I saw the movie 2012 recently, the one where the Earth’s crust comes loose and practically everyone and everything perishes (mostly from a suitably polite camera distance) in nonstop earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis. I’m not sure what’s so entertaining about movies that are so clearly excuses for CGI effects rather than where the effects serve the story. Fine, blow shit up, but at least tell a good story! The presence of myriad plot devices and character gimmicks, which audiences see right through anyway, does not make a story any more than all the CGI.
The public seems to have an insatiable appetite for cinematic disaster porn, where one iconic building or geographical feature after another is digitally wrecked. There is a definite gawk factor, but I tire of this dreck pretty quickly. Besides, false, manufactured drama hasn’t worked on me since all those disaster films of the 70s (dating myself here), such as the Airport franchise, The Towering Inferno and its knock-offs, and The Poseidon Adventure. (It’s no accident that the Airport movies spawned the Airplane! spoofs, which have since become a cottage industry spoofing one self-serious movie genre after an another.) Raising the stakes with world-destroying movies like Deep Impact, Armageddon, The Day After Tomorrow, and The Day the Earth Stood Still has an oddly depersonalizing effect. Cinematic doomsday porn is not an improvement over cinematic disaster porn.
For my taste, the franchise that probably got it right — at least the first two of the four — is The Terminator and its sequels. The first Terminator established a dark future without showing much of it at all and the second developed that not really very possible future very effectively. However, the effects were not the story. Also, the drama was human-scale, not planet-scale. Although like other doomsday movies the Terminator flicks generally devolve into mere chase movies (or races against time), the characters remained the center of the story. The title character is also arguably Schwarzenegger’s best role, considering the minimal dialogue and physicality fit him so well despite his woodenness.
It was curious that in 2012, Danny Glover played the President of the United States. It wasn’t a good role for him, as every line was delivered with maudlin seriousness. In this era, however, the role is apparently open to African-American actors without a second thought. The only other such casting (of which I’m aware) was Morgan Freeman, strangely enough, in Deep Impact. (There’s an obvious joke in there somewhere about black presidents being in office just as cataclysm strikes.)
This month, film crews have been on the streets of Chicago filming the third installment of the Transformers franchise, another heedless CGI festival. The second film was so badly reviewed one wonders why a third outing got the green light. Must have made money. The funny thing to me is that announcements of street closures were circulated to a lot of downtown office workers, which included the warning that no actual Transformers were being filmed. Those characters are added later using CGI, don’cha know. I can’t help but snigger that some foolish fudgies were trudging around downtown Chicago film sets, pestering productions assistants, and disheartened to learn that their Saturday morning childhood buddies — five-story fully articulating robots mind you — weren’t actually visible amongst the burnt-out cars and crumbled concrete (styrofoam) scattered around the sets.