(by Dustin Putman
In his career, writer-director Roland Emmerich has made movies about alien invasion (1994's "Independence Day"), a giant lizard run amok in Manhattan (1998's "Godzilla"), and climate catastrophes (2004's "The Day After Tomorrow"). He's never met a city he didn't want to cinematically destroy, but he also has never made a film that was anything above mediocre. That is, until now. Positioned as the disaster pic to end all disaster pics, "2012" doesn't just revolve around one singular cataclysm, but about all of them combined. This is no less than the end of the world Emmerich is dealing with, and he tosses into the pot so much delirious spectacle that, yes, there are even kitchen sinks in sight. Article continues below
Nit-picking audience members who do not know how to suspend disbelief and enjoy a film like "2012" needn't bother. Yes, it's silly. Yes, it's far-fetched. Yes, the characters are the usual colorful, two-dimensional genre-movie fodder (though, it should be said, not as strictly stereotypical as the norm).Yes, the protagonists more often than not narrowly escape harm in situations that they never could plausibly survive in the real world. That's part of the fun. Whereas Emmerich's past efforts have often started strong before petering out in their second halves, "2012" does a better job of spacing out its action set-pieces and never losing sight of the story's scope and grandeur. It also helps that the film seems to have more on its mind than wow-worthy special effects; no matter how manipulative they may be from a Hollywood angle, there are enough moments of authentic human emotion and unexpected gestures of sacrifice and kindness within the most perilous of conditions that the viewer gets the full sense of why life on this planet is genuinely worth saving.
On a 2009 trip to India, deputy geologist Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) receives irrefutable evidence that the end of days are only a few short years away. Cut to December 2012, giant arks have been constructed in China to withstand calamity. Animal species, important works of art, and the human elite—those with enough money to buy themselves a ticket and keep the doomsday news on the down-low—are at the front of the line. The rest of mankind? They have no idea what is even headed their way. President of the United States Thomas Wilson (Danny Glover) is haunted by his original decision to not hold a lottery or be honest with America's people and vows to stay behind, while Chief of Staff Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt) is already one foot on the plane.
Across the country in Los Angeles, down-on-his-luck sci-fi author Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) picks up kids Noah (Liam James) and Lilly (Morgan Lily) at ex-wife Kate's (Amanda Peet) house and the three of them head for a vacation to Yellowstone National Park. Soon after wandering onto private property and discovering a lake that used to be there has dried up, Jackson stumbles upon conspiracy theorist deejay Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson), who lays out the deep, dark, dirty secret the government has been hiding. Sure enough, the apocalypse finally arrives—the core of the sun has melted due to radiation, creating earth crust displacement—and Jackson, Noah, Lilly, Kate, and Kate's new husband Gordon (Tom McCarthy) are fleeing for dear life as the entire west coast breaks apart and begins sinking into the ocean. As the disaster moves around the world—there are earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, typhoons, you name it—the group of them head for China in the hopes of making it on one of the arks. It is their only chance for survival.
In the past, Roland Emmerich has received a lot of flack for the mass-entertainment big-budget extravaganzas he makes (said flack was even well-deserved for 2008's woeful "10,000 B.C."), but give him this: he knows how to develop and conceive of larger-than-large action set-pieces that (1) leave the viewer thrilled, jarred and on the edge of his or her seat, and (2) present startling, frightening, fantastical visions one has never glimpsed before on film. In this way, Emmerich is leaps and bounds superior to Michael Bay, whose two "Transformers" debacles have been nothing more than an incoherent smash-up of CGI metal, the camera so schizophrenic and the editing so undistinguished that it can hardly be deciphered what is going on. With Bay's insufficiencies is an utter inability to build anything resembling tension or timing. That is not the case with "2012." The setup takes its time—the crap doesn't hit the fan until going on the one-hour mark—but what follows is worth the wait. The dramatic car escape from a city collapsing beneath its wheels is nothing short of spectacular, while similar airplane getaways in Yellowstone and Las Vegas are also good for a slew of thrills. You also have Hawaii as a landscape of fiery lava, unstoppable waves wiping out Washington, D.C. and the Himalayas, wildlife being dangled from helicopters, and the capsizing of a giant ocean liner. Surprisingly, and pleasingly, New York City is spared from onscreen destruction, and in a cute moment, jazz musicians Harry Helmsley (Blu Mankuma) and Tony Delgatto (Peter Segal) croon "It Ain't the End of the World" in the ship's lounge, blissfully unaware of what is about to occur.
A few touching moments even squeeze through, whether it be the good-bye phone call between Harry and son Adrian, another one between Tony and his son that tragically ends without closure, or the unexpected redemption of wealthy, egotistical Russian Yuri Karpov (Zlatko Buric) in his possible final seconds. The family drama between Jackson, his kids and ex-wife, and her new husband is overly familiar and hamstrung, but do give it credit for depicting Kate not as a shrew, but as a woman who still has feelings for Jackson yet has made what she believes is the more responsible choice in a partner. In another change of pace, her new hubby Gordon is a really nice guy whose cursory knowledge of piloting a plane conveniently saves their lives several times throughout. Some later ruminative moments between Adrian and grown First Daughter Laura (Thandie Newton) are also a notch above the typical surface-only disaster yarn. Their burgeoning relationship in the eye of potential obliteration is stretching things, but they do share a nice scene at the end that smartly comments on the impact literature can have on any one person, or on an entire culture.
"2012" may be slightly above-average as far as the disaster subgenre goes, but even for all of its positives it is certain to not be earning any writing or acting Oscar notices. John Cusack (2007's "Martian Child"), steadfast and reliable though he always is, can only do so much with a role that calls for him to be an everyman, a hero, and like the majority of other characters on his résumé. Chiwetel Ejiofor (2007's "American Gangster") more effectively fits the bill as an unlikely protagonist, virtuous in his beliefs that the people of the world should not be lied to, but not powerful enough to do anything about it. His Adrian's rise to become more headstrong—a lead player rather than a participant—is well-handled by Ejiofor. Thandie Newton (2008's "W.") is quietly captivating as Laura Wilson, while a gonzo, wild-eyed Woody Harrelson (2009's "Zombieland") is unforgettable for all the wrong reasons. Harrelson's part is comparatively short to most of the ensemble, and that is a good thing, indeed. Finally, special notice goes to Beatrice Rosen (2008's "The Dark Knight"), a fetching Marley Shelton lookalike who is a delight as Tamara, Yuri's young, dog-carrying trophy girlfriend. Rosen turns what starts as a very specific Paris Hilton-like clone into a feisty, caring, crowd-pleasing character with more facets than could have been expected.
Giant-sized, explosive and technically astounding—the unadulterated level and amount of visual effects that must have been incorporated into each frame makes the $200-million-plus price tag understandable—"2012" is a check-your-brain-at-the-door popcorn feast that nonetheless is a little wiser and less overtly idiotic than this sort's usual. That's not to say that there aren't some dialogue howlers and implausible bits, but, for the most part, it all comes together and works here. Instead of a lot of draggy downtime for the viewer to think about the movie's failings, this one stays involving and, despite the 158-minute running time, moves quickly enough to divert one's attention. The story may be outdated in three years, but "2012" should last a bit longer than that when it comes to its sheer aesthetic marvel.