Thursday, January 10, 2013

2012 and other disasters


My husband and I thought it would be fun to watch Roland Emmerich's "2012" on New Year's Day, but it didn't arrive at the library in time, so we watched it tonight. Boy, gone are the days when I could blithely enjoy a good disaster movie and just go along for the ride. Maybe I'm just jaded. Maybe I just know too much casual science. I know I am a lot pickier than I used to be about story and character in the books I read and the films I watch. All that said, this movie is pretty awful, instead of awe-ful, which is what it should be. Seriously: it's a global disaster movie. How can it not be gripping and awesome and breathtaking? I'll tell you how; by falling prey to the "wouldn't it look cool if..." trap that plagues successful directors with huge budgets, big imaginations, and little grasp of reality.

Just because you can do anything these days, courtesy of amazing Computer Generated Imaging technology, it does not mean you should do it. Stephen Sommers slipped on this banana peel in "Van Helsing", which should have been a fantastical adventure with studly heroes, stunning heroines, and scary monsters. Instead, after an affecting opening sequence featuring Frankenstein's monster, it was one scene after another of over-the-top CGI enhanced shenanigans rendered soulless by their sheer preposterousness. What a waste of a fine cast and a usually good director. After the twin successes of "The Mummy" and "The Mummy Returns", both fun adventure movies with a fair amount of silliness and improbability, supernatural elements aside, I guess Sommers decided to go crazy and make the monster movie he always wanted to see as a kid. Unfortunately, I think he let his inner kid write it, too, because almost every scene seems to have been written by a group of fourteen year old boys saying, "Wouldn't it be cool if THIS happened?!" and "Yeah, and then THIS could happen!" That's nice, boys, but I'd like a plot along with those wicked cool  moments, thanks.I case you think I'm being too picky, try watching it sometime with the director's commentary track. I only made it about five minutes in because Sommers literally verifyies my suspicions by saying things like, "OK, this is so cool right here.", "Isn't this awesome?" and so on. To further substantiate my theory, I listened to the actors' commentary track, which actually made the film enjoyable for me because I love hearing the behind the scenes stuff. Mostly they talk about how they pranked each other during the filming and what it was like to work with such a good cast on a fun set. The nail in the coffin (pun intended) is when they break at one point from talking about tangential things to comment on the actual scene in progress...and none of them can remember what the scene is actually about, just that it was fun to shoot. Yeah, when your actors can't figure out the story, you have a problem.

Roland Emmerich can make a good film. "Stargate" is one of my favorite adventure sci/fi films ever. "Independance Day", for all its flaws, is also on my list. "2012" makes "Armageddon" and "Deep Impact" look like both thoughtful documentaries and cerebral dramas by comparison. He uses the same template as in ID4. He starts with a Scientific Discovery followed by Tough Decisions for world leaders. He then assembles a varied cast of characters dotted around the country and even the world, in this case, and attempts to weave them together toward inevitable intersection at the climax. It works for me in ID4. In this film I never really feel like I get to know anybody, and the writing is so contrived and cliched that nobody seems real. It's like watching a Saturday Night Live sketch pasted over an Irwin Allen disaster movie. The worst and most annoying offense is unrealistically adult dialogue for child characters. I have no patience for writing kids who act like miniature world-weary, worldy-wise adults. If the kid has been living on the streets of Calcutta or in a boxcar in the wilds of north England since infancy, then I might buy it. If the kid is an urchin who has learned to be tough and goes through life with an earnest solemnity, like Miette in "The City of Lost Children", then I believe it. Not so much in a couple of privileged white kids living in suburban Los Angeles.

Then there's the science. For more on this, just Google "2012 bad science" and bask in the pages and pages of blogs and websites, including one from NASA, taking this film to task for its flagrantly fanciful crimes against physics, geology, plate tectonics, and fluid dynamics. I will not presume to give an exhaustive list of all the faux pax in this film, but I don't mind mentioning a few. Bear in mind that I am a Drama major, not a scientist, and these were things bothered me all the way to the end of this expensive film. 1. Neutrinos can not "evolve". They cannot interact physically with our environment and turn into microwaves and overheat the Earth's interior. Really, that was their choice of trigger events? 2. The Earth's crust is a bit more than a few hundred feet thick...by many miles. The shots of bits of the pacific plate tipping L.A. into the sea? Um, no. 3. I don't care how big the earthquake is, and 8.5 is pretty big, even 9.5 later in the film, but cracks hundreds of feet deep can not magically appear going down to the red-hot, plastic (not molten) mantle. See point #2. 4. Tsunamis only get big and destructive as they hit shallower water. Out in the open ocean a tsunami from even a massive earthquake might only be as big as a few inches or maybe feet, not hundreds of feet tall and able to capsize an ocean liner. By the time they hit land, we might be talking about ten to twenty foot-high surges, which on its own is really scary. Look at the footage of Kesennuma, Japan from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami(s) to see how terrible even five to ten feet of water can be. In this movie we have waves thousands of feet high powered by terrible earthquakes alone. It is so preposterous that it took the tension out of scenes that should have been awesome. Not only that, but there is no way that even a thousand foot high wave could have reached the Himalayas. Look on a map sometime. I wish the makers of this film had done as much.

I could ramble on about it, but I think I'll just content myself with waiting to see the upcoming dramatization of the 2004 Thailand tsunami, "The Impossible", which looks to be a lot more awe-inspiring and compelling. Realism is like that.

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