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2012 (2009)


In any natural disaster, one is likely to find stories of heroism and bravery in the face of overwhelming odds, tales of people rising to the challenge of that one day they really shouldn’t have gotten out of bed at all. Civilians turned brave heroes, banding together to save as much of their world as the possibly can, willingly sacrificing themselves if it means saving the lives of others – deep, inspiring tales that hopefully spur us mere mortals to re-evaluate our own lives and maybe set our sights on a higher purpose.

This is not one of those stories. This is a Roland Emmerich movie.

2012 (or, as I like to call it, Roland Emmerich Breaks Shit Part IV) is an American disaster movie directed by the modern god of disaster movies, Roland Emmerich. It stars John “1408” Cusack, Chiwetel “Kinky Boots” Ejiofor, Amanda “Saving Silverman” Peet, Oliver “Lake Placid” Platt, Zlatko “Pusher” Burić, Danny “Lethal Weapon” Glover, Thomas “Conspiracy Theory” McCarthy, Liam “Psych” James, Morgan “He’s Just Not That Into You” Lily, Thandie “The Pursuit of Happyness” Newton, and Woody “Zombieland” Harrelson. There’s a bunch more people in this movie, of course, but most of them die. Anyway.

In 2009, geologist Adrian Helmsley (Ejiofor) learns that neutrinos from a recent solar flare are causing the temperature of the Earth’s core to rise. These are special neutrinos that can do that. Seriously. He tells White House Chief of Staff Carl Anheuser (Platt) and President Thomas Wilson (Glover) of these findings, and of his conclusion that this will cause a little bit of an apocalypse. The following year, a secret project is started to ensure humanity’s survival: 400,000 people are chosen to board a series of arks to be constructed in Tibet, a project funded by the sale of tickets for seats on the ark at about 1 billion Euros a pop. By 2011, humanity’s great treasures are moved into storage in the Himalayas under the guise of protecting them from terrorists. In 2012, the plot kicks into gear.

Jackson Curtis is a divorced science fiction writer who works part time as a limo driver for billionaire Yuri Karpov (Burić). This weekend, he is taking his kids, Noah (James) and Lilly (Lily) camping at Yellowstone Park. While there, they meet conspiracy theorist and pirate radio host Charlie Frost (Harrelson), who says that the world will end that year, but the government has prepared for it, offering as proof maps of the ark project and news clipping about people who were killed for trying to inform the general public. Curtis initially dismisses him as a paranoid wingnut – but the funny thing about paranoid wingnuts, especially in movie land, is that occasionally they’re right, as Curtis learns when an earthquake starts nibbling away at California. Curtis can see the writing on the wall, and rents a plane to save his family, picking up his ex-wife Kate (Peet) and her new fiance Gordon (McCarthy). They escape Los Angeles in a spectacular and hair-raising sequence as the earthquake quickly goes from nibble nibble to NOM NOM NOM and huge chunks of the Pacific coast slide into the sea. They pop over to Yellowstone (which, incidentally, sits on top of a supervolcano) to pick up Charlie’s map. Charlie elects to stay behind to broadcast the impending disaster, and Curtis escapes with his family as Yellowstone goes up.

At this point, we have to be honest with ourselves. Sure, there’s a lot more plot after this, but it easily takes a backseat to the real point: Lots and lots of shit will get broken. The Cristo Redemptor crumbles in an earthquake. The dome of St. Peter’s Basilica gets dropped on a square full of terrified Catholics praying for salvation, after a bit of cosmic teabagging by having a crack appear in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel between the respective outstretched fingers of God and Adam. The White House gets an aircraft carrier dropped on it. Hawaii? Chain of active volcanoes says SCREW YOU! Tibet gets eaten by a tidal wave. The magnetic North Pole winds up somewhere around Wisconsin. (Apparently, Emmerich had plans to take out Mecca as well, to prove that Christians were not the only ones who lost religious landmarks, but he didn’t want to cause a jihad. No kidding.) And the audience revels in every minute of it.

Inspired by the theory that the world will end when the Meso-American calendar ends in mid-December of 2012, Roland Emmerich sought out to make his (apparently) last disaster movie something truly epic by putting as many disaster movie conventions as he possibly could into a single film. As epic popcorn movies go, 2012 delivers. The special effects are well-rendered and the action sequences are thrilling. In the early stages of the California earthquake sequence, he even broke the usual convention of shaking the camera and having the actors throw themselves around, by building a suburban neighborhood atop a series of motion-controlled platforms to fling the actors around for real. The conspicuous CGI is at a minimum here, mainly in parts where it honestly couldn’t be helped, like CGI water next to real water.

The casting was largely well-done, with John Cusack reprising his 1408 role as the unlucky everyman caught in circumstances beyond his control, and doing it well. Platt as Anheuser is reasonably skeptic at the beginning, but willing to consider the evidence when it’s presented to him, while remaining practical about the whole thing (he didn’t secure a ticket on the arks for his elderly mother with dementia, reasoning that she was 92 and would want to die on her own terms). The subplot between Gordon and Tamara was a near-miss, though, and its tragic ending just seemed sadistic. Unfortunately, I couldn’t quite get attached to any of the characters, which was a shame, because it would likely have enhanced the sense of danger in having the laws of physics suddenly decide they hated your guts.

All in all, 2012 is an effective entry to the disaster subgenre. It might seem a bit overlong at times, but the spectacular special effects will soon bowl you along until you actually might look forward to the end of the world.

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