by Mel Valentin
It's the end of the world as we know it and writer-director Roland Emmerich feels fine. Emmerich ("10,000 B.C.," "The Day After Tomorrow," "Godzilla," "Independence Day," "Stargate") has destroyed cities (New York in the "Godzilla," multiple cities in "Independence Day"). He's destroyed large swaths of the Northern Hemisphere ("The Day After Tomorrow"). Most recently, Emmerich destroyed an ancient civilizations ("10,000 B.C.") and now he's back to finish off the planet once and for all with "2012," 158 sensory-overloading, logic- and gravity-defying minutes of CG death, destruction, and dismemberment (and for a chosen few, earthly salvation), all for a reported budget of $200 million dollars (not, apparently, including prints and advertising). "2012" is, once again, (massive) spectacle at the expense of story (and characters).Emmerich and his co-writer (and composer) Harald Kloser settled on a (willful) misreading of Mayan prophecies (that, according to common misinterpretation, has the world ending on December 21, 2012 and something called earth crust displacement for their narrative hook. 2012 kicks off in 2009, when an Indian scientist alerts, Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an American scientist who works for the federal government, of a disturbing discovery. Due to massive solar flares, neutrinos (or rather “mutated” neutrinos) have bombarded the earth, slipping past the surface to the earth’s crust and core. The world as we know it will end, but not until 2012. Helmsley races back to the United States where he approaches Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt), a high-level scientific advisor, about his findings. Anheuser takes Helmsley’s discoveries to the U.S. president, Thomas Wilson (Danny Glover).
"The end of the world has rarely been this much fun."
2012 picks up three years later. Helmsley is a senior advisor to the president, the leaders of European and Asian countries are working jointly on a super-secret project to save a remnant of humanity (approximately 400,000), along with art (and other) treasures from around the world. The president’s daughter, Laura Wilson (Thandie Newton), works for a heritage organization in Europe that swaps out authentic works of art with carefully crafted fakes, ostensibly to safeguard them against theft. After the director of the Louvre Museum in Paris dies in a car accident, Laura begins to suspect the heritage organization is a front. In the U.S., Helmsley learns of the museum director’s death and suspects U.S. involvement.
In Los Angeles, Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), a failed science-fiction novelist and limo driver for a Russian billionaire, Yuri Karpov (Zlatko Buric), listens on the radio to an Alex Jones-inspired conspiracy theorist/radio host, Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson). Frost claims he has reliable information about the government’s super-secret program, but only his hardcore listeners believe him. His ex-wife, Kate (Amanda Peet) and two children, Noah (Liam James) and Lilly (Morgan Lily), live with Kate’s boyfriend, Gordon Silberman (Thomas McCarthy), a successful plastic surgeon. A weekend trip with his children to Yellowstone National Park leads to chance encounters with Helmsley and Frost. After escaping the first of several earthquakes, Curtis convinces Kate, his children, and Gordon (as co-pilot) to flee LA to find Frost and the location of the government’s super-secret program.
The recent trailer and TV ads give away one of 2012’s major plot points: governments around the world, aware of the impending demise of the Earth, have been secretly building arks. Yes, you read that correctly. We may not have technology advanced enough to halt the Earth’s demise, but we do have sufficiently advanced technology to save humankind from complete annihilation, an idea borrowed, as many of Emmerich’s ideas have been borrowed, from 1950s science-fiction films. Emmerich borrowed (or “ripped off” if you prefer) the ark idea from the Old Testament story of Noah’s Ark and George Pal’s eschatological science-fiction thriller, When Worlds Collide (itself based on a 1933 novel written by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer). Then again, George Pal crammed When Worlds Collide with Judeo-Christian symbolism, the better, presumably, to draw like-minded audiences into movie theaters.
Of course, only a select few get to survive the end of the world. When Worlds Collide reflected the casual racism and prejudice of the time: only Caucasian Americans (e.g., new Adams, new Eves) were allowed onto the space ark taking the remnants of humanity to another planet to restart civilization. Other space arks were presumably constructed in other countries, but whether they were completed in time and made to the new world was never explored. To reflect the more enlightened times, Emmerich makes the U.S. president, and his chief scientific advisor, African-American. Wilson is the second (fictional) African-American president to preside over an extinction-level event (a.k.a., the apocalypse). Morgan Freeman was the first, eleven years ago, Deep Impact. Even then, 2012 still manages to keep the racial, ethnic, and religious diversity to a minimum (they’re background at best, CG fodder at worst).
If disaster porn, and 2012 is nothing if not disaster porn, is about not just one “money shot,” but an entire film’s worth of money shots, then Emmerich undoubtedly delivers. He crams 2012 with delirium-inducing set pieces, set pieces that defy the laws of physics, including, of course, gravity; set pieces that defy the rules of logic; set pieces that overload the senses into numbness. Tremors and earthquakes destroy streets and buildings, tsunamis overturn battleships (sending one, the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy, into the White House, a grounded Air Force One rides gigantic waves, monuments around the world shudder and shatter, tidal waves flood Tibetan monasteries high in the Himalayas, and coastal cities shake and sink as massive tectonic plates crash into each other. And that’s only what Emmerich showed us in the trailers and TV ads.By the time "2012’s" 158-minutes are up, it’s clear Emmerich has taken Orson Welles’ long-ago comments about Hollywood and train sets to heart. Whatever his personal and professional faults, Welles understood the importance of story, characters, and plausibility. Emmerich doesn’t or, if he does, doesn’t care. But "2012" might be the end of disaster road for Emmerich. In interviews, Emmerich promised not to destroy the world again. Maybe next time he’ll make an intimate, personal film with an indie budget (highly unlikely, of course). He also mentioned a sequel to "2012," not as another big-budget, feature-length film, but as a television series. Whatever he does next, he’s truly earned the title once held by producer-director Irwin Allen ("When Time Ran Out," "The Swarm," "The Towering Inferno," "The Poseidon Adventure"), the “Master of Disaster.”
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=18127&reviewer=402
originally posted: 11/14/09 02:00:00