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November 18, 2009 - Rick Chatenever
It took a leap of faith to go see “2012” on Friday the 13th. Watching the apocalypse is bad enough ... having an accident on the way home would be the icing on the cake.
But I went anyway, a bit reluctant about watching director Roland Emmerich end the world ... again.
What is it with this guy? He was probably the kind of kid who liked to break his toy trucks in the sandbox when he was growing up in West Germany before heading to Hollywood to make super hits like “Independence Day,” “The Day After Tomorrow,” “Godzilla” and “10,000 B.C.”
Although Emmerich is a high-profile supporter of causes, from the rights of women, gays and lesbians, to global warming, about every five years he gets this irresistible urge to destroy the world. His weapons of choice are tidal waves and natural disasters, but he usually finds room for a mushroom cloud or two.
He also has a fondness — not unlike al-Qaida terrorists — for trashing symbols of the United States, from blowing up the White House to drowning the Statue of Liberty.
In the case of “2012,” he starts with a supposed Mayan prophecy about the world coming to an end in that year. He sprinkles in some pseudo-science, adds California earthquake paranoia and selected conspiracy theories, then sets off to level Washington, D.C., one more time, just for good luck.
Stars like John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Thandy Newton, Oliver Platt, Danny Glover and Woody Harrelson go along for the ride. Actually many rides, which include some reckless driving in a low-flying airplane over a seriously quaking California, and a visit to a volcanically ravaged Hawaii before the survivors finally make it to their destination.
That destination is a group of “arks,” where the handful of hand-chosen survivors (being a head of state or filthy rich are the prime qualifications) are getting on board, along with giraffes and elephants to meet the Noah quota.
But first, there’s one last “Poseidon Adventure”-style disaster requiring John Cusack to dive into a submerged hold to save the ship. Then all hands on board can get to work on the now decimated planet to start the whole thing all over again.
Roland Emmerich is a gifted filmmaker, and no one can match him for gleeful destruction on a grand scale. The apocalypses befalling Los Angeles and Las Vegas are high-tech vision of biblical proportions … although you keep wondering why no one in the plane knows how to pull the stick up so they don’t have to keep flying under falling buildings.
But the better “2012” fulfills its mission — throw in a crumbling Christ the Redeemer above Rio de Janiero or the White House being crushed not only by a tidal wave, but a tidal wave carrying the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy — the worse it gets.
This is a case where suspension of disbelief is more like a lobotomy. There’s nothing in this movie that makes sense or obeys the laws of physics, from characters’ ability to outrun exploding fireballs or airplanes’ ability to take off from crumbling runways to the movie audience’s lemminglike willingness to watch everything (that’s our world, folks —that’s us!) come to an end, and call it “entertainment.”
Even more repugnant than the movie’s willingness to kill people by the billions is its cynical commitment to killing the brains of the people sitting in the theater. Embracing pop-apocalyptic scenarios like “2012” is the lazy way out of taking the responsibility for living in a complicated world.
But it doesn’t explain why audiences flock to watch the director flaunt his utter disregard for them.
There’s a climactic scene in “Pirate Radio” where Phillip Seymour Hoffman also finds himself up to his waist in water in a sinking ship. But that’s the only thing the two movies have in common.
“Pirate Radio” gets everything right that “2012” gets wrong. It’s an eccentric often hilarious return to England in the ’60s when the government outlawed broadcasting rock music, so renegade radio stations went offshore to broadcast from ships.
Hoffman is the yank among the ragtag Brits, whose faces are made for radio and whose personal peculiarities make life aboard ship a constant, very wry joke. “Love Actually” writer-director Richard Curtis depicts these pioneer DJs as lovable loonies, and gets added comic mileage from the lyrics of the film’s golden-oldie soundtrack. Along with all the specific scenes that make the film so much fun (Bill Nighy is worth the price of admission all by himself), there’s a gentle affection for all the characters, the weirder the better, permeating the slightly true story.
Unlike “2012,” “Pirate Radio” is about swimming, not sinking. It’s also about the redemptive spirit of sex, drugs and rock’n’ roll. But mostly it’s about love, actually.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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