HERE BE SPOILERS! YE HAVE BEEN WARNED!
Last year Roland Emmerich took a break from making movies about demolishing civilisation so he could make a movie about the birth of civilisation. It seems Emmerich and co-writer Harald Kloser realised just how unbelievably boring it is to watch ancient Caucasian Rasta wannabes trek dozens of miles from icy tundra to scorching desert, and has returned to super-demolish civilisation as a weirdly nihilistic apology for the stultifying 10,000 BC. 2012 is possibly the last word in disaster movies, offering cataclysmic disaster porn on a scale even Emmerich has never been able to achieve before, and for that perverse dedication to kicking Earth in the ass as often as possible it’s tempting to respect the man. Just like Irwin Allen and Cecil B. DeMille before him, Emmerich thinks he knows what audiences want, and he’ll bend over backwards to give it to you.
This time the threat to Earth is not aliens or global warming but the sun, which magically becomes supercharged due to galactic alignment and begins firing mutated super-neutrinos at our planet, causing the core to heat up, thus melting the Earth’s crust and causing the tectonic plates that make up the surface to shift around like cards being shuffled on a table by a six year old. You have no idea how much fun it is to write that ridiculous unscientific sentence. Even better, a news report early in the movie refers to this as a Solar Climax, which means we’re going to be killed off by Mutated Neutrino Bukkake. For this moment, and for keeping the Mayan Calendar/New Age Nonsense to a pleasing minimum, 2012 will be kept off this year’s Shades of Caruso Worst Films List, despite the numerous flaws and annoyances that pop up through the rest of the film.
This imminent disaster is partially discovered by geologist Adrian Helmsley, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who — after exclaiming “My God!” for the first of many times — convinces grubby politician Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt) to begin plans to save humanity. These involve building Arks to house humans, animals (mostly giraffes, for some reason), and works of art, but as America doesn’t seem up to the job, they outsource the work to China. This is not a joke. It actually happens. To make matters worse, the Arks are actually located in Tibet, but Tibet is not mentioned once in the movie, even though there are a bunch of Tibetan characters included. Those shots in the trailers and posters of a Tibetan monk? He’s Chinese, okay? For god’s sake, don’t tell Richard Gere.
As Emmerich knows that his disaster epics require a cast of characters comprising normal folks alongside the frowning politicians and scientists, we are also introduced to Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), a failed SF writer and divorcee forced to drive a limo for a living. Through a series of insanely improbable coincidences that beggar belief, he finds out about the imminent destruction of the Earth after encounters with both Helmsley (who is his biggest fan) and Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson), a high-larious pickle-eating conspiracy theorist broadcasting from Yellowstone.
Curtis goes from sceptic to believer just in time to evacuate his wife Kate (Amanda Peet, given nothing to do except fret about her kids), children Lilly and Noah (geddit!?!?), and wife’s new boyfriend Gordon, who all but wears an expiry date on his forehead. In a bravura effects sequence our protagonists drive through LA as an earthquake sends the entire city into the ocean, and Emmerich at first treats it like a fun park ride. As this scene is showing the deaths of millions of people this seems rather distasteful, but by the end of it we get to see faceless virtual people falling out of crumbling buildings, and tears are momentarily shed. This surface level grief for the billions soon to die features prominently through much of the film, though this promotional clip has excised almost every hint of the tragedy unfolding.
After this lucky escape via plane, complete with a race down a collapsing runway and some nifty flying past obstacles, our heroes go back to Yellowstone, which promptly explodes with what appears to be nuclear force, requiring another lucky escape via plane, complete with almost identical race down a collapsing runway and some nifty flying past obstacles. From there they progress to Las Vegas to hook up with a caricature from Russia (crooked billionaire Yuri Karpov, played with zero subtlety and maximum sterotyping by Zlatko Buric) and his two children, a bimbo trophy wife and a bodyguard/pilot. It’s not long before our expanded group of heroes get another lucky escape via plane, complete with yet another race down a collapsing runway and some nifty flying past obstacles. By this time we’re about an hour and thirty into the movie, and I figured the worst case scenario was another half an hour with two or three more races down collapsing runways. Well, I have good and bad news. After Las Vegas crumbles into an enormous chasm, there is only one more plane-based drama scene involving a glacier. The bad news is that the film is 160 minutes long, so there’s another 70 odd minutes of people looking at screens with ominous graphics and then exclaiming “My God!”
While all this is happening, we also get to meet the President (a shaky Danny Glover) and his daughter Laura (yet another weak performance from Thandie Newton), Helmsley’s dad Harry (Blu Mankuma) and his jazz partner Tony (a sadly underused George Segal), the occasional bunch of nameless bystanders who will act as catastrophe-fodder, and a group of Tibetans Chinese who just seem to be hanging around to be utilised in the final (fifth) act. This portion of the movie prominently features the other big theme of the movie: characters giving other characters permission to leave them to die so we can keep the plot moving without getting too worried about the majority of the human race dying in terror and agony.
Noble President Danny Glover decides to stay behind for no apparent reason, as does the Italian president. Unusually for a mainstream movie, both men make a point of praying for salvation, and then die. At least one other character makes a sign of the cross and then dies two seconds later. This approach to the effect of belief in the face of disaster is far more entertaining than the rampant symbolism and mealy-mouthed anti-reason bullshit of Alex Proyas’ Knowing which, as one AV Club commenter said, showed “God” destroying the world just so he could convert one atheist into a believer. 2012 seems to have none of that, with man’s will and science prevailing in the face of cosmically delivered oblivion, which is a message Proyas’ sappy movie was not even slightly interested in conveying. In 2012 the only other characters who even broach the subject of faith are the Tibetans Chinese, but they survive. Hours after seeing the movie I’m still trying to parse what this means, other than that the movie likes to point out that these guys live on a mountain, are obviously not as advanced as the rest of us, are super-honourable and spiritual, and killing them would be very mean.
In the film’s final hour we see the epic scale of humanity’s plans for survival, with huge ships poking out of the side of a mountain, ready to cut through the rising oceans after the crust of the Earth breaks apart and sinks. For a movie with such an ambivalent relationship with religion, it lays on the Ark stuff pretty thick, though Emmerich is mostly concerned with dramatising poorly written debates about the morality of leaving people behind to die. Ponderous and cyclical debates litter the last two acts of the movie, even after the symbolic parting-permission granted by President Danny Glover. Helmsley is one of the chosen few, and his disgust at the sight of rich men and women, aristocrats, royalty, and the slimy upper classes who have bought their way onto the Arks boils over. He even gets to throw a goblet across the room as if he was Jesus the Geologist. I’m still getting over the fact that the guys who organised this project to save humanity thought goblets were the preferred drinking vessels of the last vestiges of humanity.
Already sickened by Anheuser’s ruthless extermination of anyone who threatened to blow the whistle on the Mutated Neutrino Bukkake, things get worse when — for the third or fourth time in the movie — Helmsley’s calculations are proved to be wrong and the submergence of Tibet China is closer than he thinks. With thousands of potential survivors about to be stranded due to time constraints, Helmsley rebels and makes a plea for the heads of state to open their gates and let the people on, using the writings of Jackson Curtis to teach our leaders to show their humanity by saving others. To the horror of super-meanie Platt, the leaders do this, and everyone else — including the nasty Russian businessman — gets to have a hero moment.
The amount of fake drama flying around by this point is quite staggering, what with the act of getting the survivors onboard taking a couple of minutes (making the previous excuses for their abandonment inexplicable), but there is more to come. Our original band of heroes — who have flown from Las Vegas to the mountain base with the help of a fortuitous tectonic shift — have made their way to the same ark containing our other main characters (a 33% chance of getting it right, I guess), and in their haste to sneak on board cause a hydraulic meltdown that kills Gordon (long overdue) and stops the big door at the back of the boat from closing. With a tidal wave minutes away, can John Cusack fix the hydraulics and save the day? After 15 very very hectic minutes featuring a runaway Airforce One, Mount Everest, and a hint of comedy giraffe poo, he does, miraculously surviving drowning and a grievous head wound thanks to what seems like the intervention of a squeamish focus group. Does this mean he will appear in the proposed TV series sequel with the survivors pitching up in Africa? Our survey says no.
It might sound like I hated the movie, but as with almost all of Emmerich’s movies, it has enough bombastic energy and commitment to spectacle to make the first viewing seem like an absolute blast. There is so much madness here, so much effort expended to keep topping itself with senses-battering set-pieces that the silliness is easily ignored. With your forebrain melted by the visual and aural onslaught, it’s easy to give up your critical faculties, and more than once I found myself anxiously wringing my hands as one character or another found themselves in grave danger. It’s only once the movie is over that you realise the exhausting fifteen minute suspense sequence at the end revolves around closing a door. Kudos to Emmerich for generating so much tension out of such a small thing, but still, they’re just closing a door. Two people die doing it. It’s a bit of overkill.
However, if you’re trying to make the ultimate disaster movie — as I suspect Emmerich is trying to do — overkill is the name of the game. Bad news for actors who spend 65% of their screentime on some gimballed set screaming at exploding mountains off camera, but good news for anyone who takes pleasure from seeing extravagantly rendered visions of enormous peril. Believe me, this movie features some of the most impressively detailed and imaginative effects sequences of all time. It’s much easier to be swept away by Emmerich’s fantasies of global doom when they are so beautiful. Ghastly and kind of pornographic, yes, but overwhelming to look at. The LA earthquake scene above might be the most impressive sequence in the film (a shame that it comes so early), but the Yellowstone eruption comes close to topping it. Some of the visuals are truly the stuff of nightmares, and I doff my cap to Digital Domain, Sony Pictures Imageworks, Double Negative, Scanline, and Uncharted Territory for knocking it out of the park. If you’re going to see this, it’s best you see it on the biggest screen possible, just to drink in the complexity of those FX blowouts.
His debt to the rest of the disaster movie genre is obvious. Throughout 2012 we’re reminded of Dante’s Peak, Volcano, Earthquake, Meteor, When Worlds Collide, When Time Ran Out and The Poseidon Adventure. All we needed were a burning building and a swarm of killer bees drunk on mutated neutrinos and we’d have the full set. The similarities to his own movies are numerous too, from the cutesy old people (Segal and Mankuma in this, Judd Hirsch in Independence Day), to the nefarious politicians or soldiers (Platt in this, James Rebhorn in Independence Day, Kevin Dunn in Godzilla, and Kenneth Welsh in The Day After Tomorrow), to the redneck eccentrics driving around in camper vans (Harrelson in this, Randy Quaid in Independence Day), to the dog that almost gets killed but is saved at the last minute in a display of simply astounding manipulative excess. The dog rescue in 2012 will very probably dwarf your memory of the dog rescue in Independence Day, it’s so contrived.
But then contrivance is the lifeblood of Emmerich’s films, with tight plotting replaced by clunkily convenient narrative steps needed to get characters from one hazardous and spectacular situation to another. Part of the fun to be had with 2012 is guessing how our heroes will get from America to the Ark base on the other side of the world, and then seeing Emmerich provide the easiest and silliest answers possible. Jackson just happens to know a Russian billionaire getting on an Ark, and just happens to meet a conspiracy theorist who knew some scientists who have been killed by the government, and Jackson just happened to know one of those scientists, and he just happens to meet Helmsley, who just happens to love his terrible SF novel, and Jackson just happens to have lost his wife to a plastic surgeon who can fly and who once operated on the trophy wife of the Russian billionaire who is getting on the Ark… No wonder Emmerich is not too concerned with the deaths of billions. He seems to think there’s only about twenty people on the planet.
That said, 2012 spends far more time pondering the unpleasant logistics of selecting survivors than I thought it would, considering how Emmerich usually skates over difficult emotions as quickly as he can. There’s an argument that Emmerich and Kloser were only adding this plot thread in because they love having self-serving bureaucrats as villains in their movies, and seeing a creep like Anheuser beaten by the non-more-inspirational Helmsley will make audiences cheer. Take that, pencil-pusher who doesn’t understand what it is to be human! Maybe I could swallow this because even when addressing the themes of extinction, this is a lighter movie than another movie about the end of the world: Mimi Leder’s Doomsday fantasy Deep Impact. That had similar subject matter, but used the conventions of the disaster movie genre to explore the emotional cost of surviving an impending cataclysm, with much less voyeuristic sadism on display.
That movie was written by death-obsessed Buddhist Bruce Joel Rubin (whom I have talked about before), and with its seemingly endless parade of tearful farewells and last minute reconciliations is one of cinema’s great downers. Emmerich is not about to let that happen, so while we get hints of reflection on the fate of billions, once the White House has been destroyed and the older fathers (Glover, Mankuma and Segal) have been killed, he pretty much acts as if there are only the survivors left to think about, and all further talk of saving humanity refers only to the Ark passengers. Easier to hit an upbeat tone at the end as “everyone” got saved. Does it make me a bad person that I preferred this shameless emotional whitewash to Deep Impact‘s po-faced and pessimistic treatise on extinction and mortality?
Without that deeply reflective and enquiring approach — to his credit Emmerich asks the questions, but he doesn’t seem to want to hear the answers — we’re left with BOOM-gasm setpieces, shameless emotional exploitation and a cavalcade of trite dialogue. There’s no line too obvious or cliched for Emmerich, but even though it is perfectly right to rail against the lack of imagination shown by him and his collaborator Kloser, you have to give him props for yet again gathering a cast of entertaining character actors to give those weak words some life, or even selling clangingly obvious Emmerich conventions such as having a character say “There’s nothing to worry about,” and then having a building fall on them or their mode of transport malfunction horribly (this happens numerous times). Though the female characters have almost nothing to do, at least we get to see Cusack, Platt (operating at approximately 68% Platt-ocity), Harrelson (channeling Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now), and Glover doing their best to breathe life into this word-stodge. It even has a late appearance by Stephen McHattie as the captain of one of the Arks, which means the movie scores 10 bonus McHattie points.
Best of all is Chiwetel Ejiofor, who steals the movie in the first couple of scenes and then runs away at warp speed, leaving everyone else in the dust. He’s always been an impressive figure on screen, but here he makes you believe in very nearly everything that is going on. Only the final speech about humanity and honour and compassion and big fucking BLAH defeats him, but then it would defeat anyone. It’s a monolith of banal sentiment, but Ejiofor still gives it all he has. Though Cusack is ostensibly the lead in the film, it’s Ejiofor’s conviction and commitment to the project that will have the biggest impact on audiences. Maybe this will be the movie to make people sit up and notice his immense talent. If so, then all of this expensive and ghoulish guilty-pleasure death-pr0n will not have been made in vain.