– Summary –
Director : Roland Emmerich
Cast : John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Oliver Platt, Amada Peet, Woody Harrelson, Danny Glover, Thandie Newton, Liam James, Thomas McCarthy, John Billingsley, Ryan McDonald, Jimi Mistry, Agam Darshi, Chin Han.
Year of Release : 2009
Length : 140 Minutes
Synopsis: It’s the end of the world. What do you do when faced with that? Hope the Government tells you what to do? Nope, you gather up your ex-wife and kids and head for China, all the while outrunning massive destruction and devastation. Sure makes for a relaxing weekend, right?
Review : Supremely entertaining destruction movie, offering little-to-no character development of any kind: only the most fastidious cine-phile will find something to complain about, and only if they don’t like these kinds of films. Simply put, this film delivers exactly what it promises. Destruction, on a scale only Hollywood can invent. This ain’t Shakespeare people, so don’t expect a sonnet.
Cinematically, only a few names have stood out in recent history that have made a name for themselves purely on destruction levels attained. Michael Bay has successfully destroyed buildings, suburbs, cities and even half of Egypt in his film career. Steven Spielberg gave us an apocalyptic alien attack that took Tom Cruise to sort out. Roland Emmerich, though, has managed to do what no other director in history has yet been able: give us an effects laden look into the utter destruction of our planet with as much detail as possible. No, I am not talking about 10,000 BC, or even The Day After Tomorrow. I’m talking about 2012, his latest film that lifts spectacle above logic, effects above reason, and action above virtually every cinematic storytelling tool available to us today. Where Emmerich was merely practicing in ID4, and upped the ante in Day After Tomorrow, here, he cuts loose with the full arsenal of digital magic at his disposal. And it look glorious. Finally, an end of the world film worth watching for the end of the world.
2012 begins like any normal disaster film: the scientists discover that something bad is going to happen, and inform the Government, who in turn make a decision not to tell the rest of us, and instead plan a contingency to save the best and brightest humanity has to offer. 2012 continues like any other disaster film by having an Everyman character, in this case, John Cusack, uncover the conspiracy to keep things hush-hush, only to find that not even his family, with whom he is usually estranged or otherwise distant from, believe him. 2012 then follows the disaster film playbook by unleashing all kinds of devastation upon the world, carnage and annihilation unparallelled by anybody to that point: the “I told you so’s” begin almost immediately. Said Everyman then must save his family by beating the odds, escaping certain doom every 10 minutes or so, before finding resolution at the films uplifting climax. I am happy to say that 2012 is your definitive Disaster Film Paint By Numbers.
According to the pre-release hype for 2012, the ancient Mayans believed they could calculate when the world was going to end, due to an alignment of the solar systems major planets with the sun, causing enormous eruptions on our solar body that would in turn cause upheavals in the Earth’s core, superheating the planet until, well, everything turns to crap. Supposedly, this event takes place in December, 2012. Of course, the Mayans have since become extinct as a race; however, their predictions start to come true. Chiwetel Ejiofor, whom audiences will be familiar as the man Keira Knightley marries in Love Actually, plays Adrian Helmsley, a scientist who uncovers the fact that the core of the Earth, and the thick mantle that surrounds it, is heating rapidly. Cue desperate Governmental procedures to control the information about the impending disaster, as well as a slow buildup to the explosive turning point at which it’s no longer possible to hide what’s happening. The film flashes forward into 2012, where we learn that nobody is prepared for the rapidity of the end of the world, and when things eventually do go belly up, all hell breaks loose. Ejiofor, playing his role with as straight a face as possible, is perhaps the emotional lynchpin of the film, and considering that he shares the bulk of the screen time with John Cusack, who is no slouch in eating roles like this for breakfast, that’s no small feat. Adrian’s father, a jazz pianist on a cruise ship, shares an emotional beat with him about half-way through the film, that is genuinely moving. But it’s not the human drama we came to see, is it? No, it’s stuff blowing up.
John Cusack, whose ex-wife Kate (Amanda Peet) and kids now live with a plastic surgeon, drives a limousine for a Russian billionaire, and upon taking said children on a weekend camping trip to Yellowstone National Park, learns of the impending disaster from a wild haired crazy person named Charlie (Woody Harrelson, who appears to have cornered the market in crazy, wild-eyed nutjobs these days). At first disbelieving, he quickly changes his mind as things Charlie says start to come true. Then, he’s forced into action when most of San Francisco falls into the ocean, in one of the films most amazing, dazzling, jaw dropping set pieces. He must save his wife and her new lover, and his kids, in a desperate drive through the upheaving streets of ‘Frisco to a waiting plane (don’t ask, logic goes out the window right about now) before escaping by the barest of margins, the ocean swallowing the city behind them.
Look, plot logic aside, 2012 is nothing if not entertaining. Characters come and go with relative ease, either dying horribly or sacrificing themselves heroically before all is swept away by oceans and volcanic debris. Roland Emmerich knows how to direct a destruction sequence, and the man doesn’t let us down here. If you are disappointed with the story of this film, then you need to ask yourself exactly what you’re watching the film for in the first place. Is it the deeply developed characters? Surely not, there aren’t any. All the people in this film are merely ciphers that stuff happens to. Is it the magnificent moral and ethical narrative pervading the screenplay, dialoging the nature of man to save or destroy man, to save himself or save others? Nope, that’s not here either, at least, not in any substance. Is it for the outright carnage and epic destruction of national and international landmarks by various forms of geological upheaval? Yep, that’s about it. Anybody looking for anything of substance in this film is either an idiot, or falling for the marketing in a big big way. Roland Emmerich doesn’t make films that have a soul like Scorcese or Coppola, he makes films where shit blows up. And blows up good.
I have read reviews elsewhere on the web that pertained to the inadequacies of this films script, the dialogue is banal and cliched. To a certain extent, those reviews are right. The dialogue is banal, and often makes you want to roll your eyes in that sarcastic way you do when you hear something being said that is genuinely, stupefyingly, awful. There’s a few moments like that here. But ultimately, this film is about one simple thing: destroying the Earth and giving audiences a vicarious thrill ride whilst doing it. What’s wrong with that? I’m sick to death of people going to see a film like this and thinking they’re going to see fine art, some new Kubrick film with some kind of hidden message or deeper meaning; and then complaining when they don’t’ get what they think they should. So the film relies too heavily on supposition and screwy logic. So what? This isn’t a documentary.
Okay, so I’ve defended my right to simply be entertained by this film, let’s get down to what it’s all like.
First, the acting in this film is about on par with most disaster flicks. The screaming, the snappy witticisms by the hero, the hairs-breadth escapes from a tight spot, the villainous Government agents out for their own skin, you name the cliché, it’s right here. Cusack and Ejiofor hold this film together, and they do a great job considering, but don’t overlook Oliver Platt as the President’s Chief Of Staff. Platt is the go-between for Adrians scientist and the President, and his role is a mixture of cool calm, and resigned frustration. He has a job to do, and he knows it, but he doesn’t always like it. The President, played with wooden genericism by Danny Glover (who, I must admit, can’t act to save his life these days, if he ever could!) gives up far too quickly, and his daughter, Thandie Newton in a role so thin on the ground I could have done it with one hand tied, is appropriately lovely. There are various ancillary character who rise to noithing more than a single line of dialogue, simply there to be killed when the next part of the disaster unfolds. There are no Academy Award performances here, no sparkling dialogue that will enter the pop-culture zeitgeist. The script is as simple and silly as you’d expect a film like this to be. And the cast give the script the respect it deserves.
2012 is all about it’s effects, and in Emmerich’s mind, bigger is most definitely better. And in 2012, these are some of the biggest and most sustained effects sequences I’ve seen in a very long time. The aforementioned destruction of San Francisco is an effects dream, buildings collapsing, roadways convulsing, the entire continental shelf tilting and sliding into the ocean, taking the city with it. The destruction of Yellowstone, which, considering the fact that the Earth’s crust in the park is the thinnest anywhere on the planet, is a roaring thunder of gas, molten rock and black dust, a massive effects sequence that puts you firmly in the action much more effectvely than ID4‘s Alien beams. The obligatory monument loss is everywhere, from the White House (how many times is that, Mr Emmerich?) to the Christ The Redeemer statue in Brazil, to the Vatican, all played out in glorious slow-motion widescreen. The Earth is tearing itself asunder, a post-Gondwana tectonic undulation that will change the face of Earth forever. Emmerich glorifies in this carnage, from the smaller, more innocuous cracks appearing in roadways and houses at the films opening, to the large scale apocalypse that rains down on our planet by films end. He handles destruction effortlessly, and this is where he delights in little moments for the audience. Not the melodramatic spouting of lines of dialogue so hackneyed they could be written by a five year old. Emmerich started his wont of destruction with Independence Day during the 90’s, and has only looked up since then.
By far 2012‘s saving grace is its sound mix, which will surely be nominated for an Oscar this year. 2012 is a film destined for reference display on home cinema systems around the world once this film is released on DVD and BluRay. This is a sound lovers dream, and one you’ll want to play loud enough to make your ears bleed. Every nuance of destruction is played out, from the missile-like ejecta from Yellowstone’s eruption, to the collapsing buildings and everything in between, this is a highly active soundtrack that manages to accomplish the virtually impossible: keeping us able to hear both dialogue, music, and roaring destruction. Speaking of music, the score by composer Harold Kloser is fairly pedestrian, a solid yet unremarkable orchestral score, interspersed with tracks from a variety of artists including a former American Idol. Hardly iconic, it does the job it needs to without drawing attention to itself.
One major issue of 2012 is it’s bloated runtime, at just over two and a half hours, it’s pretty long to sit and watch the Earth turn to crap, no matter how awesome it looks. Roland could have trimmed perhaps about twenty or so minutes from the opus, tightened up the film’s overall focus a bit, and it’s highly likely 2012 would have been an exciting, trim disaster film; instead, things become slightly drawn out by the second hour, and we all just want it to be over. Still, there’s no harm in a little excess, is there? Especially when it looks so sweet as 2012 does. For those of you with limited patience and a genuine hatred of overblown films, then 2012 will probably annoy you no end. For those looking simply to be entertained without any preconceived notion of intelligence, then 2012 offers an easy, brainless cornucopia of destruction and action.
I thoroughly enjoyed 2012. There are moments of humor, moments of pathos, and vast moments where the Earth destroys itself. Emmerich has gone on public record that this will be his last “disaster” project, and if that’s the case, then he’s gone out with a bang. Deliriously enjoyable, completely unbelievable, and utterly entertaining, 2012 is a wonderful entry into the disaster genre.
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