Does he assume the audience will be too wowed by the special effects to mind, either? One has to wonder. But you at least have to credit him for being consistent in the attempt. “2012” is constructed on the visual and narrative principles of “Independence Day” and “The Day After Tomorrow” – that is, on the idea that a subtle indication of great potential disaster can, and often will, swell into something dark and gloomy and cause countless motion picture stand-ins to serve as unfortunate casualties. This time, the list of the dead runs longer than the movie’s own running time. 2012, you see, is the year that the Mayans supposedly predicted the end of the world as we know it – or, from the scientific approach, the year that the planets would align, solar flares would heat up the Earth’s interior, and our civilization would be tested by major alterations to the planet’s surface and climate system. To hear some talk, nature apparently never does anything in gradual increments.
But that is but a moot point for any director of a blockbuster, so for the sake of argument, we must suspend theoretical logic in order to get through “2012.” The movie opens with the obligatory setup – a scientist in India has discovered that a solar disturbance is causing physical abnormalities here on Earth, ones that will, after time, melt the interior of the planet and cause the tectonic plates to basically clash together and upset the surface. In other words: we will have massive earthquakes, Yellowstone will blow up, and giant tsunamis will ravage coastlines and destroy all in their path.
Those scenarios do not bode well for fellow scientist Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who rushes back to the states with this discovery and persuades the chief geologist Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt) to speak to the president about the impending danger. The various dialogue exchanges eventually lead to a secretive international endeavor to erect giant ships that can protect several thousand people from harm, and the targeted date for boarding is – you guessed it! – December of 2012.
In the meantime, ordinary people go on about their lives and often get caught in the crosshairs of Emmerich’s screenplay. Typical of his hair-thin efforts to create characters interesting enough to hold our attention until Earth goes crazy, we are given Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), a novelist/limo driver who is divorced from Kate (Amanda Peet) and has two children who, for obvious reasons, tend to get frustrated by the fact that their own dad is seldom around enough to know what goes on in their lives. Ah, but he becomes a key-holder to crucial information while vacationing in Yellowstone park when he meets a crazed radio personality named Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson), who provides insight into an impending danger that threatens the lives of ordinary civilians not knowledgeable – or wealthy – enough to endure when the world turns itself inside out. To hear him talk, the planet is on the verge of apocalypse and the government intends to build spaceships to escape the danger. But how do ordinary men and women like Jackson get a boarding pass? Certainly not in a conventional sense, otherwise the movie wouldn’t require them to jump through hoops in order to survive.
Emmerich at least has mastered the art of persuasion when it comes to casting big names in his films, and “2012” is no exception – Danny Glover, Oliver Platt, Thandie Newton, Amanda Peet, John Cusack and Woody Harrelson are all instantly recognizable names with credits that would be the envy of any aspiring thespian. One thing you have to credit John Cusack for, perhaps more than most others, is his ability to retread old material for the sake of the payoff, and show patience with it. Observant viewers might recall quite quickly that this is not the first time he has played either a novelist or a limo driver in a major picture (the former in “1408” and the latter in “Identity”). Did he take a moment out of his dialogue reading to point out these obvious parallels? I’m almost sure of it. But anyone starring in any of Roland’s movies knows that his screenplays are manufactured clusters of ideas ripped from better, more thoroughly realized ones. The only reason he can get away with it: his movies are always colossal box office draws.
The problem is they have never been that interesting on any level other than the visual, and unlike more ambitious directors who have found the right balance between the written word and the foray into crafting striking images, he seems perfectly content allowing the special effects to be the life support system. Two recent exceptions to the genre standard are Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine” and Alex Proyas’ “Knowing,” both which tells stories of impossible measures being undertaken by a group of puzzled individuals whose primary motivation is not their own survival, but ensuring the continuity of humanity as a whole. Are these not more inspiring, more lasting impressions on us than watching Los Angeles fall into the ocean or tidal waves striking the face of Mount Everest?
The movie does have fun with itself, even on shallow merits. The visuals are rich and detailed. The sound editing is impeccable. The camera captures every possible catastrophe with striking accuracy, and there is a certain power to the implication that our technology has advanced far enough to allow the most overzealous ideas to find life on a movie screen. Considering the audacity of the director and the gusto of his technical artists, it’s probably a safe bet to say that the movie even surpasses “Independence Day” and “The Day After Tomorrow” in its value as escapist entertainment. But seriously, how often do we want to escape into worlds that are hell-bent on ravaging our sense of security with invading aliens and furious natural disasters? If it is some small consolation, it is doubtful there is much left to destroy after the curtain falls on “2012.” Least of all any remaining expectations.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Action (US); 2009; Rated PG-13 for intense disaster sequences and some language; Running Time: 158 Minutes
John Cusack: Jackson Curtis
Amanda Peet: Kate Curtis
Chiwetel Ejiofor: Adrian Helmsley
Thandie Newton: Laura Wilson
Oliver Platt: Carl Anheuser
Tom McCarthy: Gordon Silberman
Woody Harrelson: Charlie Frost
Danny Glover: President Thomas Wilson
Produced by Aaron Boyd, Roland Emmerich, Ute Emmerich, Volker Engel, Larry J. Franco, Mark Gordon, Harald Kloser, Marc Weigert, Michael Wimer and Kirstin Winkler; Directed by Roland Emmerich; Written by Roland Emmerich and Harald Kloser