Sometimes, I gotta wonder what it’s like to hang out with director Roland Emmerich, especially when he’s planning the destruction of either American or religious icons in some of his big budget blockbusters, like Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow or currently in the new movie, 2012. I mean is there a childish glee, of a social/political motivation or does he just think it looks plain cool? I don’t know.
Maybe it’s all of the above, only Emmerich knows for sure… but it’s all on display in 2012.
2012 uses the ancient Mayan prophecy of the expiration of the Earth as it’s core. In 2009, an Indian scientist discovers that scientific pieces are falling together that precipitate a global cataclysm that will reach it’s zenith in the year 2012. He warns a US colleague, a lower level White House scientific consultant named Adrian Helmsley, and from there a process begins to preserve our current culture in the world that will come after this happens. As 2012 comes we primarily see what happens through the eyes of Helmsley and an American would-be writer and divorced father struggling to support his family named Jackson Curtis. Curtis discovers more of what’s happening on his own, as he’s taking his kids on a weekend getaway to Yellowstone National Park and comes into contact with Charlie, the broadcaster of a pirate radio station that has put all the pieces together and is there to see what’s about to happen. Once the destruction starts, it’s a race against time for all the principals to get to their goal, which is whatever means that has been designed to preserve what will be left of humanity in the end.
Pretty heady stuff, especially as its all being packaged as your literal big-ass popcorn movie, the result of which, I thought was an overall enjoyable mixed bag. There’s obviously a plethora of spectacular visual effects here, sometimes too many for the film’s own good, there’s a few holes here and there, some good characters, some weak characters, some absolute groaner moments and even in the midst of all of the popcorn action, a few moments of genuine poignancy that unfortunately gets swallowed up more by the spectacle of it all.
It’s obvious that Emmerich loves his big scenes of mass destruction, and visually they do look spectacular, though the action that they’re placed on sometimes feels more detached than anything else. There’s a couple of big scenes in particular which are these escape-by-the-edge-of-your-seat scenes, that happen a little too close together and a little too conveniently- showing reaction shots of Jackson Curtis and his family while all of this mass destruction is going on that sort of left me a little detached from the immediacy of it all. I know that sounds a little odd, but while your focused on this one group of people, there are literally thousands being killed in the scenes in the process, with just the idea that they’re cannon fodder for the big effect. Now I know you can’t necessarily get into everyone’s situation in something like this, even in a 2 hour and 40 minute movie, but still the end result, as it’s handled here, feels more like a Universal Pictures thrill ride rather than something that has real life and death at stake- again, I understand that, but considering a few of the other ideas at work here, some of this just isn’t as genuine as it could be.
Most of those bigger ideas come into the back third of the film, once the destruction has started and the process begins to find what will be the salvation at the end. And there is indeed a plan there, that had it’s own process at work. One of the things that’s tossed off as a throwaway line is that people were selected for this based on a computer program that found those that were most apt to contribute and rebuild. The line is just tossed out, but it would’ve actually been cool to have seen that at work here- this event being kept secret from the mass population until it was already upon us, but yet several hundred thousand were selected for this salvation, what happens there? We do see that of sorts through one person, but that person wasn’t part of the selection, instead he was one who buys his way in, literally helping to fund this big project, but I think it would’ve been cool to have seen this from someone else’s POV. Another point happens when the end events are really accelerated into happening and all of a sudden, thousands are facing the possibility of not getting in on this salvation. Helmsley pleads the case that every effort must be done to save the people that at that moment can’t be saved, with all of the world leaders going along with it, except for the man who is currently in charge of the Americans, who is not the President (our President here is played by Danny Glover, and seeing how the winds of politics blow for Emmerich, this President is displayed in a very sympathetic way and makes the ultimate sacrifice in helping his fellow Americans). This character, Helmsley’s boss, played by Oliver Platt, makes what should be the all too real pragmatic arguments in not taking the time to save all of these people and of course, he could just as well be Snidely Whiplash at that point, serving as the “evil” American for the movie. But further… as the carnage around that scene starts, and human lives are threatened, all attention is turned to a small dog who does manage to get to it’s owner in the end, giving this scene it’s biggest groaner moment…
Now I know this probably sounds like I’m going to trash this in the end, and yet I can’t, I do think it’s worth seeing, especially on a big screen. At 2 hours and 40 minutes, I thought this moved very quickly and that’s always a plus for something like this. And it does have it’s genuine good moments, but further it just spurred some great conversation at the end, whether it came at the expense of some of the weaker parts or through some of it’s good ideas, and certainly presents some food for thought, but I won’t guarantee that it will work for everyone in the same way.
The film’s lead characters of Helmsley and Curtis are played by Chiwetel Ejifor and John Cusack. Ejifor, for my money, is one of the best actors working today and he does a good job here, though a scene could be added when he reaches his epiphany near the film’s end, basically telling you how he got there. As the film started, I thought Cusack’s character was going to be more of the one-note smart-assed variety, but he grew on me as the film went on, and even though this film won’t be at the top of anyone’s list for how good he can be, I still think he’s solid here.
Reportedly, Emmerich wants to continue this story on television and go further into what has to happen to rebuild a new world from all of this. I kind of hope he gets his chance, but at the same time, can it be handled in such a way in which the gravity of the situation can be preserved? Well, it probably can, but would viewers necessarily want that? These days, I figure the answer to that is “no” especially on the scale that this is built on, and if one was to truly go into what it would take to rebuild a society after this, I’d expect that we’d see a lot of messageboard responses of being consistently bored week to week (just based already on things that I’m seeing around for new TV shows like FlashForward and V and the already canceled Dollhouse), but I digress…
In the end, though I give it it’s lumps, I do think 2012 is worth seeing, but I expect I’m probably going to be a minority on this one…