2012 (2009): A masterwork of idiotic disaster porn
Although it’s common practice to ultimately laugh off apocalyptic predictions like the Y2K bug or anything that tumbles from the mouths of televangelists, there tends to be a certain unease before such events come to pass. And only after the doomsday date comes and goes without the world ending do we all sigh and inevitably get on with the business of slowly destroying the planet on our own schedule.
The Mayan doomsday scenario of late 2012 was different, in that it was roundly mocked well before the actual day of reckoning arrived. Given that this “prediction” dated back thousands of years to a dead civilization which wasn’t the least bit interested in forecasting the end of the world, most of us found the whole 2012 nonsense rather easy to dismiss. Not so German director Roland Emmerich, however, who heeded the prophecy way back in 2009.
Okay, he heeded it by making (another) barely plausible disaster movie for 200 million dollars, but we all pay our respects in different ways, right?
And so, let’s travel back to those heady pre-apocalypse years, before we knew that massive solar flares and the resulting pesky neutrinos would be the undoing of all mankind.
Yes, neutrinos are supposedly what trigger Armageddon, leaving us in no doubt as to just how far-fetched this movie is going to get. “The neutrinos are causing a physical reaction!” announces Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to anyone who will listen. Dr. Helmsley is a geologist who will become a global authority on this rather ludicrous matter within a few short months. After initially making the discovery in India in 2009, he sets about trying to make high-ranking government officials understand that the end of the world is just a few years away, and the countdown to 2012 is on.
Against this backdrop of impending doom, we’re introduced to Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), a down-on-his-luck author, dad, and divorcee, who just happens to have written a sci-fi novel along very similar lines to the unlikely scenario that unfolds in this movie. Having not been well received as a writer, Jackson is currently employed as a limo driver for a Russian billionaire.
Let’s get the six degrees of stupidity that links these characters out of the way immediately: Jackson drives a limo for Yuri Karpov (Zlatko Buric), whose girlfriend/arm candy Tamara (Beatrice Rosen) once received breast enhancement surgery from Dr. Gordon Silberman (Thomas McCarthy), who’s the annoying fiancé of Kate Curtis (Amanda Peet), who’s the ex-wife of our aforementioned main character Jackson Curtis. Okay, that’s not quite six degrees, but this tedious explanation of unlikely connections neatly demonstrates the bloated cast and disposable performances that litter 2012. And that’s before we get to Jackson’s kids, the various politicians dealing with the coming calamity, and Woody Harrelson as a kooky mountain man living out of a trailer. Oh, the places you’ll be dragged, dear viewer.
From here, it’s a full-fledged CGI fest that goes all in on action over acting. Jackson the doting father goes to pick up his kids for a scheduled visitation, which involves a pleasant camping trip to Yellowstone. This is where those crazy neutrinos begin to manifest themselves, as Jackson finds the military standing guard over unusual cracks in the ground and boiling animal carcasses, among other things. Perhaps demonstrating why his wife divorced him in the first place, Jackson chooses to sneak into this restricted area and bring his kids along, rather than get them to safety.
But this does afford them the opportunity to meet Woody Harrelson’s Charlie Frost, and get to hear his crackpot conspiracy theories about Mayan extinction events, government cover-ups, and how Bill Murray is masquerading as a member of the undead (one of those theories may or may not have come from Zombieland; I get confused sometimes).
But as we flash over to D.C., we learn there really is a cover-up going on, and the cracks in this conspiracy are beginning to show in a very literal sense. In L.A., Kate grocery shops with Gordon, and the earth actually opens up beneath them.
Naturally, Jackson races back to the city to rescue his ex and her new lover, setting off the first of many spectacularly unbelievable escapes from the fiery jaws of apocalyptic death that pursue them at every turn. Each escape sequence is longer and progressively more ridiculous than the last, so let me summarize by saying that they first flee in a limo, then in a small plane (which Jackson boards at a sprint just before it takes off, meaning he can apparently run at speeds in excess of 60 MPH), then in an RV, then in a commercial plane.
The initial car escape is overblown and relies too much on special effects, but at least it sets the pulse racing somewhat. But then the movie gives us the exact same scene four or five more times, which isn’t just insulting to the viewer, it’s plain lazy on Emmerich’s part, as he tries to paper over the cracks in this nonsensical plot with more and more layers of CGI.
While the first of these crazy escapes is occurring, Dr. Helmsley is working closely with the President (Danny Glover), his chief of staff (Oliver Platt), and even the president’s daughter (Thandie Newton), who’s an art expert and thus well-positioned to help a geologist handle the end of the world. Glover is underutilized and dies early on when monster tidal waves deposit an aircraft carrier directly on top of the White House. And so departs one of the few actors in 2012 I could conceivably have rooted for.
Meanwhile, many of those cast members I could quite happily do without proceed on their adventure around the world in 80 more excruciating minutes. As they travel, Jackson and friends learn about how the world governments had prior knowledge of these events (thanks again, neutrinos!) and the plan they came up with to survive the destruction of every land mass on the planet: they’ve been hard at work building giant arks at secret locations high in the Himalayas. Persons of value were selected to be saved, along with anyone who happened to have a billion Euros lying around to fund the post-apocalyptic voyage.
This is of course where Yuri, his lady friend, and two fat kids who you barely need to consider come back into the mix. This leads to the final great escape, as our heroes (term used in the loosest possible sense) fly, crash, and hike their way to the launch site of the arks, where they witness elephants and giraffes airlifted through the freezing mountain ranges in heavy-handed Biblical analogy.
Various emergencies see Jackson’s crew picked off one by one, but it’s only the peripheral characters and the annoying Gordon, so no one really cares, including Kate, who now has a clear path to reunite her family. The one moment of vaguest redemption comes as various survivors jostle for position on the now-sealed arks, and Dr. Helmsley makes an impassioned plea for the goodness of humanity to prevail by allowing everyone to board. For tickets that once went for a billion Euros, it’s quite a quick drop in price, as the doors are opened and the plebs are taken in. How this many people made it through worldwide devastation and onto a rather impenetrable mountain range is never explained, but it’s unlikely to be any less plausible than how Jackson and Co. made it, so we’ll let it slide.
There’s a late complication where it turns out the ark’s engine won’t start unless its doors are completely closed (a massive design flaw you’d think would have been caught early on in the design phase), and the very survival of the human race depends on Jackson’s ability to yank out a rubber hose wedged between two gears.
Thankfully, he succeeds, and as the arks navigate flood waters that top the planet’s highest peaks, the remaining characters settle in with one another. Jackson picks up with Kate and his kids, while Helmsley figures the late President’s daughter is as good as anyone to get together with in this brave new world. Everyone is happy, most of the characters we disliked have died, and the only remaining question is why it took 2.5 hours to get to this point.
2012 might be Emmerich’s masterwork; it’s his biggest, most ludicrous homage yet to cheesy disaster movies of the 1970s, and it has the all the hallmarks of his previous efforts: The White House being obliterated? Check. People inexplicably outrunning natural disasters? Check. A scene where we’re expected to be worried about the welfare of a dog while thousands of people are dying horrible deaths? Check.
At the onset, it almost feels like Emmerich is parodying his own movies. The initial scenes play up the comedic aspects, and there’s literally no effort made by Cusack to make us believe he’s reacting to anything other than fans blowing in his face on a green screen set, which surely has to be a goof. But then we move into the film’s second half, filled with brave sacrifices and intense, emotional speechifying, and we realize the filmmakers were actually being serious all along.
The only redeeming points of the film are the early action sequences (before you realize there are far too many more to come) and the presence of veterans like Cusack, Harrelson, and Glover, all of whom fittingly manage miraculous metaphorical escapes from 2012 with their integrity intact. That’s not to say that these are memorable performances, as Emmerich’s obsession with CGI obliterates whatever personality the more talented actors might have hoped to bring to their respective roles.
Even as mindless entertainment, 2012 is too long and excessively ridiculous to be enjoyed on any level. Treat it as you would a man with a sandwich board stating “The End is Nigh!” Chuckle at the concept, but if anyone suggests you spend two and a half hours with the guy, run away as quickly as possible.