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It's the End of the World As We Know It, and Roland Emmerich Feels Fine
on 11 May 2012
Having already destroyed the world twice on the big screen, Roland Emmerich clearly wasn't afraid of running the risk of repeating himself when he decided to do a much more thorough job of it in 2012. Where most disaster movies work best by trapping a group of characters who usually die in reverse order to their star billing in an large enclosed space, be it a capsized sinking ship or a burning building that they have to fight their way out of, here he raises the stakes by trapping the entire human race on a sinking, burning planet that's starting to fall apart. Naturally there's a way out for the rich and powerful and the chosen few, which just as naturally don't include at least half of the main characters. Just as in George Pal's When Worlds Collide [DVD] , which this can be seen as a hugely expensive reworking of with all the spectacular advances in special effects 60 years and $200m can buy, the governments of the world are building arks to preserve their species. Or, more accurately, the Chinese are building them with the rest of the world's money (Emmerich knows the value of keeping things multi-national to boost the overseas box-office, admirably including more major roles for non-white actors than the average American movie).
The echoes of his previous hits can certainly be clearly heard, whether it's destroying the White House but saving the dog again just like he did in Independence Day or having characters outrun extreme weather conditions - in this case pyroclastic clouds rather than global warming itself - as they did in The Day After Tomorrow. But there's no denying that he gives great Apocalypse, and he clearly has enough anarchic spins on the End of the World As We Know It to fill another movie with jaw-dropping special effects setpieces, taking on a whole new set of iconic landmarks. Thus a crack along the Sistine Chapel that divides the hand of Adam and God results in the Vatican crushing the praying masses, the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio De Janeiro falls apart like jelly, Yellowstone Park becomes the world's biggest super volcano and Hollywood and the entire state of California fall into the sea while the ground opens up beneath Las Vegas like Sodom and Gomorrah Part Two. This is Armageddon - the Rollercoaster Ride, and about as impressively staged on a purely technical level as you're ever likely to see on the screen, and unlike other hacks who overdo the shakeycam and MTV editing, Emmerich has enough confidence in the spectacle and old-fashioned filmmaking nous to let you actually see it all properly.
It's a surprisingly well-structured film too, at least for its first two thirds, giving enough detail to move the film towards the cataclysmic day without giving away its entire hand too soon. Even more surprisingly it keeps the worst excesses of cheap sentiment that the genre is notorious for at bay for much of its running time before finally giving way to temptation in the soggy finale that could have done with a bit more ruthlessness and a lot less cheese. But for the most part the worst excesses are relegated to the deleted scenes bin on the DVD and Blu-ray (including one character getting a crowdpleasing but unbelievable sock on the jaw while a couple of dead meat supporting players miraculously return from their watery grave).
Not that everything works so well. Some of the cast (Chiwetel Ejiofor, John Cusack, Oliver Platt) get dealt a better hand by the writers than others (George Segal, Woody Harrelson) and there are enough bad lines that raise laughs like "The director of the Louvre was an enemy of humanity?" for you to suspect they were put there deliberately. The costume design of the crew of the arks in the finale, especially Stephen McHattie's captain, look like leftovers from a cancelled 50s TV show and there are a some unfortunately poor in a laugh-out-loud way moments in the boarding sequence (hint: oil sheiks and corgis).
But by far the biggest drawback is the image quality. While the big effects sequences are convincing enough, the decision to use the highly flawed Panavision Genesis digital cameras instead of shooting on film means that shots of an airship carrier crashing into the White House look more convincing than simple shots of characters talking in dark locations or at night - and there are a lot of them in the last section of the film. Blu-ray can't help the problems of lack of depth, detail and definition or the persistent blurring even on simple motion in low light levels, merely accurately reproduce the flaws in the original. While the image quality is never as bad as on Superman Returns, it's a major step back from the kind of quality you should expect from a film this expensive.
Yet for all that, as a spectacular exercise in watching big things get destroyed while the odd human being makes an unlikely hair's-breadth escape that usually defies the laws of physics, it does it's job.
While the DVD only offers an audio commentary, adulatory featurette on the director and 5 negligible deleted scenes and a hokier alternate ending as extras, the Blu-ray includes additional puff pieces (though not as many as the US disc, which also includes a music video) as well as a picture-in-picture featurettes, but there's nothing of much substance here.