(Long Island, N.Y.) 2012, the latest in a long line of nearly-identical disaster films by director Roland Emmerich, is the ultimate “missed it by one inch” movie. By that, I mean that the main characters will get into a random vehicle, start moving, and whatever was right behind them (road / runway / building / whatever) will instantly collapse…but don’t worry, they always manage to barely escape. And this happens over and over and over and over again for the entire 2 hour and 40 minute runtime. In other words, it’s a typical Roland Emmerich movie. And in case you were worried, all of his other clichés are present and accounted for, just as they were in his past hits (such as Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow): the Everyday Joe, the Children in Peril, the Cute Doggie, the Selfless President, the Crazy Wacko Guy Who Knows About Everything (but whom no one believes, of course), the Deceitful Government Official, etc, etc, etc…
Whereas the Earth’s destruction in Independence Day was heralded by an alien invasion and by global warming/cooling in The Day After Tomorrow, in 2012 souped-up solar flares are the culprit. It seems the sun is bombarding the Earth with elementary particles called neutrinos (which, in reality, it harmlessly does every day) that are heating up the Earth’s core like a microwave burrito. Although such a thing is technically impossible (the scientists in the movie exclaim as such, but hey, why ruin things with facts?), this in turn causes the planet’s crust to start shifting and all manner of doomsday events to occur- earthquakes, floods, and volcanic eruptions. Faced with a 2-year deadline before the Earth is inhabitable, the world leaders (lead by American President Thomas Wilson, played by Danny Glover) converge and meet to discuss the construction of massive ships (I initially thought they were space ships, but it’s later revealed they are boats ala Noah’s Ark) to ensure the survival of the human race…well, some of it, anyway. Like all movies dealing with the end of the world, the higher-ups have all the luck, and the rest of us are fish food…well, provided the fish survive the cataclysm, that is.
You’d think this alone could provide enough fodder to pad out the running time of any movie, but of course we need a normal, run-of-the-mill guy heading up the cast so we have “someone to relate to.” This character comes in the form of divorced limo driver and failed sci-fi novelist Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), whose ex-wife took the kids and moved in with her caring, successful plastic surgeon boyfriend Gordon (Thomas McCarthy) years ago (something known in the car business as “trading up”). Of course, Jackson is somewhat aloof and estranged from his kids, preferring to work on another horrible book that he’ll probably never finish. But he attempts to mend fences by picking them up from Gordon’s posh pad in the Los Angeles suburbs and taking them on a camping trip to Yellowstone National Park. Naturally, he neglects them there as well, first to play with his laptop (apparently Yellowstone has wi-fi), and then to hang out with Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson), a paranoid nutcase in the neighboring campground who’s broadcasting his own conspiracy theory radio show. Today’s topic: how the government is keeping the truth about the impending holocaust a secret from its citizens! But while people like Charlie are a dime a dozen, in this case…he’s actually right. Amazingly, he’s also in possession of a map showing the location of the Arks- they’re being built in China of all places (see? Everything really IS built there!).
When huge fissures start opening all over LA, Jackson (who, of course, still loves his wife) takes his family (including Gordon, who, against the protocol of movies of this type, is actually a pretty stand-up guy) on a desperate race halfway around the world in a bid to get to the Arks before its too late. Along the way we’re treated to about 100,000 of the close brushes with certain death that I outlined in my opening paragraph. Again, you’d think this was enough to drive a film, but we also have something like two dozen other sub-plots and characters interwoven into 2012′s narrative. An aging jazz duo doing a gig on an ocean liner, a Chinese monk and his family, the President’s daughter, various international scientists, a Russian businessman/mobster and his family…the list goes on, and many of their relationships are bizarrely and impossibly connected, like something out of a Star Wars movie. For example, one of the scientists knows John Cusack’s character because he was one of the less than .0005% of the population that had actually read (and been inspired by!) his book. That same scientist’s father, who gave him the book, is one-half of the jazz band. The Chinese monk’s brother helped build the Arks. The Russian, who has a ticket to get on an Ark, is John Cusack’s boss. The scientist that helped Cusack research his novel is the same one that gave Charlie the Ark map. And so on. One might think such an overload might create a complete mess of a picture, but to 2012′s credit, the scenes containing all these characters are generally quite effective at conveying the global devastation to the viewer on a more personal and emotional level, mostly because the excellent actors involved all make the most of their limited screen time.
Oh, remember when I mentioned all the stock Roland Emmerich characters/plot devices earlier? I forgot to mention one: the Obnoxious, Morally-Upstanding Scientist, such as the one played by Jeff Goldblum in Independence Day. In 2012, it’s in the form of Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the chief scientist responsible for uncovering Doomsday. I loved how he constantly chided the President’s Chief of Staff, Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt), for making the hard decisions that NEEDED to be made in such a horrible crisis. Yet no matter how annoying Adrian gets, Carl calmly and coolly shoots down each and every one of his ridiculous objections each time he blubbers them (tell the public? But it’ll cause anarchy! The Ark workers should be allowed to come on board? Okay, give one your ticket and he can!). But the best part was when Adrian insisted that they let all the passengers from a disabled Ark on board theirs, not caring that they probably only had provisions to support just the passengers they had and not a few thousand extra. I could imagine fast-forwarding a few months and finding everyone on board eating each other because they had no food left, but alas, that didn’t happen. There’s a lot of dumb, tugging on your heartstrings bunk like this in 2012, and the outcome of any scene is no surprise- nothing happens that you can’t call at least 1/2 an hour in advance. Like I said, typical Roland Emmerich.
I suppose you’ve been waiting through this entire article for me to get to the amazing special effects that are basically the public’s sole draw to see 2012, and yes, they’re amazing. It’s hardly even worth mentioning how amazing they are…suffice it to say, every cent of 2012′s 200 million dollar budget was spent on convincingly destroying the planet with a level of detail never seen before. In fact, I don’t think anyone can ever make a worldwide disaster flick ever again, because 2012 can’t be topped, at least in terms of scale. Buildings topple, continents split in two, and lava and tidal waves run rampant all over everything. It’s glorious.
Overall, despite the somewhat negative tone of my review, 2012 was very entertaining in the end. It didn’t waste any time getting rolling and just kept going full-steam ahead until the end, which is probably why it didn’t really seem overly long despite being over 2 1/2 hours in length. In addition to the fine acting and beautiful computer-generated carnage, there’s also some good laughs along the way, including one especially clever gag involving starting a Bentley. So turn your brain off and you’ll be fine, but if you’re hoping for more than just beautiful, eyeball melting, non-stop CG destruction, you’re outta luck.Published November 19, 2009 · Under Movie Reviews