2012: The Most Epic Disaster Movie of My Lifetime

You’ve never seen destruction like this. Roland Emmerich apparently decided in reading about the Mayan calendar doomsday conspiracies that his previous armageddon films, Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, were far too subtle. This is the type of film where the scope of the effects work and the imagination behind the mayhem glue you to your seat. The beauty behind 2012 is that it takes disaster movie elements and cranks them up to the nth degree. Seen tsunamis bury skyscrapers? Here they bury mountain ranges. Seen volcanoes rain lava and ash on our heroes? Here a super-volcano sends off an atom bomb of lava and makes ash rain thousands of miles away. Seen buildings destroyed? Here you have entire continents destroyed. Emmerich gives us perhaps the most impressive effects sequence of the year… and then tops it… and then tops it again. This is the daddy of all disaster films, and easily the pinnacle of Emmerich’s career to date.

In 2009, massive solar flares alert a select number of scientists, including Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), that the Earth’s core is rapidly heating up as a result. Dr. Helmsley reports this to Chief of Staff Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt), who sets in motion a plan to save humanity– we see the Mona Lisa replaced by a forgery, so the original can be carefully stored, and we see plans for a secretive dam being built in China that we suspect is not a dam at all. Flash forward to 2012, where one-time author/current limo driver Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) is late picking up his kids (Morgan Lily and Liam James) for a camping trip to Yellowstone. His ex-wife Kate (Amanda Peet) and her new boyfriend Gordon (Tom McCarthy) eye him with scorn before they depart. While in Yellowstone, Curtis sees dried-up lakes and new government testing facilities. He also meets a conspiracy-filled radio host, Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson), who tell Curtis the end of the world is coming due to the Earth’s crust being displaced, which will set off massive earthquakes, tsunamis, and super-volcanoes. He also claims to have a map to the place where the government is building ships to save those rich enough to buy a ticket for survival.

Now don’t get me wrong– this is not a “good” movie. The characters are all very familiar, the speeches we’ve heard a hundred times, and the Russians are the fat bulbous detestable cliches that we’ve seen since the Cold War. I don’t mean for this review to convert those who know that they hate disaster movies. I’m not saying this is the disaster movies that will sway you on the ability of disaster movies to entertain. However, if you find enjoyment in the specific entertainment value that disaster movies provide (which I do), then get ready for two and a half hours of bliss. The special effects are among the best of the year– unlike Michael Bay, Emmerich gets off on the long shot, where instead of editing an action sequence to pieces, he lets the shot be packed with special effects without cutting, totally absorbing you into the suspense. The limo racing away from the splitting crust as the freeway crumbles, raining cars into the family’s path, is as intense and joyous a silly action sequence as I’ve seen since Live Free or Die Hard– in fact, it’s better than that. This is the moment where you either buy the movie in its entirety or check out early.

Emmerich also picked some terrific character actors to lead the way. Cusack brings his particular brand of barely likable schmo charm to Jackson– he’s believable as both a jaded writer and impatient limo driver. Chiwetel Ojiefor is one of the best young actors in Hollywood, and while he doesn’t have anything in terms of character (he’s the noble government worker who believes in humanity over the power of the almighty dollar), he delivers his speeches passionately and earnestly. Oliver Platt is a national treasure when it comes to playing smarmy villains; he fully embraces everything ugly about his chief of staff, yet manages to give him shades of dimension in between the dialogue. Danny Glover mostly sits and looks grim, but his mere presence provides some dignity to the proceedings. Amanda Peet is fairly worthless as Cusack’s ex-wife– far better is Tom McCarthy, as the nice guy boyfriend who Jackson’s kids like but who we know from past film experiences will be very very lucky if he survives. He manages to toe the line between the obnoxious new love interest stereotype and the harmless better-option new love interest stereotype… unlike in other films, where you can’t wait for that character to die, I rooted for his survival. Finally, there’s Woody Harrelson as the conspiratorial radio host, who joyously chews the scenery. Every disaster movie needs a shameless ham, and Harrelson not only embraces the ham, he bathes in it.

Why was this movie not released in IMAX? It’s easily the “biggest” movie in recent memory. Shockingly, it’s all based on a real theory– when Harrelson spouts off about Hapgood’s crust displacement theory, and that Einstein believed it was true, he’s not lying. Now, the movie loses steam in the last half-hour… the chaos has mostly ended, and the action moves inside the ships, and the sheer epic nature of the film hits a roadbump. However, when they look outside, and see an ocean covering the Himalayas, where only Mount Everest and K2 are large enough to peek out as islands, we get the full vision of how BIG a scale Emmerich wanted to operate on. This isn’t a film where you feel the effort to entertain– this is a labor of love for Emmerich, filling every corner of the film with every disaster movie cliche that he truly and earnestly loves. I love them too, and even with its flaws, I loved this movie. And yes, just as in every other Emmerich film, the cute little dog survives.

~ by russellhainline on November 19, 2009.

2 Responses to “2012: The Most Epic Disaster Movie of My Lifetime”

  1. I have decided that I fall into the camp of people who don’t like disaster movies. I reached that conclusion when I saw two of the heros in this movie (the noble scientist and the President’s adult daughter) discussing their bad dating experiences in high school as they are on a military plane flying over the destroyed Planet Earth to the arks parked in the Himalayas which intended to save the human race. I love the special affects, but the incredibly banal dialogue as millions die around these people drives me crazy. Oh well, either you like this kind of movie, or you don’t.

  2. […] Salvation 7. Where the Wild Things Are 6. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince 5. Knowing 4. 2012 3. District 9 2. Star Trek 1. […]

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