3 out of 5 stars
Director: Roland Emmerich
Stars: John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Oliver Platt, Danny Glover, Woody Harrelson
Are you a divorced, artistically unfulfilled family man who feels disconnected from his children? Do you still pine for your ex-wife even though she has now attracted a stable, successful plastic surgeon? Want to find a way to show them that you still really care? A global apocalypse is coming, and helping them survive it is the perfect way to prove your love! Star John Cusack has said that Roland Emmerich’s latest end-of-the-world flick works as “epic melodrama,” and he’s right. 2012 is almost as much family therapy as chaotic thrill ride, echoing Steven Spielberg’s War Of The Worlds remake in which family unity gets reaffirmed in the face of death. Thankfully the children here are not nearly as annoying as Dakota Fanning was in that blockbuster.
We’ve seen Emmerich decimate New York City in Godzilla and ravage the Earth in Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, so this is pretty familiar territory for him. The premise is simple. Struggling author/limo driver Jackson Curtis (Cusack) takes his kids camping in Yellowstone National Park, where government agents kick them out of a restricted area in which they are conducting secret tests, and where he also encounters conspiracy theorist Charlie Frost (Harrelson), an underground DJ who clues him in to the impending global devastation. As shown at the start of the movie, the White House and dozens of governments worldwide know that a massive solar flare will cause major physical upheaval to the Earth as its core will heat up and violently shift the tectonic plates. There is a plan put in place to evacuate a select body of people, but to where is initially not made clear.
The broader storyline depicts President Thomas Wilson (Glover), brilliant geologist/scientific advisor Dr. Adrian Helmsley (Ejiofor) and White House Chief of Staff Carl Anheuser (Platt) struggling with how to save their chosen few and whether they should warn the public. The compassionate liberal Helmsley and conservative pragmatist Anheuser frequently clash along ideological and ethical lines to emphasize the moral questions the film raises about who gets to live and die in the wake of a forewarned global disaster. Of course, once the world starts crumbling far sooner than anticipated, the government insiders are forced to make harsh choices, while Curtis and his family flee for their lives thanks to the heads up from Frost. It helps that Curtis’ ex-wife’s new beau is an amateur pilot. How fortunate, even though in real life they’d never make it out of L.A. alive.
While screenwriters Emmerich and Harald Kloser (10,000 BC, AVP: Alien Vs. Predator) based this dramatic story on the idea that the end of the Mayan Long Count calendar signals a major transition around December 21, 2012 — in actuality, it was not a prophecy nor the dire warning of cataclysm that is being used to sell this movie to the masses — they also inject scientific theories as to what might happen if the earth’s core indeed warmed up. Even from a non-scientist’s point-of-view, it’s obvious that what transpires in this film probably would not happen as quickly or graphically as it is depicted. But that’s okay — we know it’s fantasy and makes for one hell of a thrill ride.
It’s hard to cram in over-the-top digital effects, character development and meaningful exchanges into such cinematic tumultousness, but Emmerich and Klaser get by in spite of the clichés and familiar plot devices they court. The funny thing is that some of the dialogue one hears in 2012 (or any of these mega-expensive disaster flicks) is really no different than what you’d get in a B-movie at a fraction of the cost. Well-paid writers should seriously be able to come up with better exclamations than “My God!” Admittedly there is an enjoyable gallows humor at work here — Anheuser advises Dr. Helmsley to make moves on the President’s daughter fast, considering the end of the world is nigh — and Cusack proves that he can carry a big budget action flick as easily as he carries his on-screen daughter on his shoulders. (2012 isn’t quite fodder for Mystery Science Theater 3000, although it would interesting to hear what Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo think about it, should they emerge from retirement again.)
As far as mindless action movies go, 2012 is fun because of its impressive special effects, nail-biting escape sequences and surprise ending. Like the aforementioned War Of The Worlds remake, Emmerich’s latest epic contrasts physical devastation with emotional reconciliation. According to him and Spielberg, it seems that the best way to make peace with your squabbling family or repair fractured friendships is to bond over some apocalyptic terror. Evidently our modern world now generates too much overstimulation and too many distractions for us to do this normally, so we have to bump things up a notch. And ultimately, what does that say about us?