[27 February 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Believe it or not, it was all on purpose. The Pull-ups subplot. The visual gag revolving around the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy “destroying” the White House. Woody Harrelson’s pickle obsession. If you ever needed proof that director Roland Emmerich was an overripe auteur just waiting to be embraced by a Jerry Lewis-less French film hierarchy, look (or better yet, listen) no further than the hilarious commentary track contained on the DVD/Blu-ray release of last year’s epic guilty pleasure, 2012.
This Armageddon on amphetamines extravaganza, this Irwin Allen with a goiter gonzo entertainment was so deranged, so deliriously over the top, that you initially had to believe that some of said staged narrative surrealism was accidental. But no, Emmerich and his co-writer/co-conspirator Harald Kloser make it perfectly clear during their feature length discussion that every borderline buttheaded move - from Danny Glover’s glum President covered in soot to a bloated Russian ex-boxer and his mudbloop offpsring - was preplanned and intentional from the moment they first set fingers to laptop.
Come on, what did you seriously expect? Logical plotting? Complex, three dimensional characters? Some shred of recognizable scientific or technological reality? This is Emmerich we’re talking about after all. He’s the man behind such mindless guilty pleasures as Stargate, Independence Day, the updated Godzilla, and The Day After Tomorrow. Did you honestly believe that after the less than stellar returns for that numbing Neanderthal nonsense 10,000 B.C. , the director who made destroying the planet his prime directive would avoid the upcoming Mayan cataclysm? Now who’s kidding who?
It’s 2009, and government geologist Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) stumbles upon one of the greatest - and most terrifying - discoveries in the history of mankind. Recent solar flares have flooded the Earth with atomic particles known as neutrinos, and just as the Mayans predicted, the year 2012 will see these radioactive bad boys radically restructure the planet. The core will get super hot, the crust will melt, and the huge continental plates will shift and separate. It means the end of all life on the planet as we know it - earthquakes, floods, volcanoes, and other humungous natural calamities. Taking the information to bureaucrat Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt), it is three more years before a rescue plan is put into action.
Cut to present day 2012, and unsuccessful author Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) is planning a weekend camping trip with his ungrateful kids. They just want to hang out at home with his ex-wife (Amanda Peet) and super cool plastic surgeon stepdad Gordon. Still, court ordered visitation is court ordered visitation, and the clan heads out to Yellowstone for a little R&R. There, they run into conspiracy theorist Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson). Jackson learns of the upcoming apocalypse, the secret plan to save the human race, the pitfalls of bad Flash animation, and his daughter’s bedwetting issues. Cut to the next day, and all the predictions are wrong. The planet is not dying on 12/21/2012. It’s going to Hell RIGHT NOW!
Step right up folks! Step right up and prepare to be mesmerized, bowled over, and generally blown away by Roland Emmerich’s 2012, a movie that is guaranteed to be the last word on impending cinematic end of the world scenarios for the foreseeable future. Never before has one film filled the screen with so much unbridled carnage. Indeed, the opening destruction of LA is so complete, so overflowing with images of crumbling freeways, cavernous earth cracks, and shattering skyscrapers that it literally boggles the brain. You sit staring at the images wondering what Emmerich and his award-worthy crew of F/X artists can drum up next - and then a subway train comes spewing out of the opened ground and bullets directly into the immense maw of an ever widening post-after shock abyss, and our jaw goes lax again.
This happens time and time again in 2012, from the moment when Yellowstone goes Vesuvius to the hotel-like ocean liner that gets its own version of the Poseidon’s ‘adventure’. Nothing is spared - Vegas is turned into a fitting rendering of Satan’s own ‘sin city’ (complete with fire lapping up from below) while Hawaii goes back to its flowing magma past. As the massive ash cloud turns DC into a no-breathing zone, the Washington Monument crumbles. Similarly, footage from Brazil has the famous Christ the Redeemer statue shattering into pieces. Nothing is sacred - not the Sistine Chapel, not the country of India, not various significant and meaningful locations around the globe. Gigantic tidal waves wipe out everything, offering up a sense of destruction that is indeed extermination level.
How and who survives remains 2012‘s aching Achilles Heel, however. No one expects well-drawn personalities and meaningful individual reaction in a movie excessively concerned with crushing and cremating famous facades. For their part, Cusack, Harrelson, Peet, Ejiofor, Platt, Danny Glover (The Pres), and Thandie Newton (his daughter), all acquit themselves admirably. As a matter of fact, given the shoddy script provided by Emmerich and co-writer Kloser, they do a damn fine job. The narrative is indeed a mess, combining elements both within the Mayan myth as well as tired old templates that Mr. Towering Inferno himself wore out decades ago. Emmerich also finds little to like about his emotional epiphanies, staging them in such a way as to more or less drain the sentiment out of the situation.
But at least he knows how to present epic action and destructive spectacle. Unlike his younger brothers in apocalyptic arms, like McG, Stephen Sommers, or Michael Bay, there’s no hand-held crazy cam frenzy to make you nauseous, no jackrabbit jumbled editing style to render even the most simplistic chaos indecipherable and the more complicated stuntwork unrecognizable. Instead, Emmerich lingers on his money shots, allowing us to take in details that other filmmakers would simply crosscut away from or over. This is especially true when Harrelson witnesses the Yellowstone eruption. Massive vistas are framed to fill the entire screen, huge plumes of deadly smoke and ash washing over the viewer like the choice cinematic cheese it represents - and we lap up every last cheddary bite.
As a collection of stunning set-pieces interrupted by dull as dirt nap exposition, 2012 is not meant to mean much (and the DVD release fails to add much more in the way of contextual insight - the Blu-ray is much better). Instead, it is created as an experiment in excess, a test of audience tolerances that skips your intellect and sense of propriety to digs right down deep into the arrested adolescent inside of us all. This is the reason movies are made - to show us things we would never be able to see in real life, to experience the end of the world as only a studio with serious mega-bucks can imagine. There is no lesson to be learned here, no call to treat Mother Nature with kindness or to keep watching the skies. No, Roland Emmerich has delivered exactly what he promised - the undeniable mother of all extinction level events - and all other pretenders to the catastrophe crack throne take heed. The king has supposedly delivered his genre swansong, and it’s a dozy!