Brandon's Word: 2012 Will Send Your Eyes and Brain to War
by Brandon Lee Tenney
November 12, 2009
"It's the end of the world as we know it… [again]." -R.E.M. (Except that last part, of course.)
I'm very tempted to make this review comprised of a single sentence. That review would read: 2012 is delicious candy for the eyes, brain-boggling insanity for your mind, and tooth-rotting idealism for your superego; and it's a film not to be missed in theatres.
Since you all are so used to my verbosity, though, (and because 2012 does actually deserve more than a single sentence) I won't leave it to just that line. So let's get to it, shall we? This is Roland Emmerich's third, and reportedly last, film in his "disaster trilogy" that began in 1996 with Independence Day. Sure, you could include Godzilla in there, but Emmerich's Big Three are ID4, The Day After Tomorrow, and, now, 2012. And what each of those previous films had, the destruction, the familiar character archetypes, the often ludicrous, but manipulatively thrilling set pieces, rest assured, 2012 has 'em. It's got all of it and more. 2012 is bigger in scope than The Day After Tomorrow, though while their conceits may differ, when both films are boiled down they're both about us (Humans) versus Earth. And while shades of ID4 glisten to life amid 2012's chaos, it's still no Independence Day. The characters aren't as actualized or fun or honest (or, for that matter, played as strongly). The turmoil is never as believable or earnest. (And when something isn't as believable as a world-wide alien invasion, that's really saying something.) Now that those comparisons are out of the way, let's dissect just what 2012 is.
It's too much, really. Of everything. The first fifteen minutes of the film cover no less than three years of screen time, from 2009 to 2012. In those three years geologist Adrian Helmsley, played wonderfully by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is introduced to the problem (solar eruptions are causing the neutrinos in Earth's core to mutate or evolve or something which is allowing them to act on physical matter instead of pass right through it. Earth's core is now a microwave. And it's starting to melt Earth's crust. Eep!), he's promoted within the ranks of the White House to the position of chief scientific advisor to President Thomas Wilson, played forgettably (and quietly) by Danny Glover, and is then unknowingly complicit in the murders of a bunch of people who attempt to spread the word about Earth's ultimate demise. Oh, and a secret project is started in the middle of China, a last-ditch effort to save (some of) humanity. That's the first fifteen minutes or so. And that right there is a great representation of the movie as a whole; a lot of shit happens. A lot of it is interesting. But more often than not, the most interesting bits are only briefly mentioned or alluded to in favor of spewing spectacle onto the screen.
But that's what's putting asses in the seats, no? To be completely forthright, it's what put my ass in that seat. I was as giddy as an eight-year-old on the last night of Hanukkah waiting for 2012 to start because I knew that above all else I was about to be taken on a wondrous ride of CGI and quippy cliches and surface emotion that may burn out quick, but it's sure brilliant while it lasts. And 2012 did not disappoint in that respect. I'm still unsure as to why this wasn't released this past summer. 'Cause it's the very definition of a summer blockbuster. Generally the CGI is top-notch. Whether it's a tsunami breaching the summit of the Himalayas, a super-volcano's eruption in Yellowstone, or the balls-out, merciless destruction of Southern California, it's a thing of beauty to behold. Though, for some reason, Emmerich decided to have every vehicle in the film attempt a sweet jump at one point or another. Those shots, especially of Jackson Curtis's limousine outrunning and leaping over the fissures made by a 9.4-on-the-Richter-scale earthquake are laughable. But like all great summer blockbusters, 2012 doesn't let implausibility impede its will.
How Adrian Helmsley and Jackson Curtis, played decently by John Cusack, first meet is at once thoroughly ridiculous and perfect. Curtis, a divorced father of two (and a struggling novelist), just so happens to take his kids to Yellowstone National Park on the same day that Helmsley just so happens to be at Yellowstone National Park checking up on his team who are monitoring the seismic activity of the super-volcano that resides beneath the land. Curtis and his children hop over a clearly marked government fence in order to enter the restricted area. Instead of being shot-on-sight, Curtis and his children are spared after Helmsley recognizes Curtis's name; he just so happens to be reading Curtis's book, an idealist manifesto about the goodness of humanity as framed by the sci-fi trope of a downed, doomed spacecraft (no wonder it only sold 400 copies). The two of them then converse openly about just how fucked we all are as a race, ’cause shit's about to get real, real quick. Then they part.
There are a couple problems with the above: 1) It's completely unbelievable that that situation would actually go down like it does in the film; 2) It's okay for Helmsley to just discuss this double-secret probation level information about the fate of Earth with a random civilian and then release him after we've already seen that the governments of the world are killing people left and right in order to keep that information hidden? But that's what the film is. It's a series of coincidences and improbabilities stacked atop one another like Jenga blocks on fire. But because we, the audience, are so often flying by, around, and through those enflamed blocks like we're in the seat of a theme park thrill ride instead of a theatre, the coincidences are fairly easy to dismiss during the fact.
That is, until the ride stops. And too often, it does. It stops to ogle at Thandie Newton who plays first daughter Dr. Laura Wilson, who is absolutely, stunningly beautiful, and whose character is just so, so annoying in that she's given a PhD, but is completely defined by her father and then her partnership with Helmsley. The ride becomes bogged down in the melodrama molasses of Curtis and his ex-wife Kate and her new husband Gordon, played by Amanda Peet and Thomas McCarthy respectively. And the ride is never able to find its initial speed after it becomes simply a scripted, more effects-heavy episode of "The Amazing Race." It's this that causes everything to screech to a halt. Emmerich's characters aren't realized enough to be on the screen for more than a few minutes without something exploding in front, behind, or to the side of them. They just become annoying.
And what's most annoying is Emmerich's refusal to explore the darkness of what, in reality, would be the darkest, most uncompromising situation we humans have ever had to face. 2012 may as well be a sermon about idealism and the horrors, the evils of pragmatic, realistic thinking. The beginning only vaguely touches on the lengths taken to keep such a global secret from leaking. Those lengths - murder.
Well of course the governments of the world would have to murder people to keep something as huge as building giant, sea-faring arks in the middle of China that are to be populated (just before Earth goes completely to shit) by the most important and the richest members of society at one billion dollars per ticket. If that got out, there'd be anarchy. 2012, however, casts this idea as the villain. Are we truly saving humanity if to do so we must first lose our humanity?, Helmsley posits during his emotionally climactic speech on board Ark 4. My answer: Yes. A future born of cruelty, of necessity, is still a future. But since Emmerich is an interminable idealist, the gates of Ark 4 are let down so that it can be filled with those who would have otherwise perished. Oh, but lest we forget, it's not average citizens that rush on board Ark 4; it's the same billionaires who are only there and stranded because their Ark, Ark 3, suffered structural damage.
The idealism doesn't make any sense, which is why I found myself siding with the film's main antagonist (other than Earth itself) Carl Anheuser, played quite well by Oliver Platt. When the president decides to stay behind like some sea captain of old thereby shirking the very duties he was elected to uphold, it's Anheuser who steps up. He's always ready and willing to make the tough decisions, the decisions that would have to be made in a situation where the Earth itself is set to destroy us all, and he's always villainized for it. Because he's willing to do what it takes to make sure that humanity will survive in some capacity rather than not at all, he's the villain? Please. It's Curtis and Helmsley's idealism that nearly destroys Ark 4 and kills everyone on board in the first place.
And the irony of it all is that after Earth settles down, when the eruptions cease and the earthquakes settle into dormancy again, Emmerich focuses on the family that's been brought together over the course of the chaos. There's Jackson Curtis and his ex-wife Kate, their faces bathed in a golden, forgiving sun. In front of them are their children, arm in arm. A family unit back to together. And it only took the fucking apocalypse, the death of Kate's new husband, the loss of billions of human lives (not to mention the veritable extinction of the majority of Earth's other wildlife) across the globe, being forced to spend day in and day out together on an Ark sailing toward the prospect of an unforgiving future on the continent of Africa, and being thrust back into the stone age to make it so. There's some idealism for you.
Overall, 2012 is, at its core, a visual treat. Emmerich knows how to lead and manipulate his audience, to give them just what they want, to shock them at just the right moment, and when to coddle them, to make them feel safe so he can thrill them all over again. But the film's lack of any tangible villain and its inability to produce much over-arching tension lead to a film that will have you on the edge of your seat during every chase, but knowing that no harm will ever come to the main characters even though we're watching them fight against impossible odds and the hopeless fact that Earth is literally cracking beneath their feet. It's like watching a video game cinematic, there's some interesting stuff happening, but you know nothing too fatal is ever going to come about because that's just not how the medium works.
And that's just not how Emmerich works. He'll play with cliches to a point, he'll subvert your expectations for a powerful, moving presidential speech or introduce a seedy character with a Russian accent and the best voice in any film this year only to redeem him in the end or create a hilarious role for Woody Harrelson in order to spew as much exposition onto the screen at once, but when it's all said and done, you know exactly what's going to happen to every one of 2012's characters. It's a Roland Emmerich blockbuster. And aside from the gross idealism, that's kind of the appeal. It's not going to expand your mind, though some of its early ideas or its Battlestar Galactica-esque finale certainly could have, but it will put a smile on your face for one hundred and fifty-eight minutes.
This might be Emmerich's last foray into the disaster movie sub-genre, even though 2012's beginning teases at just what the master of disaster could do with the entire solar system as his canvas, so make it a point to catch this one in theatres. The spectacle is worth it. And the debate regarding just what you're going to do when December 21st, 2012 actually rolls around is a lot of fun to have afterward, too. Who cares what NASA says, Roland Emmerich is a prophet of disastrous proportions, and 2012 is his scripture.