Does 2012 exploit our deepest fears? Who cares? It's fun!

Contributed by
Dec 14, 2012, 4:09 PM EST

It's hard to praise 2012 without offering at least a few conditions, but I can say that it never made me angry. Roland Emmerich's latest Irwin Allen-on-steroids disaster movie is the mother of all apocalypse movies, and it mostly satisfies, if only because it encourages audiences to indulge their insensitive worst and really celebrate widespread death and destruction.

The film stars John Cusack as Jackson Curtis (not to be confused with Curtis Jackson, the rapper who works under the pseudonym 50 Cent), a failed author who races to save his family after he discovers that the world is destined to come to an end. After a series of narrow escapes from earthquakes, avalanches and other natural phenomena, Jackson discovers a secret hangar in China where the world's governments have constructed massive arks to save selected members of the human race. Meanwhile, scientist Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who helped uncover the details of Earth's impending destruction, is struggling to come to terms with his and other governments' "selection" process, eventually conflicting with his chillingly pragmatic boss, Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt), as the fate of mankind quite literally hangs in the balance.

Like a number of movies I've seen this year, the spectacle in 2012 works eminently better in the context of the film even than its trailers, clips or promotional images, each of which otherwise seems more exploitative and crass than the last. What this means is that, well, yeah, there's something completely terrible and irresponsible about a movie that effectively fetishizes the deaths of millions if not billions of people. But in this movie, there's a character who speaks directly to that, or at least contemplates the genocide that's going on, which of course leads to a redemptive third act; even though the question of life or death ultimately comes down to a more "manageable" body count—say, a couple of thousand people as opposed to the entire population of the Northern Hemisphere—the payoff is about rescuing and helping others rather than selfishly saving oneself.

Unfortunately, the question is never asked, even metaphorically, whether it's altogether healthy to construct (much less attend) these massive fantasy films where so many people die, which is why there will be some audiences who are understandably disturbed or sickened by Emmerich's display of wanton devastation. But without excusing those artistic choices as being "just a movie," I think the fact that we're inexplicably fascinated by such displays is utterly fascinating itself, and it seems as if the only time we really consider the moral ramifications of mainstream moviemaking is when we flirt with subject matter or spectacle, like this, that has the potential to belittle or undermine the value of humanity. (Admittedly, that does seem to happen more and more often, but here it's put so prominently on display that the text and its wafer-thin subtext are just undeniable, if not openly confrontational.)

Other than the utter convincingness of the special effects, I actually appreciate the fact that for better or worse, Emmerich seems to cast actors he likes rather than conventional leading men and women. Cusack is a reliable earner, to be sure, but he's perfectly cast as a guy who's smarter than his stature in life deserves, and whether he's merely cashing a paycheck or not, Cusack lends intelligence and humanity to a guy who's otherwise little more than an Everyman cliché. Meanwhile, choosing folks like Tom McCarthy and Oliver Platt for main roles not only highlights folks we seldom see in major movies like this but offers alternatives to the blow-dried superstars that typically save the world.

That said, I do wish that Emmerich had chosen to be a little more unconventional when the time came to decide who lived and died; but then again, in a film whose express purpose is to blow stuff up real damn good, one isn't paying for those kinds of surprises, and in fact those are typically discouraged. In any case, 2012 is effective spectacle, and will absolutely satisfy any appetite for fun-destruction on a global scale. What that appetite says about you, of course, is yet to be determined, but suffice it to say that Emmerich's latest will fill your belly and then some, even if it doesn't fill your head.