Directed by: Roland Emmerich
Starring: John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Oliver Platt, Thandie Newton, Woody Harrelson, Danny Glover
So is 2012 the disaster movie to rule them all? Well, not quite, though Roland Emmerich certainly tries his damndest, in the process delivering some of the biggest, most spectacularly over-the-top destruction sequences ever committed to film. 2012 is big, loud and stupid – but also very good-looking and very entertaining.
A brief prologue establishes, through the cunning use of mumbo-jumbo science talk, that increased particle emissions from the sun are causing temperatures to rise deep within our planet, which in turn is threatening to destabilize the Earth’s crust. Geologist Dr. Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) brings this information to the attention of the president (Danny Glover) via his Chief of Staff, Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt).
Skipping ahead to the year 2012, we’re introduced to limo driver/science fiction author Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), a divorced father-of-two who is going camping in Yellowstone National Park with his kids. Arriving in Yellowstone, Jackson discovers that certain areas have been cordoned off by the U.S. Army because they are “unstable”. Jackson also meets conspiracy theorist Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson), who broadcasts his own radio show from his mobile home in Yellowstone. Charlie tells Jackson that the world is coming to an end but that the authorities are keeping this information secret. He also alleges that some kind of arkships have been built to save the rich and powerful.
Jackson greets this information with skepticism, but it soon turns out that Charlie may actually have been right. As immense earthquakes rip California to shreds, Jackson manages to get his children, ex-wife Kate (Amanda Peet) and her new boyfriend Gordon (Thomas McCarthy), on board a small private plane. Stopping by Yellowstone to get a map from Charlie the Conspiracy Nut — and narrowly escaping a volcanic eruption of gargantuan proportions — Jackson and company set out to find the arkships while massive cataclysms bring about the end of civilisation as we know it.
Much of 2012 is standard disaster movie fare and it would be so very easy to criticize its faults: the less-than-credible science at the foundation of the story, the script that switches between saccharine sentimentality and lovingly crafted mayhem, the plot with its contrivances and amazing coincidences, the characters that are less persons than functions of the plot. But then again, this is a Roland Emmerich disaster movie, so what do you expect? Subtle discussions about the brittleness of human existence? Sorry, wrong film.
While the running time certainly is somewhat bloated and the movie loses some of its momentum during the final hour, 2012 mostly does what it’s supposed to do, and does it well: This is the end of the world as a thrill-ride for the whole family. Or, to quote Roger Ebert: “This is fun”. The plot may be dumb but it is efficient, and Emmerich serves up a briskly paced series of spectacular brushes with death for the main characters.
The visual effects, the sine qua non of this movie, are state of the art. The first really big disaster sequence in the film, the destruction of California, is so gloriously massive in scale, so full of nice little details and so beautifully made that it ought to rank among the classics of the genre — no matter how ludicrous the Curtis family’s escape is. The impressive Yellowstone eruption is enhanced by the gleeful overacting of Woody Harrelson, and the hellish vision of Hawaii is memorable as well.
Emmerich has put together a nice cast, though it’s a shame to have an actor like John Cusack playing a character that is so underdeveloped that he almost is relegated to supporting player. Actually, it is Chiwetel Ejiofor as Dr. Helmsley who more than anyone else manages to make an impression and add a semblance of depth to his character, with Mr. Harrelson being quite amusing as crackpot Charlie. Amanda Peet is sadly but not surprisingly relegated to cradling the kids and looking terrified.
While certainly very enjoyable as pure spectacle, what 2012 lacks in the end is any real sense of danger and suspense. Maybe putting some more effort into the character development would make us care a bit more about what happened to people? I don’t know. 2012 largely delivers, but despite its scale it still lacks the impact that would make me give it a 5/5 rating.