2012: Emmerich's Schlock Actioner

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"2012," Roland Emmerich's overhyped disaster epos, is a special effects-driven winter popcorn flick and guilty pleasure par excellence.

 
Size matters: What's presented on screen is not one coherent movie, but a pastiche of all the disaster movies made in Hollywood over the past four decades or so, including a tribute to Emmerich's own pictures, the blockbusters "Independence Day" and "The Day After Tomorrow."
 
Punctuated by eight or nine big, expensive CGI set-pieces, the shamelessly derivative narrative makes sure to include every possible catastrophe imaginable, setting the action scenes on the air, under water, on the ground—you name it.  In the course of the film, the hero (played by John Cusack) drives every vehicle imaginable through fire, earth, ash clouds, earthquakes, and water, lots of water. 
 
The movie unfolds as an adventure ride, sort of a day spent at Disneyland, sampling all the attractions you can stomach, without taking a break or a pause to breathe. Opinions will differ as to what extent "2012" is a pleasurable joy ride, or an endless series of crashes, earthquakes, and explosions. Throughout, intentionally or unintentionally, the movie walks a fine line between the darkly humorous and the outrageously risible.  Some of the dialogue needs to be heard to be believed.
 
The film's PG-13 rating suggests that it was made for the entire members of the family–globally. The story's politics are so calculated and vague that the film should not upset any citizen, no matter what his or her ideological credo is.  With one or two excpetion, it should also please all members of the U.N.
 
Ditto for race: The yarn carefully balances its characters in terms of ethnicity and nationality (guess who's the big villain?).  With a nod to our new administration, the film's sensitive, populist president is black (Danny Glover), and the heroic protagonist, a conscientious scientist, is also black (Chiwetel Ejiofor).
 
According to reports, the budget of "2012" exceeds $250 million. Clearly, the money was not spent on the talent, for the movie lacks major stars, instead going for gifted and appealing actors, such as John Cusack and Chiwetel Ejiofor in the leads, and Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Thandie Newton, Danny Glover, Woody Harrelson, and Tom McCarthy in secondary roles.
 
Credited to Emmerich and Harald Kloser, the cliché-ridden narrative is presumably based on prevalent mythology. Centuries ago, the Maya left their calendar with a clear end date, 2012, with all its implications and ramifications. Since then, astrologists have discovered it, numerologists have found patterns that predict it, geologists say the earth is overdue for it, and even government scientists cannot deny the cataclysm of epic proportions that awaits the earth in 2012.
 
"2012" takes to an extreme the notion that every civilization on Earth has a flood myth, according to which there is a point when society isn’t functional anymore, and the planet needs to start all over again.  The Mayan calendar is set to reach the end of its 13th cycle on December 21, 2012; nothing follows that date. Some (select) people get a second chance to begin a new society with a new culture. 
 
The filmmakers would like us to believe that "2012" contains significant philosophical and political elements, but essentially it's an apocalyptic sci-fi-disaster-actioner, obeying all the rules of this hybrid of genres. While you could predict quite accurately who will survive (and who will perish), the only questions are, at what point in the story they'll get killed off and under what specific circumstances, or what specific disaster.
 
John Cusack plays Jackson Curtis, a writer whose devotion to his novel broke up his marriage, leaving his family of two children in flux. Ex-wife Kate (Amanda Peet) maintains friendly contact with Jackson, but she has long tired of competing with his work for his attention. A failed author, trying to keep his life together, Jackson now works as a limousine driver by day. 
 
For her part, Kate now lives with her sensitive and considerate boyfriend Gordon (Tom McCarthy, likable), who's adored by the kids; they prefer his company and trust him better than they do their own dad.  We all know that, at heart, Jackson is a loyal dad, but he needs to prove that. The only way to prove it is to do everything and anything to save his family in times of crisis. And, oh boy, does the catalogue-like yarn offer him crises to overcome.
 
The central story is presented from two points of view, those in the know, who realize the impact of the cataclysmic events that await the earth, and those in the no, individuals who remain in the dark.  Standing in for the average citizen, Jackson is a civilian who stumbles into the news that the world as we know it is coming to an end. 
 
Jackson's everyman perspective is counter-balanced by that of the "experts" inside Washington's power halls, seen through the eyes of Adrian Helmsley, a government scientist who makes the fast track to the inner-workings of the White House, when he discovers a sequence of changes in the earth’s core, crust and atmosphere. As the counterpart to Jackson, Adrian knows from the beginning what is going to happen and what the government plans to do, but he has doubts and second thoughts, wondering whether this particular plan is the right one to do.
 
Superficially borrowing from news headlines, the story depicts a plan at the very highest echelons of the world’s governments. The shrewd politicos realize that they will not be able to save the entire human race, but they will be able to save some, and those few will have the chance to begin society anew. 
 
Take our own bright and humanistic President, Thomas Wilson, who's quick to understand the crisis the world is about to face. Rational, he's determined to prevent mass hysteria and paranoia by keeping the information secret. The president’s chief science advisor, Adrian Helmsley, has managed to decode the earth’s messages and is determined to do what he can to help as many people as possible. 
 
These two men are contrasted with Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt), the president’s chief of staff, who might be pompous and quick-tempered, but he is equally determined to see some members of society survive. ;Problem is, Anheuser favors the upper class, the rich, powerful, and famous.

The organizing principle of the multi-national, multi generational text is that of fathers and sons, and in one case, father and daughter, President Wilson and daughter Laura. Early on, Laura (Thandie Newton) is shocked to find out what her father’s government has hidden from the world.  Laura then faces another shocking revelation.  Leading a task group that procures cherished works of art ("Mona Lisa") for preservation, Laura is initially unaware of the true nature of her assignment–until the disaster becomes imminent; rest assured that before long Daddy-President Wilson will explain to her his motives and ask for her forgiveness.

In the course of the film, there are numerous scenes, some lasting only seconds, in which fathers and sons communicate, or try to communicate, in person or via telephone and computer, aiming to reach a better understanding of each other.

It seems that the only man outside the government with any clue as to what's about to happen is the radio host and crazy prophet Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson, over the top), who broadcasts his predictions to anyone who will listen, until he himself goes up in flames in a sequence that would make Cecil B. DeMille ("The Ten Commandments") jealous.

In recent disaster and action movies, the fun derived from seeing Gotham and its architectural monuments destroyed. This flick, however, takes the saga back to L.A. (where "Earthquake" was set) and to other parts of California ("Towering Inferno" was set in San Francisco). As the earth’s plates start to shift–destroying L.A. in the process–Jackson and his family begin a desperate journey of escape and survival by land, water, and air hoping to see the new world.

To be fair, the special and visual effects do not dominate entirely the narrative, which unnecessarily runs two hours and forty minutes. In fact, it takes almost a whole reel before the first action piece is inserted.   By my count, about half of the movie consists of visual effects. The sheer number of different types of disasters that happen in "2012" must be record-breaking, and the whole schlocky film feels like it was designed to surpass any previous disaster film in history.

The CGI begin on a relatively and reasonably small scale before escalating to the kinds of proportions, in which size rather quality or impact is the determining factor.  In one of the first scenes, Kate is trapped as her local grocery store is ripped to shreds by a major earthquake.  In the course of the film, there are more earthquakes, fissures opening in the ground, several cities destroyed, powerfully sweeping floods, huge volcanic eruptions.  Among the bigger, more impressive set-pieces are the destruction of L.A. in a 10.5 earthquake, and Yellowstone Park going up in a 20-mile-wide explosion of lava.

Additionally, the production team has built a few outdoor “shaky floor” stages, giant sets built on gimbals that director Emmerich could move as his actors ran through. For example, an entire city street with palm trees, concrete, and facades of houses, was put on huge gimbals and movers.

Emmerich seems to have put everything he knows about filmmaking into "2012" (as if it were his very last project), resulting in a mass entertainment of mass destruction.

Jackson Curtis – John Cusack
Adrian Helmsley – Chiwetel Ejiofor
Kate Curtis – Amanda Peet
Carl Anheuser – Oliver Platt
Laura Wilson – Thandie Newton
President Thomas Wilson – Danny Glover
Charlie Frost – Woody Harrelson
Gordon Silberman – Tom McCarthy
Tony Delgatto – George Segal

Credits
A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures presentation of a Centropolis production.
Produced by Harald Kloser, Mark Gordon, Larry Franco.
Executive producers, Roland Emmerich, Ute Emmerich, Michael Wimer.
Co-producers, Volker Engel, Marc Weigert, Aaron Boyd.
Directed by Roland Emmerich.
Screenplay, Harald Kloser, Emmerich.
Camera , Dean Semler.
Editors, David Brenner, Peter S. Elliot.
Music, Harald Kloser, Thomas Wander.
Production designer, Barry Chusid.
Supervising art director, Don MacAulay; art directors, Dan Hermansen, Ross Dempster, Kendelle Elliott; set designers, Jay Mitchell, John Burke, Peter Ochotta, Douglas A. Girling, Nancy Brown, Peter Stratford, David Clarke; set decorator, Elizabeth Wilcox; costume designer, Shay Cunliffe.
Sound, Michael McGee; supervising sound editor/sound designer, Paul N. J. Ottosson.
Visual effects supervisors, Volker Engel, Marc Weigert; visual effects and digital environments, Uncharted Territory; visual effects, Scanline VFX, Double Negative, Pixomondo, Hydraulx.
Special visual effects and animation, Sony Pictures Imageworks, Digital Domain; special effects supervisor, Mike Vezina.
Stunt coordinator, John Stoneham Jr.
Associate producer, Kirstini Winkler.
Assistant director, Tommy Gormley.
Second unit director, Aaron Boyd; second unit camera, Don McCuaig.
Casting, April Webster.
MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 159 Minutes.