‘2012’ movie review: John Cusack in Roland Emmerich’s end of the world epic

If there’s one good thing to come out of Roland Emmerich’s 2012, it’s that this is the end of the road for the disaster movie genre. This is the mother of them all, combining earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, and more in a film that combines elements of, well, Earthquake, Volcano, and Tsunami? That last one isn’t so famous, but for good measure, Emmerich throws in bits and pieces of Independence Day, Deep Impact, The Core, The Poseidon Adventure, Airport, and so on and so forth.

After this one, there’s no need for filmmakers to revisit the genre, and after more than 2.5 hours of 2012, you’ll have little desire to anyway. What’s the point? This stuff was done to death in the 70s and now it’s all been regurgitated back at us, though I suppose you could still scrape together pieces of The Hindenburg, Rollercoaster, Hurricane, and The Swarm for fun. When Time Ran Out finally killed off the Irwin Allen heyday; 2012 should do the same for the Emmerich era.

But it will be popular. They’ve pulled together a good cast, the end of the world material is salacious, and the trailer was great. And truth be told, it isn’t all that bad; it’s the apocalypse as told by Looney Tunes, and it’s so wacked out that you can’t possibly take it seriously. At 100 minutes, you could have a lot of fun with it; as a 158-minute ‘epic’ with no depth, you begin to wonder why the world is ending, billions are dying, and you just don’t give a damn.

The first 20 or so minutes of the film are dedicated to exposition: in 2009, unique solar flares are discovered to be emitting neutrinos, which in turn heat the earth’s core. This will eventually cause the core to become a sea of liquid upon which the earth’s tectonic plates will drift, causing the aforementioned disasters, on the precise date of December 21, 2012, or 12-21-12.

World leaders, aware of the grave nature of the situation, make arrangements for themselves and the wealthy while keeping the public in the dark. This doesn’t sit so well with Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who first brought the news to the president’s chief of staff Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt), but he goes along with it anyway. President Thomas Wilson (Danny Glover) seems to have concerns as well, while his daughter Laura (Thandie Newton) helps to preserve famous artwork for the apocalypse. What exactly are the preparations? You’ll find out at the end of act two, but they’re rather biblical, illogical, and impossibly silly.

The end of times is upon us, but I’m sure you’re more interested in the trials and tribulations of everyman Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), divorced father, author, and limo driver who picks up his two kids from mom (Amanda Peet) and her new husband (Tom McCarthy) for a camping trip in Yellowstone just in time for all hell to break loose. You may remember this setup from Spielberg’s War of the Worlds; but that film, for all its story failings, actually managed to create a sense of fear and dread, at least for a while.

That’s exactly what we should get out of a film about the end of the world. Or at least, a sense of the awesome power of nature. But in 2012, as Los Angeles literally disappears beneath earthquakes and tidal waves, we get a throwaway action sequence with Curtis and co. racing through city streets in a limo, dodging crumbling freeways and toppling skyscrapers. By the end, L.A. is gone, but no one has died: our protagonists have survived, and the city was an empty void of buildings and streets and automobiles. The other millions that must have perished don’t count.

Later on, we do get scenes of death amidst the destruction, like when a tidal wave deposits the U.S.S John Kennedy on top of the White House. But these scenes are only used as an easy way of disposing of side characters; Emmerich is only interested in showing massive scenes of death and destruction and how they relate to his small cast of characters, not in examining the greater effect on humanity. There are other side characters, like Harry (Blu Makuma) and Tony (George Segal), the most interesting characters in the movie, who exist here only to die. What a shame.

Eventually, Curtis and family hop on a plane to Yellowstone, meet doomsday prophet Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson), head to Las Vegas, hop on a bigger plane, and head towards safety as the world crumbles beneath them. We get a happy ending, of course, which is completely impossible given the events that took place during the movie, and a total cop out for a movie titled 2012. Time for Miracles, by Adam Lambert, plays over the closing credits, and I feel cheated by this epic disaster movie and leave with no desire to see another.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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