Review: 2012

2012 one sheetCan you hear that sound? It’s a crack slowly but unceasingly running through the Earth, a crack that will tear buildings apart, leave gaping crevasses where previously there were roads, and rip children out of their parent’s hands, to plummet to their deaths as the world collapses.  But all is not lost, a few hundred thousand people have a secret plan to escape the worldwide destruction and start humanity anew, reseeding the Earth post-apocalypse.

Or maybe it’s just the sound of people gnashing their teeth in frustration as they try to follow the cliché-ridden storyline that loosely holds together the mayhem and destruction that is at the heart of Roland Emmerich’s new end-of-the-world film 2012.
To be fair, I was quite impressed by the first hour of the film. It unfolded very well, starting with Indian scientist Dr. Satnam Tsurutani (Jimi Mistry) explaining to US government scientist Dr. Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) anomalous neutrino count measurements due to solar flares.  “Neutrinos,” he explains, “appear to have mutated into a new kind of particle, and it’s heating up the Earth’s core.”
Turns out those savvy Mayans, hundreds of years ago, foresaw the alignment of our solar system on December 21st, 2012, and predicted that day would be the end of the world as we know it. More recent experts, notably a chap from back in the 1950s called Professor Hapgood, theorize about Earth Crust Displacement, the idea that a sufficiently cataclysmic event (like heating up the Earth’s core) will cause the tectonic plates to shift quite significantly which ends up as the heart of this exciting special effects rollercoaster.
If you’re going to strap in for the ride, though, make sure you go to the restroom first — it’s incredibly long with a theatrical release of 158 minutes (just shy of 2 1/2 hours) — and make sure you check your credibility at the door. The dialog, the quiet interstitials, uh, sorry, scenes between the main characters are often so painfully banal and tedious that I almost wanted to see the “all destruction!” version where they just edited out those scenes.


This is one of those movies that are tough to review: on the one hand, as a film, 2012 is not very good. The acting is mediocre, the storyline rarely makes much sense, and the character development scenes are painful to watch. As a vehicle for special effects, though, it’s pretty awesome and worth the price of the ticket to see the astonishing scenes of the Earth being torn asunder on the big screen, with big, loud sound effects.

Having watched and generally enjoyed Emmerich’s previous cliché-ridden apocalyptic movies, notably Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, it does seem like he’s maturing a bit as a filmmaker. Things unfold in slightly more complex ways, including a scene at the beginning of the film showing Tibetans being forcibly relocated for what’s ostensibly a dam construction project but turns out to be, well, suffice to say later in the film you realize there’s a very good reason why we see the hapless natives being forced onto military trucks early on. (it’s also how pivotal character Tenzin (Chin Han) is introduced)
The basic story is easily explained in a dozen words or so, and it’s been a cinematic staple for decades: if you knew the world was ending, what would you do and how would you try to survive?  As in the classic science fiction film When Worlds Collide, do you build spaceships and fly off the planet, hoping to find somewhere habitable, or do you perhaps follow the mythic lead of Noah and build a ship that can survive the flood?
Either way, you now have a very thorny problem: who gets to be on board?  Is it the rich people, those with the highest intellect / most physical prowess? Do you use some sort of DNA analysis to pick a perfect gene pool?  Or is it ultimately political after all, because we’re all just human, with foibles, biases and fears?
That’s one of the subtexts in 2012, though it’s played out in as overt and cliché a way as possible, rather disappointingly so. Reminded me of how I really hoped that The Box would explore the moral question of what a human life is worth, but couldn’t pull out of the Hollywoodification of the story. Maybe that’s just modern filmmaking?  Well, at least big studio productions.

2012 publicity still

Jackson (John Cusack) outrunning a volcanic eruption, with ex-wife Kate (Amanda Peet) arm outstretched

Back to the film itself, though. Curtis (Cusack) is an unsuccessful book author. He’s written Farewell Atlantis, a novel about how people act during an apocalyptic situation. It’s sold less than 500 copies, but through an astonishing coincidence one of those copies was bought by wild-eyed environmental crackpot Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson, in a role surprisingly similar to his role in the witty Zombieland), and another copy bought by Presidential science advisor Helmsley (Ejiofor). Coincidence or lazy plot device?
Curtis is also a Hollywood cliché in another sense: he’s the divorced dad who is so in his own head that he’s completely unplugged and rarely sees his children. His ex, of course, has a new relationship with a successful doctor — plastic surgeon Gordon Silberman (Tom McCarthy) — that seems far more healthy and the kids are alienated from Dad and prefer the new step-Dad. Can we maybe put this to rest yet?  As a single dad, I find it offensive that no-one in Hollywood seems to believe men can be both divorced and still involved with our children. Bah, humbug.
But we’re not done with dull, predictable story elements and plot twists by a long shot. As I said in the beginning, to enjoy 2012 is to put any requirements of a coherent, logical storyline and believable characters on the shelf. You just aren’t going to find it anywhere in this film.
The first 30-40 minutes are setup and bounce around the globe, showing us critical moments in the evolution of the impending apocalypse, starting in 2009, then 2010 and 2011, until we reach late 2012 and things start to hit the proverbial fan. It’s the best part of the story, and I appreciated that we didn’t see any destruction for such a long time.
For reasons that are never explained, Curtis takes his children camping to Yellowstone, by car (a boring 1000+ mile drive), just to find that a portion of the public park is fenced off, with scary no-trespassing, government property signs. They hop the fence and instead of finding a pristine mountain lake that Curtis remembers, instead find a dried, muddy lakebed that’s clearly a part of the local seismic activity. But why?  What could have happened to dry the lake up?
Unbeknownst to them, Frost (Harrelson) is hiding in the trees and spying on them, while munching on a pickle (some sort of metaphor, or a subtle product placement by Vlasic?). Soldiers rush over the hill and bring Curtis and his children back to the otherwise hidden military base. When they’re released, they bump into Frost and learn about the impending end of the world, that “This planet has an expiration date!”
Setup complete, the film starts to unspool in earnest, with buildings collapsing, massive canyons appearing where previous there was nothing, massive clouds of dust traveling the world, famous landmarks crashing to the ground, etc etc., ad nauseum. It’s exactly what I expected, what we critics are now calling disasterporn. And ya know what? It’s pretty darn cool.

2012 publicity still 2

Is this the next upgrade to Microsoft Flight Simulator? Maybe.

Turns out that Curtis has a day job as a driver to eccentric Russian billionaire Yuri Karpov (Zlatko Buric), who has two unpleasant, spoiled sons Alec and Oleg (twin actors Alexandre and Philippe Haussmann) and a much younger girlfriend Tamara (Beatrice Rosen). Yuri, it turns out, has bought a ticket on the apocalyptic ship. Coincidence?  Wait, it also turns out that Tamara had her breasts enlarged by… ready for it? … Dr. Silberman. A neat package indeed.
Suffice to say, 2012 is definitely part of Roland Emmerich’s oeuvre: great special effects, a huge, sweeping story plagued by the most tedious and banal of writing and characters that are less than one dimensional. I think if you check on Wikipedia for “Hollywood Cliché” that Emmerich is on the short list. 
The less said about the last thirty minutes, the better. I’ll just say that by then it’s imperative that you stop thinking and just be in the moment. Otherwise you’ll be yelling at the screen and throwing popcorn at fellow theatergoers who think it’s a splendid way to end things!
There’s also a subtext that I haven’t seen mentioned in other reviews but I think is worth highlighting: at some level, this film is all about American imperialism. The USA coordinates the passenger list on the ships and when they determine where they’re going to land and reestablish civilization post-apocalypse, there’s not a single person who wonders about the locals and how they’re going to feel about the rich white guy invasion. I suppose it’s satisfying in the same way that it’s Americans who successfully defend the Earth in Independence Day, but it’s far less interesting than if things unfolded differently.
If you want to see some stunning visual effects and really get a sense of the terror of our planet being ripped asunder (which, btw, none of the characters in the film ever seem to experience), then I encourage you to see 2012 in the theater. It’s the kind of epic that’s really a perfect summer movie. Just a few months late.

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