hey, what if that Eric Von Dannekken guy was right and Ancient Astronauts helped build the Pyramids of Egypt? Hey, what if aliens actually invaded Earth and the survivors had to fight back? In 2012 we get JFK (the aircraft carrier) returning to the White House - had me laughing out loud! He doesn't take any of this seriously, which makes his films easy to watch. You know he's just kidding around. His films are screwball comedy disaster movies - and make about as much sense as a dog running off with a rare dinosaur bone as a plot. (I *know* I’ll get hate mail from that comparison.)

2012 seems to have begun with Emmerich and the screenwriter sitting around joking about how the heroes in Michael Bay movies always manage to outrun explosions and fireballs... and wondering how they can top that. Alcohol may have been involved. They already had Jake Gyllenhall outrunning a cold snap in THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW...

“What if the guy had to out run an earthquake fissure?”
“Hey, what if they had to out drive California breaking off and falling into the Pacific?”
“Good one! What if they were in a plane and had to out-fly all of the buildings in Los Angeles falling over like dominoes?”
“Cool - how about out-running lava blasting out of a volcano in an RV?”

I can just see these two guys trying to top each other with the strangest, maybe even funniest things the characters can out run. No puny Michael Bay fireballs in this film! These people are going to outrun the end of the world!

First - his films are crazy. 2012 is like every joke every comic ever made about characters out-running fireballs taken to the extreme. They outrun *earthquakes*! They outrun buildings crashing down! They outrun a volcano! It's funny stuff! And you know, all of those scenes are fun and often even funny - and I mean funny *on purpose*. An early scene has a husband and wife shopping at a grocery store when an earthquake hits, fault seemingly directly between them, and a fissure opens up that breaks the grocery store in half with each of a different side! How could anyone think that scene was supposed to be serious? The serious version might have had them on the same side having to save each other... but the 2012 version is like the BRINGING UP BABY version of the scene. It’s just wacky! Not serious and not trying to be serious.

Adding to the fun, Emmerich’s movies have big dramatic scenes that allow actors to ham it up and make some great speeches. Just as the situations are over the top, the acting manages to be larger than life and yet matches the rest of the movie. It’s never *too big*. We want our President to make one of those great speeches like in INDEPENDENCE DAY - if there was ever a place for big hammy speeches, it’s when the aliens have invaded and kicked our butts and now we need to rally the troops and kick some alien butt. In 2012 we get a great speech by Chiwetel Ejiofor about how poor people are people, too. And we get some great scenes with John Cusack and Danny Glover (as the President) and Thomas McCarthy (as the new husband) and even some crazy-ass stuff from Woody Harrelson as a pot smoking version of Art Bell. There are some nice big dramatic scenes about the importance of family - but it’s really just more cheese. There is a real skill in keeping the drama at the same level as the over-blown situations - in having there be just enough ham to compliment the cheese without overpowering it.

And he’s intelligent enough to realize we need someone to identify with in these larger than life situations. His films have human characters dealing with human problems... along with those great speeches for actors. In the center of all of his films is a story about people - the drunk father who becomes a hero to his children in INDEPENDENCE DAY, the absent father who risks his life to save his son in DAY AFTER, and look at all of the character relationships in 2012. President Danny Glover has some nice scenes with his estranged daughter Thandie Newton, and even some nice scenes with a bunch of extras in a MASH-style tent hospital set up on the White House lawn. Actors get a chance to act in these movies. Sure, this is schlocky stuff and no one is getting an Oscar for any of this stuff... but it's there and it works. These are real people dealing with real problems while outrunning the end of the world. GI GOE had crap. TRANSFORMERS had crap.

One of the film’s secret weapons is John Cusack. I like the guy. I think most people like the guy. He’s like Tom Hanks with an edge - which makes him seem more human to me and more interesting. I’ve seen a bunch of films that Cusack has saved from being complete crap... and it’s hard to imagine 2012 without him. He makes the most absurd scene seem possible, and he’s one of those actors who knows how to play a character who is in on the joke. You believe him, but there’s that look in his eyes that says, “Are you effing kidding me?” This helps when *we* are thinking, Are you effing kidding me? The guy is a national treasure, and is one of the major factors in making 2012 a fun movie.

Theme? Not here, folks - this is all-junk junk food. We get some talk about self sacrifice from Cusack early on, and characters do sacrifice themselves along the way... but that’s what characters *do* in Disaster Movies, and none of the self sacrifice seems like anything other than a plot device. Some of the character deaths are downright silly - one major character dies badly. No drama, no feeling that the character did sacrifice themselves for the greater good, more of a “Wow, what a stupid way to die!” And a supporting character who pops up to save the day in one scene and sacrifices themselves for the greater good - well, it’s stupid and happens off screen. There are about four undignified deaths that almost sink the film...

If it were a serious movie. But this is a comedy - at least one of the undignified deaths is played for laughs!

No one does FX as good as Emmerich does. If you remember, the reason why he landed the GODZILLA gig was that he had a plan on how to make it for half the budget as DeBont. We look back on INDEPENDENCE DAY and think it was some sort of slam-dunk summer tentpole movie, but that film cost much much less that all of the other summer tentpole movies. It was a cheapo film! Emmerich and Dean Devlin knew how to do quality special effects on a budget. They storyboarded everything and found the angles that would give them the most bang for their buck. While ARMAGEDDON was breaking the bank, ID4 was reasonably priced. And no one in the audience knew any different.

The special effects in 2012 were amazing. Compare it to some of this year’s big summer films where people and FX looked like cartoons sometimes (GI JOE). 2012 was one amazing scene after another, a piece of CGI that is topped in the very next shot and just keeps getting more and more amazing as the film goes on. By the time we get to the end - which I will not reveal - it tops everything we have seen so far. The concept is cool and the effects are so amazing and realistic that we just believe these things exist... even though they are silly cheese. There are scenes with characters caught in machinery, and at no time do you ever think: That’s not real. Hey, probably at least half of what we saw on screen in every shot in that end sequence was CGI. The peril the characters were in was CGI. But you were so caught in the scene you never noticed the CGI, and the CGI was so good it didn’t show. It never pulled you out of the scene, never called attention to itself. Um, TRANSFORMERS can not claim this.

Obviously, he also knows what people want to see. Not just the destruction, but the type of story. A conquered America fighting back, a father/son survival story, the end of society and its rebirth. He can figure out what the audience wants to see - two years before he makes the film.

But he also know what kind of destruction we want to see - all of those drunken “What if they had to outrun an erupting volcano and a river of lava?” ideas are imaginative and silly fun. That’s a skill - figuring out what kind of destruction is fun and what kind is tragic, so we want to avoid it. We’ve just had two real earthquakes in a row, and the images of that destruction are not fun. But Emmerich seems to know *exactly* where the line is and never crosses it. At no time do you think any of this is serious or that any of the other people in the world are really dead. The film manages to keep it light and stay in fantasy land. Now, many screenwriters would see that as a flaw - the film is completely unrealistic! - but he was never going for any sort of realism. If he had been going for realism, that earthquake fissure wouldn’t have split up the couple as if they were in a Warner Bros cartoon.

Hey, I’m not saying that 2012 is a great film... but it’s an *enjoyable* film. Check your brain at the door, maybe have a few cocktails, but bring along your sense of humor. Though you aren’t going to cry at 2012, you’ll probably get caught up in the story enough to actually care whether John Cusack and his family live or die. Other than that, hey, it’s a fun schlockfest. Grab a big tub of popcorn and have a good time. Don’t forget to laugh at the funny parts.

Real Film Critics Discuss Foreign Films.

- Bill

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly - and why 2012 is Best Picture of 2009!
Dinner: Burger King.
Bicycle: Accidental massive bike ride! I ended up riding all over the valley - not planned.
Pages: After working so hard while feeling like crap yesterday, I did half a page on the spec... but did rewrite the tip and wrote this review. Main problem was that I got sidetracked trying to get details of this interview I seem to be doing Tuesday morning with the writers of A-TEAM... which seemed to be finalized at the very last minute.


mrswing said...

Confession time: I cried during ID4.


And I'm not even an American.

What brought the tears were the moment where Bill Pullman has to say goodbye to his wife, and Randy Quaid's self-sacrifice with his son finally respecting him.

Now I'm probably in a very small minority with this, but it does prove that D&E can hit valid emotional buttons when they try, at least for some people in the audience.

I was not planning on seeing 2012 but now I'm willing to give it a try. I never got the deliberate silliness vibe from Emmerich & Devlin before - maybe this time I will.

Emily Blake said...

I never thought about it this way. If this was a B movie I'd be laughing and talking about how awesome it is. But since it has a huge budget, we hold it to different standards.

A B movie with an A movie budget. Huh.

I always liked the scene in Independence Day when Will Smith punches the alien in the face and says "Welcome to Erf."

Ivan said...

Mr. Martell,
I not only see your point, but I like how it dovetails (sort of) with my assessment of 2012--that it's an incredibly subversive flick: I mean, here's a Hollywood blockbuster whose message is, "Only the super-rich will survive. If you don't have a ton of money, you are DOOMED."
No wonder 2012 had so many lovingly crafted FX scenes of "little people" dropping (often literally) like flies.

Bill, I've been enjoying your sites: thanks for helping me learn! Keep up the good work,

PS: While I love Day After Tomorrow and 2012, for some reason, I cannot stand Independence Day. Hmmmm...

Sam T. said...

I first saw John Cusak in "Gross Point Blank" and I thought it was a great movie. He was the only reason that I went to see 2012 and once again he did not disappoint.

scottycwilliam said...

Brilliant post. Never thought of the film or Emmerich in that way. This and the Bradley Pitt posts have made your blog a must read. Heh. Keep it up.

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