“Speak less.. say more” describes my consultant work, but not the efforts of German writer/producer/director Roland Emmerich. He creates entertainment and the bigger, the better. Here’s the RE formula: A few people battling something REALLY big (global warming, a mutant reptile, space aliens with very bad intent) and prevailing against long odds. The material can be clunky and derivative, but give Emmerich his due: He thinks big. He followed that recipe to profitable effect with Independence Day in 1996. Critics dismissed the space invasion drama, but audiences ate up the eye-popping special effects to the tune of $817 million in worldwide receipts.
Now, Roland Emmerich serves up his latest imperiled planet drama, 2012. If anything, this movie expands his working definition of big. The estimated budget exceeds $200 million, the special effects credits are a mile long and the disaster is truly universal and non-stop. This movie carries the tag line “We were warned.” Here’s the Smackdown: Does 2012 prove the idea that more is better, or just more?
2012 dramatically expands a disputed interpretation of the Mayan long count calendar to its disastrous conclusion. That notion predicts cataclysm on December 21st or 23rd of that year and this movie gets down to business straightaway. Southern California breaks off in pieces, lakes evaporate and the earth’s crust is overheating. Scientists blame this on the effect of sub-atomic particles thrown our way from solar flares. Whatever. Into this framework for special effects we meet writer Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), his estranged family, an overbearing White House aide (Oliver Platt), an earnest scientist (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and an Obama-like president (Danny Glover). Continental drift, earthquakes and tsunamis are in hyperdrive and no visual cue goes ignored. Your favorite landmarks? History. Magnetic north? Now in Wisconsin. The safest high ground? Tibet.
Things look tough for Jackson Curtis and his family. Do they survive? Do I really have to ask?
The Defending Champion
Five minutes into Independence Day the truth comes out: We are not alone and that’s not good. Chairs rattle, car alarms go off as giant space ships hover over major cities around the world. They don’t want to be friends, and very soon the aliens lay a major hurt on humanity: Zap goes the Eiffel Tower, bye bye White House, adios New York and Los Angeles. Before long, the beleaguered humans fight back, and we meet the small circle of obligatory people here: The airman (Will Smith) who captures an alien alive, the scientist (Jeff Goldblum) whose estranged ex works for a Clinton-like President (Bill Pullman). Sense a pattern here?
They devise a battle plan at Area 51 (!) that includes a scheme to infect the aliens’ mother ship with a computer virus. This plucky group even assembles an attack squadron that includes drunken crop duster Russell Casse (Randy Quaid). Can they possibly win back the Earth? You get exactly one guess.
Roland Emmerich wrote and directed both films, and he clearly favors special effects. His actors are secondary, and exist to loosely tie the fabulous activities together. What dialogue! You laugh or groan as President Bill Pullman tells his military brain trust, “..Nuke ’em. Let’s nuke the bastards.” Or when the presidential aide in 2012 looks at the TV screen and declares, “The nutbags with the cardboard signs had it right all along.” Mary McDonnell, Goldblum and Will Smith in Independence Day; Glover, Woody Harrelson, Amanda Peet and Cusack in 2012. You’ve seen these actors in more challenging duty.
The action sequences shine in both movies, but most brightly in 2012. They will astound (and the escape from LA sequence stands out) but also remind you of the special moments you saw in other films, like Titanic, the Poseidon movies, The Langoliers and The Perfect Storm.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it is also the language Roland Emmerich speaks best. Do we have a winner? Yes.
I won’t belabor the point: neither movie stands as great storytelling on film. If you insist on that you won’t enjoy either one. These are giant entertainment pieces demanding popcorn and a large screen to contain the action.
When you manage your expectations, more is better here. Independence Day honestly earned its Oscar for Best Visual Effects. It still looks great, but it’s been eclipsed. Don’t be surprised if Roland Emmerich wins the same award for our winner, 2012.