2012 (United States/Canada, 2009)

November 11, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
2012 Poster

If, as is believed in certain fringe circles, the world will come to an end in 2012, at least there will be no more movies like this one made. Perhaps the strangest thing about 2012 is that the bad parts of the film are among the most enjoyable, because they're so over-the-top ridiculous that it's impossible not to break out laughing. It's the mediocre sections that bring the production down, and there are far too many of them. Despite having only enough content to adequately fill a 60-minute slot, 2012 turns into an epic slog of more than 2 1/2 hours. It seems a lot longer. Load up on strong coffee beforehand. Not only will that be needed to keep you awake, but it will provide a bathroom break excuse to escape the theater once or twice. Of course, once free of the auditorium, you may find the lure of the exit door too sweet to pass up.

The idea that the apocalypse is set for December 21, 2012 isn't a new one. Doomsayers, always looking for the next possible date for the planet's destruction, have latched onto this one because it represents the end of the Mayan calendar. I'm sure Nostradamus predicted it as well, because the poor guy gets credit for predicting everything. Count me among the skeptics, and not just because there's no credible scientific evidence to support a 2012 lights-out, but because the true believers preach it with a religious fervor that's a little scary. I won't lose any sleep over it and feel confident that the world will be pretty much the same when I wake up on December 22, 2012 as it will be the day before. I won't be postponing shopping for Christmas presents in the hope that the end of the world will save me the agony.

I can't say whether the so-called "science" represented in Roland Emmerich's 2012 is the most embarrassing misrepresentation of geology, physics, and astronomy ever offered in a big-budget movie, but it has to be close. This shouldn't be surprising, however, since Emmerich is far less interested in staying true to the laws of the physical world than he is in destroying things. With 2012, he aims not only to top his own previous excesses (which include Independence Day, Godzilla, and The Day After Tomorrow) but to out-explode Michael Bay and steal the disaster crown from Irwin Allen. Pretty much every kind of imaginable catastrophe can be found in this film. Earthquakes? Check. Volcanos? Check. Collapsing skyscrapers? Check. Uncontrolled fires? Check. Raining ash? Check. Plane crashes? Check. Capsized ocean liners? Check. Tsunamis? Check. John Cusack as an action hero? Check - say anything, but not that!

Of course, the average movie-goer conned out of $10 to see this movie will not care about characters, which is a good thing, because there aren't any. And he or she won't care about a storyline, which is also a good thing. No - the driving motivation for anyone to see 2012 is mayhem. Things blowing up. A shitstorm of special effects. So, does that aspect of the movie at least live up to expectations? Sadly, no. Yes, there are some impressive scenes of havoc, but they're not as spectacular as one expects. And there's a disappointing lack of recognizable icons biting the dust. The city whose destruction is chronicled in the most detail is Los Angeles, which is arguably one of the most structurally generic cities in the United States. No Empire State Building. No Sears Tower. No Space Needle. Washington D.C., Las Vegas, Buenos Ares, and the Vatican get token screen time, but those are almost afterthoughts. I assume Emmerich decided not to go after New York this time because he's already traveled that route and it may seem less-than-entertaining after the real-life horrors of 9/11.

Another problem with the disaster sequences is that they last too long, are too repetitive, and are mixed with some of the most preposterous action scenes ever devised for a motion picture. Not only are we treated to the astonishing sight of a limousine being chased by the cracking and buckling of streets during the earthquake that destroys Pasadena, but that's only the appetizer for when our heroes flee the pyroclastic flow created by the Yellowstone super-volcano (by RV, foot, and plane). This reduces the concept of outrunning a fireball to the level of a nursery school feat. Some degree of silliness is expected in a big-budget disaster movie, but what happens in 2012 is so over-the-top that it's impossible for a thinking person to dismiss the absurdity of the situation.

2012 follows the traditional disaster film formula: first act setup (in which various dire pronouncements are made about the future of the human race), second act payoff (in which 75% of the special effects budget is exhausted), and final act resolution (in which the heroes do heroic things that save the human race, or at least part of it). There's a large roster of characters, which truncates the screen time of them all and destroys any chance of someone emerging as more than a foreground decoration for the special effects. There's no suspense because one doesn't care whether the characters live or die. Their fates are a matter of indifference, which makes all the "excitement" near the end rather ho-hum.

The first significant person we're introduced to is Dr. Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a scientific advisor to the President (Danny Glover). He is the bearer of bad news: during a recent trip to India, he uncovered evidence that the world is on the fast track to destruction. It's 2009 when he makes this discovery; three years later, his prediction is reaching fruition. He's one of the leaders of an international team assembled to investigate the problem and develop a solution by which the human race will not end. His immediate superior is Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt), who is prepared to take emotion out of the equation when it comes to who lives and dies - something Adrian, the President, and the First Daughter (Thandie Newton) can't do. As the destabilization of the planet accelerates, plans have to be adjusted.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles-based fiction writer Jackson Curtis (Cusack) is on vacation in Yosemite with his two kids when news of a massive earthquake in the city causes him to head home, but not before he has a heart-to-heart with an Art Bell-type radio show host, Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson). Charlie informs Jackson that the world is about to end. He gives him the whole spiel about the Mayans and December 21. (Although, curiously, the events in this film seem to take place during the Northern Hemisphere summer of 2012, not during the last fortnight of the year.) Jackson and his kids arrive at the house shared by his ex-wife, Kate (Amanda Peet) and her plastic surgeon boyfriend, Gordon (Tom McCarthy), just as the final dissolution of Los Angeles is beginning. So everyone hops in Jackson's limo and they get the hell out of Dodge. Their destination is Yellowstone, where Charlie claims to have "maps" of the "space ships" being designed by the government to save humanity.

There are other characters, too - an Indian geophysicist, a pair of old coots on a cruise ship, and some people in Tibet - but they have even less to do than the main group.

The cast is more formidable than one might expect from a glorified B-movie. Clearly the actors, knowing the identity of the director and having read the script, could not have been under the misapprehension they were embarking upon the second coming of Citizen Kane. Yet, Emmerich managed to nab the usually reliable John Cusack, Oliver Platt, and Danny Glover, the ethereal Thandie Newton, the increasingly prominent Woody Harrelson, and quirky character actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. One can assume that looking at the cast list for 2012 may provide insight into whose portfolio was damaged in the 2008 stock market dive.

Apparently, the start of production for 2012 was impacted by the writer's strike. In ordinary circumstances, that might provide a partial explanation for the poor quality of the screenplay, but the reality is that movies of this sort are generally not blessed with top-notch writing. Scripts are nothing more than skeletons. The flesh and muscle are the visual effects and, when these are found wanting, as is sometimes the case during 2012, the production resembles a picked-over carcass. When it comes to disaster movies, I'm an easy mark - I liked dumb fare like Twister, Volcano, and The Day After Tomorrow. But I can't give 2012 a pass. It's long and boring and in some ways even less bearable than Transformers 2.

2012 (United States/Canada, 2009)

Run Time: 2:38
U.S. Release Date: 2009-11-13
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Mature Themes)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1