Back in the 1970’s there was a television and motion picture director who became a legend in his own time. Known as “The Master of Disaster” Irwin Allen is the name that was most associated then and now with the disaster movie. The formula of a disaster movie is very simple: hire an all star cast of actors. Half of them should be one-time Hollywood A-listers who can’t find work anywhere else and the other half should be unknowns or rising stars. Stick them into a disaster such as an earthquake, a mile high skyscraper on fire or an overturned ocean liner far out on the ocean. Stir in multiple storylines and season well with the efforts of the cast to escape or survive the disaster. One of the fun parts of going to see disaster movies in the 70’s was picking which actors were going to die and which ones were going to still be alive by the end of the movie.
Jump forward to the 1990’s and a director named Roland Emmerich who seems determined to take the title of “Master of Disaster” with an apocalyptic end of the world movie called “Independence Day” Roland Emmerich does other movies such as the successful military themed science fiction adventure “Stargate” which birthed a franchise that has lasted for 16 years on television. The less said about “Godzilla” the better. But Roland Emmerich keeps coming back to making movies about ending the world which he did again in “The Day After Tomorrow” and once more with no feeling whatsoever in 2012.
I’d like to think that the ghost of Irwin Allen sat in the back row of a theater somewhere, watching 2012 and wishing mightily that he were still alive so that he could show Emmerich how a disaster movie is supposed to be made. To date I haven’t seen a Roland Emmerich movie I’ve liked and that streak continues with 2012.
In 2009, U.S. government scientist Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is summoned to India by a friend of his whom during geological research has discovered a frightening fact. Due to off-the-chain solar flare activity The Earth is being bombarded with previously benign radiation that are now acting like super microwaves, cooking The Earth from the inside out. Eventually the tectonic plates of the continents will shift, causing a global devastation of Old Testament proportions that will wipe out mankind. Or maybe it’s the end of the world as predicted by The Mayans thousands of years ago. I’m a little fuzzy on which it is because the movie itself wants to have both explanations for what’s going on. Helmsley informs The President of The United States (Danny Glover) and his Chief of Staff (Oliver Platt) of what they can expect to happen: the end of the world in the year 2012.
We jump ahead to that year where part time limo driver and science fiction writer Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) is attempting to reconnect with his family. He’s separated from his wife Kate (Amanda Peet) who’s living with another man and he’s really trying hard at this but his snotty son Noah (Liam James) doesn’t make it easy. Fortunately his daughter Lilly (Morgan Lily) is on his side.
During a Yellowstone Park camping trip with the kids, Jackson meets Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson) a slightly cracked doomsday/conspiracy nut who informs Jackson of the Mayan prediction of the world’s end and insists the governments of the world know about it and are making preparations so that the elite, the rich and the hand-picked are saved from the cataclysm.
As if turns out, Charlie isn’t as cracked as he appears as horrendous earthquakes tear the United States apart and Jackson is barely able to rescue his family before the entire state of California slides into the Pacific Ocean. Charlie has passed on vital information to Jackson: somewhere in China, the world’s governments have banded together to build gigantic arks to preserve humanity. It then becomes a race against time as Jackson battles a world tearing itself apart to get his family to these arks before it’s too late.
Sounds like one hell of a thrilling movie, doesn’t it? Trust me: it ain’t. By the time John Cusack had outrun his third or fourth earthquake I was bored. Somewhere around the fifty-sixth explosion my jaws were tired from yawning. And by the time the movie hit the 120 minute mark I was playing poker with two guys in the row in front of me who were just as bored as I was.
The special effects are awesome, no doubt about that. There are some really breathtaking spectacles of destruction that are eye-popping. I’m not gonna say I didn’t enjoy those. But it’s what we have to endure between those scenes. I did enjoy seeing John Cusack in action hero mode. John Cusack is one of those Teflon actors that can survive being in a really bad movie because he’s so good at what he does. Even in the most ridiculous of action scenes (Cusack jumps two cars and a RV over chasms slight smaller than the Snake River Canyon) he sells the scene.
I’m always happy to see Amanda Peet in anything and she tries hard but she really doesn’t have much to do but stand around and scream for Jackson and her kids to run as the lava gushes and the earth explodes around them.
I’m really surprised by the lazy performance Danny Glover turns in as The President. There’s nothing Glover brings to the party to distinguish the role. In fact the way he plays The President makes you wish Bill Pullman was back in The Oval Office. Thandie Newton is equally bland as The President’s daughter. Oliver Platt has the thankless role of being one of the movie’s bad guys but there’s something really wrong when the movie’s supposedly bad guy is the only one making perfect sense every time he opens his mouth.
The main problem with 2012 is one that Irwin Allen never made in any of his disaster movies: we don’t give a flying kitty who lives or who dies in 2012 except for John Cusack and maybe one of his kids. Everybody else in the movie is so bland and we know so little about them that when they do die it doesn’t register one single blip. Out of all the deaths in the movie there was exactly only one that had any sort of emotional resonance. Irwin Allen knew enough to make us care about the people running from the explosions and toppling skyscrapers and avalanches. Otherwise, what’s the point?
I’m sure there are going to be those who will read this review and say I’m being too hard on 2012. They’ll say that I’m ‘missing the point’ or that it’s ‘just a popcorn movie’ or that it’s a movie ‘for you to turn off your brain and be entertained’
I have no idea why it should be necessary for me to turn off my brain to be entertained. I like my brain and see no reason why it should stop doing the job it was designed for while I watch a movie. That’s giving directors like Roland Emmerich an excuse to make lazy, unnecessarily loud and long movies like this one that are nothing more than CGI showcases and have no story to tell and no feeling to impart. If you have to see it on the big screen, go with my blessings but you’ll be missing nothing if you wait for the DVD.