The most surprising thing about Roland Emmerich’s 2012 is that he didn’t bother to wait those three years so he could release the film in the actual year of 2012. Maybe he was afraid the world really was going to end on that date and wanted one last disaster movie under his belt before the end times.
Roland Emmerich has never been one for subtlety, from Independence Day to The Day After Tomorrow the German-born director has made a career out of blowing stuff up in spectacular fashion. So it should come as no surprise that his latest disaster epic, 2012, is a non-stop barrage of CGI destruction that makes a film like Armageddon look like a picnic. The film’s central character is struggling science-fiction writer Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) who is, apparently, the only person on Earth who can save his family from the apocalypse, and fortunately, he’s pretty good at dodging falling buildings and outrunning giant tidal waves.
The plot is as predictable as a horror movie – you know exactly who’s going to die, who’s going to survive and who’s going to make that last-ditch effort to save humanity – then again, who cares about the plot when you have John Cusack driving a limo through the falling debris of Los Angeles? And when you have a giant wave crashing over the Himalayas, who gives a damn if none of it makes any sense? It’s like The Day After Tomorrow on steroids only with even more interpersonal drama. In this film we have the standard disaster trope of the hero being divorced only to be eventually reconciled with his wife, in this case, the role is filled by Kate Harris (Amanda Peet), a medical student with two children from her marriage with Jackson, but she is now currently dating plastic surgeon Gordon Silberman (Tom McCarthy), and he has about as much chance of surviving to the end of this movie as I do in lasting one round with Mike Tyson.
To fill out the film’s two and a half-hour running time Roland Emmerich populated his plot with tons of character for us to watch run for their lives as the world explodes around them; we get geologist Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who will spearhead the plan to save some of humanity – mostly the really rich part of humanity – then there is the noble American President (Danny Glover) who will decide to go down with the continent, next is his daughter Laura Wilson (Thandie Newton) whose job is to secure the world’s treasures before everything goes tits up, then we have Helmsley’s dad (Blu Mankuma), along with his jazz partner (George Segal), both get to have a brief Poseidon Adventure before their cruise ship is capsized by a giant wave, and because even a movie about a natural global catastrophe still needs a human villain to hiss and boo at we get Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt), the White House Chief of Staff, whose only real crime is being blatantly frank about the hard choices you have to make when the world is ending.
One of the film’s more interesting and outlandish characters is that of Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson), a fringe science conspiracy theorist and radio talk-show host, whom Jackson runs into while he and his kids are camping at Yellowstone Park, and it’s him that our protagonists learn of scientist Charles Hapgood’s theory about the polar shift and the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar that predicts a 2012 phenomenon and the end of the world, but more importantly, on how the world governments are covering it up. Lucky for our heroes, he happens to have a map of the location of these “spaceships” that are being constructed by the government to take the chosen few to safety. Basically, Charlie Frost is your typical exposition machine that is required to get the hero from point “A” to point “B” and while this is a standard and clichéd trope Woody Harrelson is so fun and entertaining in the part that you don’t mind the fact that you are being force-fed pure nonsense. Of course, it turns out not to be spaceships they are building but massive arks that are designed to ride out the upcoming tsunamis.
Note: The idea of humanity fleeing in a spaceship as the world ends had already been addressed in the wonderful George Pal science fiction classic When Worlds Collide.
The special effects in 2012 are undeniably remarkable, from the collapsing buildings to the massive tidal waves this film is a visual tour de force that never lets up, unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the script as the dialogue is clunky and loaded with clichéd characters that are about as wooden as the contents of Geppetto’s workshop, and the plot so predictable you could set your watch by it. Though to be fair, even though the acting is barely serviceable, let’s be honest, nobody’s sitting down to watch an Oscar-worthy performance in a film that promises to send California sliding into the sea. We just want to see famous landmarks get destroyed in gloriously ridiculous ways. And boy does 2012 ever deliver on that front. The White House gets flattened like a pancake, the Hollywood sign gets wiped out and the entire city of Los Angeles sinks into the ocean.
• Jackson and company drive home from L.A. to Yellowstone in what looks to be a few hours but Yellowstone is 1,100 miles from Los Angeles, which is roughly an 18-hour drive.
• We see Gordon and company flying through an ash cloud which they somehow get through with no problems, but volcanic ash is basically very small stones, that will clog a plane’s air intake and engines and cause it to crash.
• A pyroclastic flow from an exploding volcano travels at speeds between 200 and 300 mph, while the top speed of an RV is between 55 and 65 mph, which makes Cusack’s escape in Woody Harrelson’s camper very unlikely.
• We learn that the President’s wife had suggested a lottery to decide who would be allowed aboard the Arks, which is somewhat the same plot point found in the disaster film Deep Impact.
• Chinese helicopters are scene airlifting giraffes and rhinos over the Himalayas, but with that extremely high altitude and the frigid air and cold wind blowing past them in flight, those African animals would die of either hypothermia or oxygen deprivation long before they reached the arks.
• They can’t start the Ark’s engines while one of the gates is still open, which is an insanely stupid design flaw and serves no purpose other than to derive more fake suspense out of this thing.
• During the climax a warning can be heard that the ship’s compartments are flooding progressively, but all ships have been designed and constructed with watertight compartments for nearly a century. Didn’t the people who built this thing watch Titanic?
What saves the movie from being a complete disaster is its sheer audacity and bonkers levels of destruction on display because filmmaker Emmerich knew exactly what his audience wanted and they wanted was bigger explosions, higher stakes and more mayhem than ever before, which he delivered in spades. If you’re looking for a brainless, popcorn-chomping thrill ride 2012 will deliver the goods, just don’t expect to remember anything about it once the credits roll.
Fact Check: The movie claims that the Mayan calendar predicted the end of the world in 2012, but this is not accurate. the Mayan calendar simply starts a new cycle at the end of each 5,125-year period and does not indicate an apocalypse.
Movie Rank - 7/10
All in all, 2012 is a fun, dumb, and totally over-the-top disaster movie that will have you cheering and groaning in equal measure. Just don’t go in expecting anything resembling realism or logic. It’s like a Michael Bay film, but with fewer Transformers and more apocalypse.