You know how movies with ticking bombs almost always have the climactic scene where the good guys work feverishly to disarm the explosives before they detonate? They’re sweating and frantic, the music is pumping, the countdown clock is only a second or two away from zero, and… they deactivate the bomb right before it would have exploded. Timer stops at 00:00:01. Everybody breathes a sigh of relief. The end.
Roland Emmerich’s 2012 is twenty-seven of those scenes stretched across two and a half hours.
It’s 2009 (that’s right, it’s now!), and a young Indian scientist notifies his American counterpart that evil neutrinos from the Sun are heating up the Earth’s core at an alarming rate. Dr. Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) rushes back to Washington and warns his superiors that the world is heading towards an unavoidable, Emmerichian event that will “cause life as we know it to cease to exist.” As the Earth gets hotter, the crust will begin to liquefy and eventually the landmasses will start shifting around the globe like a game of seven-continent Monty. The president’s head science geek, Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt), takes Helmsley under his wing and… we jump ahead to 2012 where Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) is running late for work. He’ll spend the next two hours running late for everything, and all the while death will be nipping at his heels.
And I don’t use the phrase “nipping at his heels” flippantly either… Curtis moves from one set-piece to the next just barely escaping death each time. If you’ve watched the trailer then you’ve already seen some of his close calls. He outruns cracks in the Earth with his limo, he outruns fireballs with his Winnebago, he outruns an enormous fire-filled explosion on foot, he outruns deadly smoke clouds, collapsing buildings, and falling subway trains (?) with a plane… always by inches, always by seconds. Each. And. Every. Time. And he’s not alone either. All of the characters marked as survivors (always easily identifiable in an Emmerich disaster film) continuously escape death’s computer animated talons with barely a moment to spare. It’s exciting the first dozen times or so, but eventually the suspense grows tedious and the scenes become as pedestrian as a shot of someone getting up to change the TV channel.
Almost as common and egregious as the nick-of-time escapes are the sheer number of coincidences required to bring the story together. Curtis wrote a science fiction book a long time ago that only a few hundred people have ever read (we know this because it gets repeated four times), so now he drives limousines for a living. One of his biggest fans is Dr. Helmsley, something we discover when the two meet by chance in Yellowstone National Park while Curtis is camping with his kids and Helmsley is there monitoring the world’s largest inactive volcano for activity! The doctor’s entourage includes armed soldiers which piques Curtis’ curiosity, but the government isn’t very forthcoming with more information. Luckily, Yellowstone also happens to be home to radio host/conspiracy theorist Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson) who meets Curtis and happily fills in all of the blanks! He even offers a map to humanity’s only chance for survival, a map that leads to the same mysterious destination Helmsley is bound for. But how will Curtis get there? Hmm, maybe it has something to do with his most recent limo client, a wealthy Russian with plans to be among the .01% of humanity who survive this cataclysm. What are the odds…?
Emmerich is perhaps best-known for his subtle handling of character emotions and relationships. That was a pretty bold lie wasn’t it? You probably read it with a much straighter face than I wrote it too. But seriously, these characters wear their plastic emotions on their sleeves and pant legs to an extraordinary degree. They make heartfelt speeches at the drop of a building about the value and definition of humanity, and every single one of them makes a tearful phone call to a doomed love one (unless they themselves are the doomed one). Each time it’s played for maximum emotional effect and each time it falls flat. And for some reason it’s also only the dads who seem to care enough to make this last minute call. There’s a father who drifted apart from his son, a father who stopped speaking to his son because he married a (very hot) Japanese woman, a father who raised his daughter single-handedly after his wife passed away… I don’t recall a single mother calling her child to say goodbye. That may or may not say something about German women, I don’t know.
But let’s be honest, this is a Roland Emmerich film so does any of this really matter (or surprise anyone)? You don’t come to his films for the character development and nuance, you come for destruction on an epic scale. And 2012 does not disappoint on that front. Emmerich destroys more buildings, vehicles, and landmarks here than he has in all of his previous films, and he does it beautifully. Emmerich lets his camera (and our eyes) linger on the utter decimation for extended periods of time too. He doesn’t use close crops or Michael Bay-style editing to appease the ADD crowd and instead trusts in the work of his digital artists. One shot flies over a neighborhood as streets open up and swallow houses, cars, and people alike, and it’s a definite ‘wow’ scene. And there are actually several more like it, all equally impressive. The downside is that you often have too much to look at. I know, it’s a weak complaint, but some of the wide shots actually give you too much to take in making the overall effect feel muted.
Emmerich also kills more people onscreen in 2012 than probably every other film released this year combined. Unnamed humans are crushed, burned, drowned, trampled, blown up, run over, washed away, swallowed up by the Earth… the scene where the plane narrowly avoids two collapsing buildings by flying between them has upset some people for it’s supposed 9/11 connotations, and that was just from the trailer. The film pushes the visual connection even further as Emmerich zooms closer to one of the towers and shows people clinging for their life and falling to their deaths. There’s an argument to be made about films like these deserving an R-rating simply due to the sheer amount of death and carnage depicted onscreen, or maybe that should just be reserved for movies that use dirty words.
There are no shortage of recognizable faces amongst the death, destruction, and melodrama. Cusack is obviously the biggest name, and I can’t help but picture him standing in his agent’s office laughing at the script for 2012 he’s holding in one hand while keeping a curious eye on his potential paycheck in the other. Aside from the others already mentioned, Cusack is joined in his quest to save humanity by George Segal (Carbon Copy) as a seafaring jazz singer, Thandie Newton (Mission: Impossible II) as the U.S. President’s daughter, Stephen McHattie (Pontypool) as a futuristic ship’s captain, Danny Glover (Gone Fishin’) as Thandie Newton’s father, Amanda Peet (“Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”) as Curtis’ ex-wife, and Beverly Elliot (Walking Tall) as Cruise Ship Lady #3.
2012 is exactly what you think it is, and either you enjoy Emmerich’s particular brand of mass slaughter or you don’t. The dialogue is as lactose-filled as a sedan-sized cheese wheel, the science is wonky, the logic is absent, the characters are one dimensional, their fates are predictable, the film is probably thirty minutes too long… and it still manages to look pretty damn amazing from beginning to end. The CGI work here is often stunning, occasionally breathtaking, and constantly offering impressive visuals to leave you slack-jawed. High praise? Not really, but for a brainless, effects-driven blockbuster film you could definitely do somewhat worse than 2012.
The Upside: As you’d expect from Emmerich… the effects and devastation are awe-inspiring, the laughs are frequent and often unintentional, and the dog lives
The Downside: As you’d also expect from Emmerich… the dialogue is aurally abusive, the emotional manipulation is blatant and flagrant, the adherence to real-world physics is non-existent, the screenplay consists of coincidence followed by CGI event followed by coincidence followed by CGI event and so on, and the dog lives
On the Side: Of all the unanswered questions you’re left with at the end of 2012, none are more mysterious than the reasoning behind Cusack’s character name. Jackson Curtis? You know what that spells backwards? 50 Cent. Craaaazy!
Watch the 2012 trailer below: