The end of the world… again

Disaster-movie king Roland Emmerich has decided we’re due for another effects-laden vision of the end of the world.

This time it’s not alien attacks (Independence Day) or global warming (The Day After Tomorrow), it’s those darned ancient Mayans.

Not content with advancing chocolate and maths, to the delight and despair of schoolchildren everywhere, they’ve gone and predicted that the world ends on Dec. 21, 2012. Well, at least we get a movie out of it, one that’s heavy on the action and easy on the eyes and mind.

2012 opens in the present day, as geologist Dr. Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) goes to India and learns there’s been troubling solar activity that confirms the Mayan prediction that the world is going to fall apart in three years’ time. (Don’t worry too much about the science; in fact, if you need a popcorn refill this would be a good time to go).

In 2010, at a G8 summit, heads of state and government are made aware of this apocalyptic forecast and thus cooperate on a secret project to ensure the continuation of the human race, which involves 400,000 people being chosen for admission on a series of gigantic arks (the first of many Biblical references) to be constructed in the Himalayas. These chosen ones are meant to be from the deepest end of the gene pool, but many are ridiculously wealthy sorts paying 1 billion euro each for the tickets to help fund the project, because, obviously, arks don’t come cheap these days.

Soon enough, we’re in 2012, just before everything hits the fan, as deadbeat dad/novelist/limo driver Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) is about to take his unwilling kids Noah (Liam James) and Lilly (Morgan Lily) for a nice camping trip in Yellowstone National Park, which catalyzes his family’s round-the-world caper to outrun the apocalypse (not as unfeasible as you’d think – all you need are a fancy watch, airplanes, a Russian billionaire and a Tibetan monk).

Of course, the main attraction in an Emmerich film is not the plot, the acting or the plausibility; it’s the special effects and action. And 2012 certainly delivers, with a relentless rollercoaster ride of thrills, tense moments and awesome scenes, with every disaster you can think of rocking the screen: volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis and even a Titanic-esque sinking (take that Mr. Cameron!).

Many world wonders and heritage sites cameo before getting smashed to smithereens – or smashing other things to smithereens – including the Vatican and Mt. Everest. Although 2012 is predictably US-centric (the Americans hold most of the power and information), these international location shots successfully convey a worldwide sense of disaster. It’s impossible not to be viscerally affected by the realistic sight of cities sliding into water and continents splitting in two.

While certainly playing second fiddle to the special effects, the impressive ensemble of actors do an excellent job, gamely making the most of two-dimensional roles and providing a mix of simplistic sympathy and caricatured comic relief.

Cusack is an affable everyman, although the Jesus Christ (Jackson Curtis, John Cusack, all J.C.!) analogies soon become annoying (his obscure novel is repeatedly quoted from as if it were the Bible), the child actors aren’t too cutesy, and there is chemistry between Cusack and Amanda Peet as his ex-wife Kate.

On the earnest side of things are Ejiofor and Glover (President Thomas Wilson) as competitively charismatic young and old versions of Barack Obama and the always classy Thandie Newton as first daughter Laura Wilson, who looks far more comfortable in the White House here than she did as Condoleeza Rice in W.

Oliver Platt as Chief of Staff Carl Anheuser is the main villain of the piece, with a penchant for zingers (sample: “Those nutbags with placards had a point the whole time”), with further laughs from crazy conspiracy-theorist/radio jock Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson, barely breaking a sweat), jowly Russian oligarch/former boxer Yuri Karpov (Zlatjo Buric), Yuri’s trophy girlfriend Tamara (Beatrice Rosen) and Kate’s put-upon boyfriend/plastic surgeon/amateur pilot Gordon (Thomas McCarthy). Impersonations of world figures such as the British Queen (complete with corgis), Arnold Schwarzenegger and German Chancellor Angela Merkel increase the broad comedy.

2012’s tone veers between serious and campy, not always comfortably. While there are fun postmodern touches (a falsely reassuring “Governor Arnie” is referred to as an actor reading a script), the effects are sometimes too obviously used to “enhance” emotional scenes, such as when Gordon complains to Kate that “something is pulling us apart” seconds before an earthquake literally pulls them apart.

As always, Emmerich attempts to infuse 2012 with social commentary. Will the human race survive? Will humanity be lost in the process? Answers are certainly provided… but it’s best to ignore the pseudo-philosophy and focus on the action.

In the end, 2012 has thrills a plenty, incredible effects, a stellar cast, tongue-in-cheek cheese and a few memorable one-liners, which justifies the hefty 158-minute running time. What more could you want from a disaster movie? So sit back, turn off your brain and enjoy the ride – it’s not like it’s going to be your last.

Four out of five stars.

2012 (2008, Columbia Pictures, 158 minutes)
Directed by Roland Emmerich
Produced by Roland Emmerich, Mark Gordon, Harald Kloser, Larry J. Franco & Ute Emmerich
Written by Harald Kloser & Roland Emmerich
Starring John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Amanda Peet, Thandie Newton, Oliver Platt, Danny Glover, Woody Harrelson

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