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Posts Tagged ‘catastrophe movie’

There’s nothing wrong with niche film-making, of course, but sometimes the box office figures tell a story of their own: as modern budgets go, $10 million is barely a trifle, but even so, if your film only pulls in $3000 you’re still going to be having a long and uncomfortable conversation with the head of the studio. Such was the fate of David Mackenzie’s Perfect Sense, and it suggests that there just aren’t enough fans of pretentious arthouse apocalyptic SF movies featuring Eva Green getting ’em out for such a project to be financially viable. The revelations one stumbles across sometimes.

Eva Green brings her usual off-kilter emotional intensity, imperious sexual magnetism and peculiar accent to the role of Susan, an epidemiologist in contemporary Glasgow. Her life is quite nondescript, as is that of Michael (Ewan McGregor), a chef she encounters via a slightly laboured cute-meet early on. Both of them have commitment issues; hey ho.

However, a strange affliction takes hold across the globe: people experience sudden surges of melancholia, followed by the total and permanent loss of their sense of smell. No-one knows what’s causing it, or how it’s spreading, but spreading it is – and soon everyone is affected. However, people adapt and life returns to a close semblence of what it previously was (although one assumes that sales of deodorant take a bit of a knock). Michael and Susan embark upon a relationship. But then it becomes apparent that the phenomenon is progressive: people are now starting to lose their sense of taste, as well. The obvious question is on everyone’s minds – how long can society survive if the other, more vital senses are lost?

Now, this sounds like the premise for a bleak SF catastrophe movie, and to some extent Perfect Sense delivers on this – the scenes of collapsing civilisation towards the end of the film are well-mounted and convincing – but this is really not a genre piece in quite that sense. I’ve heard this movie compared to Melancholia, in that both films combine what are ostensibly SF themes with a more psychological, internal focus, but this film is not as accomplished.

The main problem is that it’s too obvious that the writer and director are not interested in the collapse-of-society story per se: it’s just a device by which they can explore their real concerns, which are all to do with what it is that makes life worth living, the nature of relationships, the power of emotions, and so on – and it’s written to suit those concerns. Judged as a proper piece of SF, Perfect Sense is sorely wanting – one could perhaps excuse the lack of cause given for the progressive sensory shutdown, but not the fact that it’s such a precise and coy little affliction, much inclined to entice histrionics from the cast. No reason is given as to why the loss of each sense is accompanied by everyone experiencing the same emotion to a heightened level, but one is invited to draw the obvious conclusion that a point is being made about feeling on a personal as well as a perceptual level.

Am I saying that this film is heavy-handed? Er – yes. Several moments have the lead characters pausing just to fully appreciate whichever sense they’re fearful of losing next, and these are Loaded With Significance to a much greater degree than they require. One sequence about the pleasures of being tactile turns into an extended bout of whoa-ho-ho between McGregor and Green. There’s quite a lot of this sort of thing, to the point where it even becomes a bit desensitising: certainly by the end I found myself playing Whose Leg Is That? rather than feeling particularly stimulated.

A further problem is that, even if you’re prepared to meet the film halfway and buy into the improbable central premise as an idea, the way it’s actually implemented is actually quite preposterous. A grave voice-over by an omniscient narrator doesn’t help much when her account of ‘a single moment of hunger… and then taste was gone forever’ is accompanied by scenes of McGregor, Green, and various other players squirting mustard down their throats, eating lipstick, seizing hungrily on live rabbits, and so on. It just looks ridiculous – a scene later on where the leads try to make the most of their new situation by eating soap doesn’t help, either.

Now in theory I’d be prepared to forgive Perfect Sense a lot, because attempting to combine genre SF ideas and proper character-based emotional drama seems to me to be a potentially interesting area, but whatever it’s trying to say about relationships and emotions is either so subtle and profound I completely missed it, or utterly obvious and banal. And the central romance does not engage: the two characters are not quite, as McGregor at one point suggests, Mr and Mrs Arsehole, but neither are they people you’d particularly want to spend time with. She has no vulnerability, he has no depth; they are quite self-absorbed and humourless.

At least the romance plotline gives a counterpoint to the otherwise progressively more downbeat story of the death of civilisation. The fact that the film attempts to end on a positive, upbeat note, at a moment when the life expectancy of the human race can probably be measured in weeks, tells you everything about the preoccupations of this film. It’s nicely made and the performances aren’t awful, but it is quite pretentious and much more concerned with theme than narrative. Not a complete waste of time by any means, and it does have a certain sort of originality – but annoying and bemusing much more often than actually satisfying.

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Probably due to my (ahem) international lifestyle over the last five or six years and the resulting bevy of friends scattered across continents, I am an inveterate user of a prominent social networking site. You know, the one invented by the guy who was in the thing a couple of years ago? The one that had the thing about the other thing when it thinged recently?

Well, as you can probably imagine, this means I am much accustomed to ridiculous and vaguely offensive adverts popping up in the fringes of my eyeline, mostly offering to sell me things I don’t feel I need, expand parts of my body the proportions of which I am currently quite happy with, or fix me up with people who are, quite obviously, not only way out of my league but probably playing a different sport entirely. Recently one of these appeared – or so I thought – announcing that ‘Keira is seeking a friend for the end of the world’, accompanied by a sombre headshot of Miss Knightley of that ilk. Was this another dodgy dating site or something to do with Mayan calendar 2012 nonsense? My bemusement only increased when the distaff version started popping up, featuring Steve Carell.

It turned out none of my ideas was remotely accurate as this was in fact a rather underwhelming advertising campaign in support of Lorene Scafaria’s Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, which stars Carell and Knightley. This is one of those self-consciously indie-ish movies which wanders across genre borders – mainly it’s a comedy-drama, or possibly a dramedy, but almost certainly not a coma.

The tone is set by the opening scene, in which a car radio announces that the last-ditch space mission to deflect an incoming asteroid has totally failed and that all human life and civilisation will be utterly annihilated in only three weeks, the announcer then seamlessly going on to introduce The Beach Boys’ ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’.

The wife of middle-aged everyman Dodge (Carell) takes this opportunity to leave him, leaving him in something of a quandary as to what to do: as he’s a life insurance salesman, it’s all gone very quiet on the work front, and as he only actually got married in order to avoid dying alone, he’s understandably disgruntled at being dumped this way.

Unimpressed by the wild behaviour displayed by his friends as the end draws closer and society starts to break down, he becomes much closer to his neighbour, Penny (Knightley). Then Penny (who is a Kooky Free Spirit From England) reveals that she received a letter meant for Dodge some time earlier. The letter is from the love of Dodge’s life, who reveals she still has feelings for him. Dodge is appalled that he didn’t discover this sooner and the duo strike a deal – if Penny helps him find his true love, he will put her in touch with someone with a private plane who can get her back to England to be with her family at the end.

Well, it’s about an odd couple on a road trip, what do you think happens? It’s probably fair to say that Steve Carell and Keira Knightley would not be high on most peoples’ lists of sizzling screen couples – probably ranking about the same as a celluloid hook-up between Andy Serkis and Dame Judi Dench – but, to be fair to them, there are hardly any moments in this film which actually make you go ‘Ewww’.

However, this is really a rather strange film, not least because – and this does seem oddly absurd – completely blowing up the world and everyone on it is not that original an idea. It’s become a well-enough-established concept to have its own set of cinematic tropes and conventions, most notably the final flare to a completely white screen which signifies the arrival of the apocalypse. Seeking a Friend for the End  of the World adheres to these quite cheerfully, which inevitably invites comparisons with other films along similar lines.

The set-up and the presence of mainstream stars like Carell and Knightley leads one to expect a black-comedy alternate-ending version of Armageddon, but the movie is much quirkier than this, as well as being a lot less comic. It’s not that it fails to be funny, it just doesn’t try most of the time.

I’m not sure whether this was a good idea or not. While the concept of the movie is an inherently serious one – the looming catastrophe naturally provokes a lot of introspection and breast-beating from characters about their lives and priorities up to this point – I think it might have been better to play the film against the natural tone one would expect. When the film tries to be comic, it’s usually very funny, and these points are not without a certain insight into human nature.

The more serious tone the film adopts as it progresses is reasonably well-handled, with a very good performance from Carell, and a typically brilliant cameo from Martin Sheen (I know, I know: you wait five years for a Martin Sheen movie to be reviewed and then two come along in consecutive weeks), but I got no real sense of the film having anything profound or surprising to say. It’s not boring to watch, nor is it completely unbelieveable, but at the same time I didn’t really care about the fact that all of the characters were shortly about to die.

Nor did I much care about the burgeoning central romance, which really didn’t ring true for me. Knightley’s performance is, if we’re totally honest, variable – she’s okay doing the light comedy and offhand stuff, but when she’s required to become deeply emotional – as she is at a couple of key points – she starts staring off into the distance, doing weird things with her nose and eyebrows, and generally gets caught acting just a bit too often. Maybe this contributed to the fact I felt no sense of sadness or loss that the main relationship was to be so rapidly terminated.

Hey ho. It’s a nicely made film with some good visuals and interesting ideas, but I couldn’t help thinking that all the best parts of this film were comprised of material I’d seen handled better and more intelligently elsewhere: not just the basic concept, but the strained social milieu, the breakdown of traditional morality, and the last-minute romance (even down to its fixation with old records) – all of these seemed to me to be terribly similar to Don McKellar’s 1998 movie Last Night, which I remember being more accomplished.

Still, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is an interesting film, even if the tone and focus are a bit messed up, and I certainly didn’t find it objectionable on any level. Nevertheless, I have seen the complete and utter destruction of the world depicted better than this on several occasions in the past, and I suspect I will again in future.

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When I was but a lad one of my favourite stories was 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea – not Verne’s original novel (which I have since discovered to be a rather wearisomely didactic travelogue), but an illustrated adaptation of the 1954 Richard Fleischer movie. I pored over this time after time and you can surely imagine my excitement when it was re-released to cinemas. However, only trauma was to result as I came down with something nasty in the very same week and our wise old family practitioner advised that, much better though I was feeling, it was still not a good idea for me to go to the cinema while I was still potentially infectious.

Well, I’ve been pretty poorly again recently, but – as luck would have it – health service cut-backs make it actually quite difficult to see a doctor. So the decision as to whether or not it was advisable to go to the cinema this week was entirely down to your correspondent. You know, I take my social responsibilities quite seriously, and would hate to think I had frivolously passed on my particular brand of lurgy to anyone simply because I wanted to see a film. In the end I decided I could justify it as long as I stayed well away from other unsuspecting cinemagoers and went to a sparsely-attended matinee performance, thus absolutely minimising exposure. At least that was what I told myself on the way in on the bus, and again in the pub afterwards.

You’ll never believe it, but all this nonsense proved to be entirely apropos as the movie I ended up seeing was Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, which was about… well not someone recklessly going to the pictures, but still. Basically, Soderbergh’s scientifically rigorous thriller opens in the aftermath of Gwyneth Paltrow’s visit to an Asian casino, during which she has been inadvertantly exposed to a mutant pig-bat virus. This does not stop her engaging in a little extramarital whoh-ho-ho on the way back home to her something of a dim-bulb husband, Matt Damon. The mutant pig-bat virus turns out to be a) energetically lethal (which is bad news for Gwyneth and arguably Matt), and b) enthusiastically communicable (which is bad news for everyone else in the world).

Pretty soon the authorities are on the case across the world, fortuitously embodied by a flotilla of the Hollywood A-list (Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Elliott Gould, and so on). Someone buzzes off to the Far East in search of the origins of the mutant pig-bat virus, someone else heads to Gwyneth’s neck of the woods to manage efforts to control the disease there, a third someone has to co-ordinate the overall strategy, and so on. Meanwhile Matt Damon struggles to not become a paranoid germophobe and to generally get on with his life despite the fact that, for one thing, he’s not allowed to bury Gwyneth – they’d much rather she was cremated (possibly a case of ‘One flu over – the cooker’s next’).

This is a big old star-studded whopper of a movie, or so it feels while you’re watching it, and that’s by no means intended as a criticism. Soderbergh orchestrates a sprawling, multi-stranded narrative with consummate skill, and for much of its running time this is a really gripping movie. It’s more a collection of vignettes depicting various scenes of courage, integrity, foolishness, and loss, rather than a single coherent story, but on the whole this approach works pretty well. The only subplot that doesn’t quite work focusses on Jude Law, who’s playing an unpleasant and self-serving blogger. I suspect he’s supposed to be Julian Assange, which is the only reason I can think of for the ‘Hello possums!’ accent Law deploys in the role.

The Damon subplot also looks a little bit superfluous to start with, as it doesn’t really appear to be going anywhere – it’s established early on that Matt is totally immune to mutant pig-bat viruses. A lot of it is to do with the extramarital excursion Gwyneth enjoyed shortly prior to her death, which gives Damon the chance for a lot of histrionic soul-searching. (The danger here is that it could almost look like Gwyneth was struck down as a judgement on her adulterous lifestyle, a rather reactionary impression for this kind of film to give.) However, as the story of the film unfolds over weeks and months, the ‘human interest’ story with Damon’s character becomes increasingly important and it’s clear this is why his character’s been built up.

Joking apart, Scott Burns’ script really works hard to seem horribly plausible and do new things with a well-established scenario. There’s a lot of pleasingly crunchy-sounding epidemiology and virology along the way, and the progression of the crisis and the coming apart of society is, on the whole, credibly presented.

That said, most lethal-mutant-virus-threat plots conclude one of two ways – the virus never properly gets loose at all and everyone goes ‘phew’, or it does its stuff, kills 99% of the world’s population, and the handful of survivors set off to the countryside to form communes and rebuild society in a new and better form (this is often the point at which the story-proper gets going – for example, the BBC’s original Survivors, which this startlingly resembles at one point).

Except, apparently, viruses that lethal really don’t come along very often and a fatality rate of even 5% of the global population is practically unheard of. This leaves the film the problem of how to find a proper climax, given all the most dramatic stuff happens in the opening stages of a pandemic – the latter stages of the film have novelty to commend them, but there’s no substitute for proper storytelling structure! The solution Soderbergh opts for is a little dismaying – moments of jarring sentimentality start to appear with increasing frequency (many of them involving Damon’s character), until by the end they’re practically all the film has to offer. Soderbergh is too smart and classy to let his film degenerate into nothing but a schmaltzfest, but it’s a shame that the pace and tension and intelligence of the early sections of the film couldn’t have been sustained throughout.

And I suppose we must wonder what the purpose of this kind of film really is. Panic and misery and the death of millions is an odd topic for a piece of entertainment especially when the story isn’t as big on crowd-pleasing spectacle as, say, 2012. I suspect it may largely be a simple case of a ghoulish impulse of delight in seeing all the walls falling down and things becoming just about as bad as we can conceive. As a catastrophe movie, Contagion is highly intelligent, thoroughly gripping, masterfully directed and (on the whole) very well played. It’s not really a conventional story, but it’s an impressive piece of film-making – even if it’s a little short on practical advice on how to survive a global pandemic. I for one was only able to discern three such suggestions –

  • use your hand-sanitiser frequently and thoroughly
  • get your panic-buying out of the way early
  • watch out for mutant pig-bats.

Don’t have nightmares, folks.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 10th June 2004: 

In any kind of extended artistic career, there is bound to come a moment when one runs the risk of repeating oneself. This is not to say that there isn’t merit in choosing to explore the same themes in slightly different ways: but when you’re the director of blockbuster science fiction films, this sort of behaviour is a bit more noticeable.

And so it proves the case with Roland Emmerich, whose personal antipathy towards New York seems to border on a psychotic vendetta. So much so, in fact, that he seems to be running out of ways of devastating the city. Having demolished it with an alien death ray in Independence Day, and inflicted a giant irradiated iguana on the population in Godzilla, he’s now reduced to basically just clobbering the city that never sleeps with really rotten weather.

Such is the core of Emmerich’s latest offering, The Day After Tomorrow, a slightly oddball event movie which mixes terribly earnest ecological didacticism with good old-fashioned Hollywood carnage and destruction. The importance of the former can be deduced from the fact that this is the only summer blockbuster – in fact the only film – I can think of where the plot is powered by desalinisation. Basically, western civilisation has caused global warming to the extent where great big chunks of Antarctica are falling off into the sea (says the film), and this vast influx of fresh water makes the Gulf Stream and other warm-water currents pack up. This in turn (told you it was didactic) deprives us here in the northern hemisphere of our lovely mild climate – and being an Emmerich movie, this is demonstrated by hail the size of grapefruit mowing down salarimen on the Tokyo ginza, downtown LA being wrecked by giant tornadoes, and the British Royal family freezing to death in Balmoral. But it’s not all good news, as it looks like the world is headed for a new ice age. As soon as the news breaks, Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck are launched into space – not because this will help avert the catastrophe, but at least it’ll cheer everyone up a bit. Seriously, though, folks, this is a film with the potential to be really rather bleak and depressing, no matter how cheering the sight of mass death and destruction is: the tone throughout is of futility and despair, with only the faintest (and implausible) glimmerings of hope near the end.

But, this being a studio movie, the film-makers break the glass on the ‘In case of emergency’ script box and pull out that trusty old plotline, the troubled father-son relationship. This is the human story going on in the foreground as millions meet agonising deaths somewhere off in the distance, and it’s all about Jack (played by Dennis ‘Like Harrison Ford only cheaper’ Quaid), a maverick palaeo-climatologist (yes, another movie about one of those), who predicts the whole disaster but is wilfully ignored by the wicked and greedy American government (any resemblance to the current administration is, of course, entirely amusing). But Jack has more important problems to worry about than the collapse of civilisation as we know it. He has to see about fixing up his relationship with his teenage son Sam (played, rather somnolently, by Jake Gyllenhaal from City Slickers). As this could prove tricky if Sam turns into a corpsicle, off Jack treks to the frozen wastes of New York, where Sam is trapped with his geeky friends, his girlfriend (Emily Rossum), and a few other appropriately socially-and-ethnically-diverse survivors. The film doesn’t really go into details about why Jack bothers going in person, as all he does on arrival is radio for help – something I doubt you need to be a maverick palaeo-climatologist to do.

Yes, sorry, I’ve sort of given the end away there, but this isn’t a deep or challenging narrative in any way. Not to put too fine a point on it, the script of this movie stinks in all sorts of ways. It is, for one thing, toe-curlingly sentimental in the most obvious and glutinous way: there’s even a little boy with leukaemia, included for no apparent reason except to try and coax an ‘Ahhhh’ out of the audience. Fine actors like Ian Holm and Adrian Lester (Mickey Bricks from Hustle) stumble unwittingly into this stuff, thrash around helplessly for a while, and then vanish despairingly out of sight. (The script also clearly can’t decide whether burning books in order to survive is justified or not.)

It’s very clear that this is a film with A Message About Global Warming but it’s caught between its desire to be ecologically aware and the requirements of a big summer movie. As a result its credibility suffers – the meteorology seems incredibly suspect to me, and I’m usually so oblivious to the weather I can’t even tell when to bring the washing in. And even then the film really struggles to provide the small-scale action and excitement that’s the meat of this sort of adventure, eventually reduced to contriving sequences where characters are chased down corridors by wolves or nasty low-pressure fronts. The special effects are undeniably spectacular, but nearly all the big moments happen in the first half of the movie, and even then they’re impressive rather than actually exciting. (And you can’t help but suspect that if only the writers could have thought of a way for global warming to cause volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, we’d have those in the movie too!)

But the film shows flashes of wit on occasion, and it’s novel to see a summer movie that so clearly wants to be socially aware, even if it goes about articulating this in such a stunningly crass and obvious way. I can’t honestly claim to have been swept off my feet by The Day After Tomorrow, it’s too stolid, clichéd and silly for that. But if you like watching catastrophes it will hold your attention. And, as I said, as blockbusters go this is something a bit different – but different isn’t necessarily better, as this movie proves.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 7th November 2002:

‘John Wyndham did not invent the UK novel of secretly-longed-for disaster… but he effectively domesticated some of its defining patterns: the city (usually London) depopulated by the catastrophe; the exodus, with its scenes of panic and bravery; and the ensuing focus on a small but growing nucleus of survivors who reach some kind of sanctuary in the country and prepare to re-establish man’s shaken dominion.’ – John Clute, The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction

There are some things that we here in Britain like to think we do better than anyone else. Costume dramas. Glam rock. Jingoistic psychosis (especially when it comes to our chances in sporting events). And the End of the World. The catastrophe novel was one of the mainstays of British literary SF throughout the 20th century, ranging from J.G. Ballard’s The Drought (apocalypse by drought), to John Christopher’s The Death of Grass (apocalypse by famine), and going right back to Richard Jefferies’ 1885 novel After London. Of course, in recent years American writers and filmmakers such as Stephen King and George Romero have done much interesting work in this genre, but it’s still enormously pleasing to see British storytellers return to the idea – as they do in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later.

Boyle’s film, written by Alex Garland (author of The Beach – so he’s clearly a forgiving man), superficially resembles a transatlantic take on the subject, not least in that the disaster that destroys civilisation is a form of plague rather than a natural catastrophe. But it seemed to me that the major influence on this film was the most famous of the all the British post-apocalypse novels, John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids.

The film starts with a brief pre-credits sequence in which animal rights activists break into a lab with the intention of releasing chimpanzees that are being used as test subjects. Little do they realise the apes are infected with ‘rage’, a viral agent spread by blood and saliva, inducing a berserk, feral mania in those infected…

28 days later (hence the title) bike courier Jim (newcomer Cillian Murphy) wakes up in a London hospital – he was involved in a traffic accident some weeks earlier. The place seems deserted… and not just the hospital, the whole city. Early signs that some terrible disaster has occurred are confirmed when he is set upon by deranged, infected strangers… But he’s rescued by fellow survivors Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley), who fill him in about the rising tide of violence that swept away civilisation. Eventually they meet up with former taxi-driver Frank (Brendon Gleeson) and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns), who have heard about a possible sanctuary, up north. But it turns out that the infected don’t hold the monopoly on irrational violence…

28 Days Later draws upon a number of sources: the infected hordes are a slightly more athletic take on George Romero’s rabid zombies (from Dawn of the Dead, etc), while another less explicit influence seems to have been The Omega Man (for one thing, to begin with Harris’ character dresses and acts like Rosalind Cash from that movie). But Wyndham (or at least, the catastrophe story as defined by Wyndham) seems to have supplied most of the inspiration (and certainly the opening). The coming together of survivors, the cheerful looting of shops, the abandonment of the city for a rural refuge, and the country house under siege: they’re all here, along with the vital conflict between pre-apocalypse morality and the needs of post-apocalypse survival.

I’ve always thought Danny Boyle to be a rather overrated and pretentious director but here he does a very good job indeed. His stylistic flourishes don’t get in the way of the story, and he handles the action sequences with aplomb. There are some startlingly big stunts in this movie, which basically blow Boyle’s cover: this film isn’t made on grainy digital video because it has a particularly low budget, but simply because Boyle likes the medium. It works to his advantage, though, giving some sequences an oddly dream- or nightmare-like quality, particularly those in the impressively-staged empty London.

Most of the performances are fine, too: Murphy is an engaging screen presence, as is Harris. Brendan Gleeson is particularly affecting as the concerned father. There are only a couple of off-key turns: Christopher Eccleston, normally so good, struggles to convince as an army officer determined to rebuild civilisation at any cost. And in the vital precredits sequence, the role of the scientist who explains the dangers of the ‘rage’ virus is played by David Schneider, a man best known for playing Alan Partridge’s stooge, with all the credibility problems that raises.

And, if we’re honest, telling this kind of story on film always has its problems, mainly in coming up with a ending that’s satisfying without seeming glib. Certainly 28 Days Later weakens near the end as it first turns into a more orthodox action-thriller, before abandoning its grim but coherent subtext (human beings are innately violent and self-destructive creatures) for an unlikely, hopeful conclusion. But these are minor flaws in an engaging and well-made film. It may not capture the existential dread and crushing sense of loss of the best of its literary antecedents, but this is still the best screen treatment of this genre in over twenty years. Recommended.

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John Cusack spends a very long time running away from earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis, using a wider variety of vehicles than one would have believed possible, in Roland Emmerich’s latest unleashing of the SF storyteller’s darkest desires, 2012. You tend to forgive him, and the film, the silliness of this, simply because – hey. It’s John Cusack. And this in a nutshell reveals the cleverness of the movie.

Having run the gamut of alien invaders, giant monsters, and – er – really bad weather, Emmerich’s latest assault on civilisation (not to mention your eardrums) is triggered by a once-in-every-64,000 years astronomical alignment, which causes solar flares, which in turn cause the core of the Earth to swell up, with unfortunate results for nearly anyone you care to mention. (My initial reaction on hearing this was ‘Bugger, does this mean I have to start taking Russell Grant seriously?’) Luckily noble young boffin Adrian (hard-to-spell but reliable Chiwetel Ejiofor) is on the case and tips off the US Government. Many scenes of earnest young aides sticking secret dossiers in front of incredulous politicos and saying ‘Sir, you need to read this now‘ ensue.  

Luckily for Cusack’s character, Jackson Curtis (who must spend all his time when not fleeing the apocalypse being mistaken for a rapper with a speech impediment), and his slightly dysfunctional family (shades of Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, but less irksome here), he is tipped off to the situation by a deranged hippy (Woody Harrelson) while on a camping trip. Hey, go with it. He learns of a government plan to ensure the survival of the race by building ginormous ships somewhere secret. Inevitably, these arks are being paid for by rich people in return for a place on the passenger list, which guarantees that the only survivors will be the biggest bunch of sociopathic bastards you could possibly imagine (yes, the Duke of Edinburgh’s on the list).

(I was rather reminded of Ben Elton’s Stark, which has a very similar plot – the punchline here being that, having survived the end of the world, the assembled rich bastards find each others’ company so horrific that half of them get murdered and the other half commit suicide. No such poetic justice here, alas.)

It’s all a little bit familiar from Emmerich’s previous oeuvre, not to mention things like Deep Impact – a constipated-looking Danny Glover pops up as a very un-Obama-ish Prez, presumably because Morgan Freeman’s already played this part and didn’t want to do it again.  But once the laying-in of plot is all done, Emmerich lets rip with the SFX budget with jaw-dropping results: Los Angeles flops into the ocean as the San Andreas fault goes berserk, Yellowstone goes off like a nuke, Hawaii drowns under molten lava, and so on and so on. This kind of movie is solely about the effects work – it stands or falls by it, no matter how good the plot, dialogue, and acting is – and here 2012 delivers in spades. I am a jaded viewer of too many popcorn effects movies, but the visuals here are astonishing, and pleasingly have the kind of almost absurd quality I suspect the end of days will probably possess.

'Aaargh! There's no escape! We're going to be playing one-dimensional characters for the entire movie!'

It’s easy to overlook that Emmerich is simply very, very good at this kind of movie – of course the characters are shallow, of course you know from the start who’s going to live and die, and of course a lot of the non-FX scenes are mawkish (there’s a particularly grim ‘I’ve had a helluva life… I love you, son’  bit in this one), but it’s involving, not without some good jokes, and the pacing and intercutting of the plot strands is excellent.

Neither is it entirely bereft of depth and poignancy – some may think I’m overstating this, but after a summer comprised of aberrations like G.I Joe with all the depth of a shadow on a cloudy day, the merest nod in this direction is more than welcome. To be fair, the film awkwardly skirts round the ‘most of the survivors are money-grabbing scumbags’ issue in a fairly contemptible fashion, but none of them get many lines except Oliver Platt as the Heartless Man in a Suit who so often pops up in this sort of movie and is shouted down in the climax by the Voice of Humanity characters (Ejiofor and Thandie Newton in this case).

It does outstay its welcome a bit, and the climax is terribly overwrought and more than a little contrived, but in this movie I was able to relax and enjoy polished and reliable storytelling on the most lavish and epic scale. It doesn’t have the brain or heart or wit of something like District 9, but it does everything you’d expect it to do from seeing the publicity, and does it very well too. I wait with bated breath to see what variety of horrors Emmerich lets loose in his next outing – giant mutant sun-eating star goats, anyone?

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