Film Review - 2012 (2009)
Screenplay by Roland Emmerich and Harald Kloser
Directed by Roland Emmerich
I'm tempted to start out this review by saying that there is no landmark or edifice that escapes unscathed in Roland Emmerich's latest epic 2012, but that would be incorrect. The Columbia Pictures logo survives its twenty seconds of screen time intact. Would that the White House, the Vatican and the states of California, Hawaii and Wyoming could claim the same. To call 2012 a disaster movie is to do it a disservice. This is the tale of a planetary re-boot that would be unbearably harrowing were it not for the sense of gusto that propels it from one patently absurd scenario to the next. It is, in a word, fun - even though this viewer would surely be counted among the billions erased from the face of the earth. As much as I enjoyed it, and I left the theater expecting to walk out into 90 degree temps on Memorial Day weekend, I couldn't shake the niggling feeling that I paid six bucks to watch my own funeral.
The movie posits that unprecedented sunflare activity (occurring, say, right about now) is generating a new form of microwave energy that overheats the earth's core. Now, rather than shorting out pacemakers and dropping pigeons (you've all seen The Core, right?), this stoking of the furnace at the center of the globe is convecting heat up to the planet's surface that will eventually liquefy its crust and wreak abject cataclysm. Continental-sized earthquakes, volcanoes, dust clouds and tsunamis will send humanity the way of the T Rex, and then will realign our magnetic field, placing the South Pole somewhere around Abbotsford, Wisconsin.
Here's the movie's paranoid conceit; our government already knows, as do those of some 45 other nations. They've been preparing for the inevitable, building a series of ships deep within the Himalayas, and planning for the continuation of the species...especially the moneyed few. It takes moola to buy yourself passage on these arks (literally saving a variety of animal species in one of the most implausible but delightfully surrealist sequences in the movie), and while the powers declare that those being saved represent a genetic cross-section of the best our DNA has to offer, it should be noted that Fendi, Rolls Royce and Cartier will also prevail apres la deluge. Got money? You'll live. It's a heavy-handed sub-plot, but that doesn't make it any less tragically true.
It might have been that commentary that drew such Independent Cinema stars as John Cusask, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Oliver Platt and Thandie Newton to the project; while the screenplay doesn't give them sparkling witty dialogue, these professionals know how to imbue even the slightest of material with honesty and weight. Ejiofor has many of the best moments as the low-level geologist who discovers the phenomenon imperiling the planet, and immediately vaults to the right hand of president Danny Glover (think Obama crossed with Poitier - it's a nice, weathered performance). But he's no wunderkind; he makes mistakes that play havoc with the meticulous timetables the government is racing to follow. In a movie that frequently buries the needle on the unbelievability meter all the way to the right, this flaw is a welcome grace note. As his frequent foil, Platt is in full leonine mode as a presidential aide espousing the cold equations of the bottom line. We're meant to view him as a villain of sorts, yet the logic of his argument for secrecy is unassailable.
Speaking of unbelievability, there's John Cusack's character; a would-be writer and limo driver who, though a series of contrivances and coincidence finds himself at the center of both the devastation and the longshot of the survival of the human race. When the apocalyptic shit hits the fan, and he races to save his ex-wife and their children, they walk between the raindrops of carnage in sequences that would be giddy fun to watch - had not the special effects artists populated their CGI shots with thousands of victims scurrying to and fro to their destruction. Some may have a problem with these sequences; is Emmerich reducing these casualties to so much video game fodder? For me, it kept the scenes from becoming exhilarating, anchoring them with a needed sense of loss. I was reminded of the sneak that I saw of Emmerich's 1996 magnum opus Independence Day, and the silence that descended on the handful of us in the theater after the alien ships unleashed their destructive force (scenes that played out without musical accompaniment, a wise choice). While 2012 never feels as solemn as that, I think Emmerich is trying to keep the finished product from becoming a romp - something Michael Bay could take a few lessons from.
There's also a booga-booga turn from Woody Harrelson, who continues the revitalization of his film career with a funny spin on conspiracy theorists; he's a bedraggled recluse who broadcasts a pirate radio show from his studio on wheels in a Winnebago. Harrelson is finally finding those roles that play to his gonzo comedic strengths, or that sense of otherness that makes him impossible to stop watching. It's as if he's picked up his filmography right after The People Vs. Larry Flynt. I'd go so far as to say that Emmerich could one day offer a similar service to Randy Quaid...if he hadn't already.
It's easy to go through 2012 and spot the references to other disaster flicks; Volcano, Dante's Peak, Titanic, The Poseidon Adventure, The Core, Knowing, even Emmerich's own The Day After Tomorrow. There's even a soaring ballad at the end that would do Irwin Allen proud (Note to American Idol fans - even though vast and deep waters may cover the surface of the earth, the voice of Adam Lambert shall tower above the waves, providing a musical beacon of hope.) Emmerich's intent is to leave no stone unturned or on top another, and if 2012 needed another tagline, I might suggest, "If you only see one disaster movie..." I hope this is the last big screen disaster movie for awhile (though Spielberg is said to be sniffing around a remake of When Worlds Collide, which, according to those Mayan doomsayers, might really be the menace that takes us out with only four shopping days left before Christmas 2012). For as much as I enjoy them, after watching 2012, I have to confess - I'm dead.