Master of Disaster Roland Emmerich outdoes himself with his new special effects extravaganza.
It is safe to assume that most people going to see Roland Emmerich’s spectacular new disaster movie, 2012, won’t be expecting a beautifully crafted script, nor will they be overly upset to find there is no great nuance to the performances from its large cast of very competent actors. No, this is a movie whose whole raison d’être is the simple fun and enjoyment of watching a visual effects extravaganza on such a grand scale.
I’ve never been much of a fan of Roland Emmerich’s science-fiction films (I found the script for Independence Day especially preposterous), which may be why 2012 really took me by surprise. Mr. Emmerich and his co-writer, Harold Kloser have wisely added plenty of tongue-in-cheek elements to go alongside the catastrophic proceedings, making for a far more satisfying experience than any of his earlier movies. It is also one of the main reasons 2012 succeeds so well. It is simply a fun filled thrill-ride, which careens along from one epic disaster to the next, while keeping the more absurd elements that marred Emmerich’s previous movies to a bare minimum.
The storyline for 2012 follows George Pal’s 1951 Oscar winner, When Worlds Collide rather closely, except instead of a rogue planet crashing into the Earth, the crisis begins when the Sun’s neutrinos start going haywire, causing the molten core of the Earth to overheat. This triggers a massive realignment of the earth’s crust that will set off world wide Armageddon, as predicted by the Mayan calendar on December 21, 2012. Scientists and world leaders then frantically begin constructing a series of massive arks that will allow humanity to survive the impending deluge.
We get all the typical stock characters, familiar from past disaster movies, starting with John Cusack’s everyman hero who reconnects with his family during the crisis, rather conveniently lifted from Tom Cruise’s character in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, to the hard-hearted chief of staff to the President (Oliver Platt), modeled after John Hoyt’s self-centered businessman in When Worlds Collide. I daresay, this is one movie where nobody connected with it will utter the typical Hollywood statement: “It’s all about the characters and the effects are just used to support the story.” Obviously, this is a rather flimsy story; the effects are the true stars, and rightly so.
Visual effects supervisor Marc Weigert notes that, “More than half of the movie is visual effects. I think Roland has found a way to stick almost every natural disaster you can imagine into this film. L.A. is destroyed in a 10.5 earthquake by page 30. Yellowstone Park goes up in a thirty-mile-wide explosion of lava. But the real reason why it’s so much fun to work with Roland is that he brings something new, something different to every single scene. You might think, ‘I’ve seen movies with an earthquake.’ Well, no, you haven’t.”
Indeed, Weigert and Volker Engel along with over 1,000 effects artisans have managed to create stunning work on a realistic scale that is far and away beyond anything that has been seen in previous disaster movies. In fact, 2012 may go down in cinematic history as the disaster movie par excellence, far surpassing anything Irwin Allen ever made – cramming as it does nearly every calamity possible to imagine into a single film. We literally see a large portion of Los Angeles fall into the Pacific Ocean. We see a volcano rise in Wyoming and then erupt, spewing out fireballs as John Cusack and his family attempt to flee the devastation in a small private jet. We see a massive tidal wave overturn a huge ocean liner in the South China Sea. We see a Russian cargo plane crash land in the Himalayas. We see the destruction of major cities, from Los Angles and Washington D.C. to the Vatican in Rome and monasteries in Tibet.
All this mayhem is created mostly by computer graphics, but it’s done so vividly and it is so incredibly realistic, that it easily makes 2012 the leading contender for this years Best Visual Effects Academy Award. “The objective is that the viewer can’t tell what we actually built and what’s a visual effect, made in the computer,” explains production designer Barry Chusid. “Hopefully, in the end, you watch the movie and ask, ‘Where did they find the mountain to build (those Arks) in?’ ” Special note must also go to cinematographer Dean Semler whose beautifully sharp live-action photography has been expertly married with the digital effects work.
Special Effects Supervisor Mike Vezina was in charge of all of the story’s seismic activity – which he achieved by actually shaking huge sets. “We’ve had some of the biggest rigs I’ve ever seen,” he says. “We went though 500,000 tons of steel just to build all of these big rigs for all the big shaky decks. Roland likes to see everything real. So all of these effects, running out of the house, earthquake scenes, or at the airport and there’s an earthquake scene, we actually build these huge decks that float and shake. They are about 8,000 square feet, so that he could build his set, put cars on it, put trucks, planes, and everything would shake accordingly. It was quite easy for him to make it real for the actors to react as if an earthquake of that magnitude was really happening.”
In short, 2012 shows off the Hollywood technical arsenal working at the absolute peak of its powers. For those expecting a more thoughtful script about the possible end of the world, you may be tempted to wait for the upcoming adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer prize winning novel, The Road. Unfortunately, having already seen the film version, I can honestly say that 2012 is a far better movie in every way possible.
2012 (2009). Directed by Roland Emmerich. Produced by Harald Kloser, Mark Gordon, and Larry Franco. Written by Harald Kloser & Roland Emmerich. Special Visual Effects Supervisors: Volker Engel and Marc Weigert. Director of Photography: Dean Semler ACS ASC. Production Designer: Barry Chusid. Edited by David Brenner, A.C.E. and Peter S. Elliot. Costume Designer: Shay Cunliffe. Music composed by Harald Kloser and Thomas Wander. Cast: John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Thandie Newton, Woody Harrelson and Danny Glover.