The end isn’t nearly near enough
by Jason Blair
2012: Directed by Roland Emmerich. Written by Emmerich and Harald Klosar. Cinematography, Dean Semler. Music, Thomas Wander. Starring John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Amanda Peet, Thandie Newton, Oliver Platt and Danny Glover. Columbia Pictures, 2009. PG-13. 158 minutes.
Roland Emmerich, the world’s foremost director of large-scale disaster films, returns with a vengeance in 2012, and I don’t use “vengeance” lightly. In addition to being one of the worst films of the year, 2012 is a cynical and mean-spirited affair, taking great pains to send grandmothers and good Samaritans to their doom with something close to glee. Almost certainly, more people are killed in 2012 than any film ever made, but few films have so luxuriated in the tiny dramas of mass extinction. The film carries the tagline “We Were Warned,” apparently without irony, a reference — incorrect, as it turns out — to the end of the Mayan calendar and with it, the human race. (Only the calendar part is true.) I was indeed warned to the surfeit of plot holes and errors of fact in 2012, but I admit to being caught off guard by its overwhelming mediocrity. Emmerich’s past movies, which include The Day After Tomorrow, feel positively nimble in comparison to 2012.
According to 2012, the fate of the world is in the hands of three men: geologist Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Children of Men), White House Chief of Staff Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt, Frost/Nixon) and writer Jackson Curtis (John Cusack). Adrian, who at the outset is presented as a sort of watered-down Indiana Jones, has discovered that solar flares are causing the earth’s core to heat up and, as a result, its crust to destabilize, a fact that Chief of Staff Carl greets with annoyance. Faster than you can say “crusts removed,” the world is reduced to a series of Grand Canyon-like chasms into which the megatsunamis, when they come, will pour with great abandon. Shaggy dad Jackson, having pried his kids away from his ex-wife Kate (Amanda Peet), is camping in Yellowstone, where he meets Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson), a fringe-dwelling, pickle-eating hobo who broadcasts an Art Bell-style radio program from his RV within the park. Charlie reveals that somewhere in China, a series of arks await the pre-selected survivors — meaning the fatcats who paid one billion dollars for a seat, hard currency still carrying its weight even in the face of apocalypse.
At this point, 2012 settles down into a film about transportation. Jackson is forever (or so it feels) dragging his family from car to better car to plane to bigger plane, always with the earth breaking away just behind them or a pyroclastic cloud nipping at their heels. Cusack does what he’s been doing for years now, looking comfortably ruffled while trying to avoid descending into Nicolas Cage-like irrelevance. It’s Ejiofor, playing the all-purpose expert, who carries the burden of 2012; he is constantly on the verge of crying without ever delivering the elusive tear. He’s required to say a lot of fancy-pantsy words like “neutrino” and “reverse polarity” — although, regarding the latter, it’s good to know the term for turning on the cold tap when you wanted hot. Platt is a serviceable villain, although he’s far too young to bear such a resemblance to Andy Rooney.
While Emmerich has stated that 2012 will be his last disaster picture, I wouldn’t bet he’s directed his last earthquake. Perhaps his desire to go out with a bang, so to speak, explains the more-is-more approach so rampant in 2012, one that, even from the director of Independence Day, is entirely too much at 158 minutes. Emmerich should find new source material. Until then, to quote from a married couple in 2012 just before the earth cracks open between them: Something’s pulling us apart.