A film review by Craig J. Koban November 21, 2009

2012 jjj

2009, PG-13, 158 mins.

Jackson Curtis: John Cusack / Kate Curtis: Amanda Peet / Adrian Helmsley: Chiwetel Ejiofor / Carl Anheuser: Oliver Platt / Charlie: Woody Harrelson / President: Danny Glover / Laura Wilson: Thandie Newton

Directed by Roland Emmerich / Written by Emmerich and Harald Kloser

Many films – whether they do so intentionally and unintentionally – adhere to a strict formula for success.  I think that Roland Emmerich certainly has a formula that he sticks to like glue and does not let go, especially when it comes to making disaster films.  He is the unmitigated military taskmaster of this genre, having effectively and quite thoroughly decimated the entire planet in three past films.

In INDEPENDENCE DAY a nasty alien invasion left most of the world’s cities to waste; in his remake of GODZILLA the infamous reptilian movie monster managed to make The Big Apple his new stomping grounds, with millions of dollars in property damage being levied in the process; and finally in THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW climate change itself was to blame for bringing on a new global ice age that spawned super cool air that could freeze and kill humans instantly and turn the planet into the worst winter out of a Saskatchewan nightmare.   

In short: Emmerich has an inordinate amount of childlike glee in taking our fragile planet and annihilating it to smithereens.   I mean, he does not just ravage the earth, he mercilessly ravages it. 

Because he has focused his directorial energy on reeking havoc on our world not once, not twice, not thrice, but four times now with the release of his newest orgy of death and mayhem, 2012, I have come to the understanding that Emmerich has a decided game plan with each of these films and does not sway from it in any way.  So, for all of you wannabe disaster filmmakers out there, be sure to get out your pens and paper and jot down the following "Disaster Film Recipe" to make your own large scale spectacles. 

1.  You need something that can totally destroy the Earth.                               

Okay.  Aliens have been done to death (I am sure that Emmerich would attest to that).  Natural disasters have been a staple of the genre since the heyday of 1970’s schlock-fests like EARTHQUAKE.  Hell, you can’t even use man-induced calamities like climate change because that’s been done too.  So, the only logical next choice would be the Mayan predicted apocalypse, which they foretold (cue ominous music) will occur on December 21, 2012 (will that be Eastern or Standard time?  Those pesky Mayans were a bit vague).  Even though the actual empirical evidence is shoddy at best to prove the absolute validity of their devastating 2012 prediction, they is no doubting that there is instant cult appeal in this tenant of Mayanism.   

Nonetheless, in 2012 the writers (Emmerich among one of them) uses this doomsday prediction of the ancient culture and marries that with a scientific explanation (although ever so flimsily):  Basically, larger than normal solar flares from the sun begin bombarding the Earth, which heats up the planet’s core, so much that it affects its tectonic plates.   Because of this disastrous shifting, all hell breaks loose: California falls into the Pacific Ocean, the Yellowstone National Park caldera explodes, and even entire continents drift to different positions.  Now, it's one thing to simply destroy the planet, but to actually dislocate continents in the process…that’s hauntingly fierce. 

2.  Have a do-gooder scientist that can see that the impending doomsday is upon us and, as a result, must go to extreme measures in order to be heard. 

This is a highly crucial ingredient, and 2012 is no exception.  The scientist in question is Adrian Helmsley, played by Chiwetel Ejiofer, whose has obligatory traits like being intelligent, resourceful, and, yes, knowledgeable about all things Mayan Doomsday related.  He’s the one, you see, that will have to break the bad news to highest political authority, which takes me to the next ingredient… 

3.  Have a U.S President that is tough as nails, noble minded, and will fight for the survival of his nation to the nasty, bitter end. 

Commander-in-Chief characters have been a focal point in ID4 and THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW and are again of key significance in 2012.  It also helps that you have a persona with a gravely and solemn voice that makes dire speeches to his staff and later the nation as to the importance of sticking together and overcoming all cultural and racial differences.  In 2012’s case, he is played by Danny Glover, who performs here with an ominous whisper of a shaman, which only typifies the impending doom, tension and madness that is about to erupt on Earth. 

4.  Have a duplicitous and amoral political stooge working under the President that does not have all of the peoples’ best interests at heart; make sure he's an unlikable a-hole.

We have that here in the form of Carl Anheuser, Chief of Staff, and he’s played with contemptuous sleazeball villainy by Oliver Platt.  He is required to frequently debunk the hero scientist’s warnings and to do everything in his power to ensure that he, among all others, manages to make it through the Apocalypse in one piece.  Yes, he is an unlikable a-hole.

5.  Have a secondary hero that is a divorcee that is deeply estranged from his wife and two young kids.  Optional character: an affluent and annoyingly sycophantic stepfather that the kids love more than their biological father. 

No disaster film would be complete without a man that is suffering from a nasty break-up from his family and is now trying to gain back some much needed self-respect (note: this makes him that much more of an appealing underdog when it comes to surviving the apocalypse and later saving the human race).  He is Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) who is a struggling science fiction author that is forced to become a limo driver when his recent literary effort sells under a thousand copies (note: be sure to give the divorced dad a demeaning job to increase the audience's sympathy quotient).  Jackson’s wife, Kate (Amanda Peet) has no love anymore for him, seeing as she has been newly swept off her feet by a rich and dweeby plastic surgeon (Tom McCarthy), but…no worry…because it does not take a forecast worthy of an ancient Mayan to see that the impending end of the world will have such an emotional toll on Jackson and Kate that they will reconcile. 

6.  Have a kooky, unrelentingly disturbed, and fanatical hermit/zealot that – even before the scientist discovers the reasons behind the impending apocalypse – was able to piece together how the world will end and, most importantly, what the government is secretly doing about it. 

This character is desperately needed to provide some simplistic comic relief, and 2012 has it in the form of Woody Harrelson playing a wide-eyed, deeply caffeinated, and hyperactive independent radio DJ that has so many conspiracy theories popping out of his mouth that he needs a filing system to keep them straight.  He also fulfills the duties of enlightening the divorcee character as to what is about to happen to the planet. 

7.  When the apocalypse begins, insert the obligatory escape sequence where the heroes – whether via a car, plane, and boat, whatever – are able to miraculously escape, just in the nick of time. 

This type of thrilling action sequence is also assisted when you have the characters defying all normal laws of physics by being able to outrun fireballs, explosions, and even earthquakes.  Thankfully, Jackson is able to take his limo – not the speediest of rides – and is able to pick up his wife, kids, and their surrogate, plastic surgeon husband/father and peal out of the driveway while the entire tectonic plate of the western hemisphere is getting seriously FUBARED.  Yes, seeing humans outrunning explosions is one thing (or, hilariously and incredulously doing so against super chilled air in THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW), but when you are able to drive away from a city being swallowed whole from the ground underneath it, that’s even more uproariously ambitious. 

8.  If you got a massive budget (let’s say around $250 million) and Industrial Light and Magic at your disposal, just don’t timidly obliterate the world, unleash hours of epic, catastrophic, and eye-popping special effects that unrelentingly pummel the earth.   Spare no expense.  I repeat: SPARE NO EXPENSE

2012 is no exception here.  As far as disaster films go when it comes to visual intrigue, this is the cinematic mother load.  No natural disaster is left off of the drawing board here.  We have earthquakes, volcanoes, uncontrollable fires, ash raining down from the heavens, multiple plane crashes, capsized ocean liners, and gargantuan tsunamis (the tidal waves are so unmentionably huge that they even flood over the Himalayan Mountains).  What’s key here is that if you promise that you are going to thoroughly end the world, spare no expense and use every bit of modern technological artifice to realize this vision, which is what Emmerich has done here.  At one point, a giant naval aircraft carrier is thrown directly into the White house, instantly destroying it.  Whoops…I almost forgot…

9.  Make sure to destroy The White House.   

‘Nuff said. 

10. The plot and characters are secondary to the film’s wanton devastation.

Let’s face it, character development is a non-entity here, folks.  Who cares if Jackson and his wife get back together?  Who cares if the scientist will have one final heart to heart with his father before things get positively biblical on earth?  Who cares if the President’s uber-hot daughter (Thandie Newton) bonds with scientist that has befriended her father?  All we care about is that we see billions of people dying and the earth’s major cities and countries being destroyed.  2012 most assuredly delivers.  Its cockamamie and ham-invested melodrama only makes us thirst for the end-of-the-world carnage that much more. 

11.  Have as many unbelievably cornball moments as possible that will leave you shaking your head in stupefied - but oddly affectionate - disbelief. 

2012 is aplenty with these types of cheesy moments.  I guess the first would be its disregard and misinterpretation of science in general (ah…science be damned!) which gets cheeky and unintentional laughs (like that scientists are able to see the tectonic plates moving from Google Earth…is there an Ap for that?).  I also howled at one ridiculous moment when an earthquake's cracks go perfectly through the point where God’s finger touches Adams in the Sistine Chapel painting (riiiggght).  Of course, seeing Jackson maneuver his limo through Pasadena while its being retrofitted to look like hell is laughably intense, as is a later sequence when Jackson attempts to outrun a pyroclastic flow unleashed by a new Yellowstone super volcano (yup, sure, uh-huh).  Then there is a real knee slapper where Jackson and family – on board a huge Russian cargo plane filled with luxury cars – escape a crash landing of that plane by driving one of the sedans out of it before it plummets into a mountain and kills everyone.  John McClane himself could not survive all of this.   

12.  Do not kill cute little animals. 

I can’t emphasis this ingredient enough.  If the end of the world comes you can indiscriminately kill just about anyone; you can kill foreign leaders, heads of state, scientists that discovered the earth-devastating geological apocalypse, and billions of other innocent human beings, but you cannot in any way kill an adorable doggie.  No way.  No how.  Pooches are apocalypse-proof.  Seeing human life – mostly in CGI, pixalized form – being destroyed at will by all of these horrible disasters is not as emotionally traumatizing as devoting several minutes of screen time to whether or not a tinnie-tiny canine will survive…like…a tsunami the size of Texas.  The Tsunami does not have a snowball's chance in hell.

13.  Last ingredient: Know when you’ve peaked as a disaster filmmaker and move on

Roland Emmerich recently stated that in a USA Today interview that 2012 will be his last disaster film.  He further recollected: “I said to myself that I’ll do one more disaster movie, but it has to end all disaster movies.  So I packed everything in.”   

He certainly did “pack” everything in here in 2012.  All of the aforementioned ingredients are abundantly here.   If you want a film that delicately traverses between being a frightening, awe-inspiring, and unapologetically massive action spectacular and an irreproachably ridiculous and cliché-barraged drama, then 2012 will definitely be right up your alley.  It has the world ending, routine and perfunctorily written characters extraordinarily surviving it all despite all known earth-bound logic, and more bravura and thanklessly breath-taking visual effects eye candy that you can throw a stick at.  And a cute dog lives.

What else were you expecting?  Aliens, giant reptiles, or super chilled Ice Age-induced air?  C'mon...that's sooooo five years ago!

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