Wednesday, 9 December 2009

2012 (2009)

I actually saw this film a couple of weeks ago but I couldn't be bothered writing about it until now. That probably tells you everything you need to know.

The Maya are well-known for their sophisticated astrology and calendric system, and part of this system is the Long Count calendar, a base-20/base-18 calendar system that identifies a day relative to the Mayan creation date (August 11, 3114 BCE). Hooray for Wikipedia! Well, it seems that this system just ends on December 21st, 2012. Some people think it indicates that some sort of Doomsday event will occur on that date, but these people are stupid and it's all complete bullshit. The 2012 date is just when the Long Count calendar wraps around to zero again, and in fact the Maya did predict things occurring after this date. The 2012 event is just the Maya version of the Y2K bug, but lucky Mayan prophecy doesn't figure into Roland Emmerich's new film all that much, it's just a convenient date to hang his apocalypse porn on.

The plot summary reads like a disaster movie checklist. You've got your scientist, Dr Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who stumbles across some scientific data that predicts a massive disaster will occur sometime in the near future. The cause is something stupid about solar radiation liquefying the Earth's crust. I believe neutrinos are mentioned. He manages to grab the ear of White House Chief of Staff Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt), and together they formulate a plan to ensure the survival of humanity.

You've also got your relatable everyman, Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), a struggling writer who takes his two kids on a camping trip to Yellowstone park in an attempt to repair his damaged relationship with them. Is his ex-wife Kate (Amanda Peet) now dating a rich asshole? Oh, hell yeah. At Yellowstone they stumble across a crazed conspiracy theorist named Charlie Frost. He is played by Woody Harrelson, although I suspect that Harrelson just stumbled onto the set one day and they just started filming him and worked into the script as best they could. Through Frost they discover the truth about the coming apocalypse and learn of the existence of several arks, built by the governments of the world to weather the flood waters. As the world quite literally collapses around him, Curtis is determined to find the arks and bring his family to safety.

You can probably fill in the rest of the movie yourselves. They have multiple brushes with death, maybe meeting a few wacky side characters along the way. An evil politician will have a change of heart thanks to a stirring, heartfelt speech. Curtis will be presumed dead after heroically saving the day, but - phew! - he didn't die after all. A swelling orchestral score will shotgun-blast emotion into your face. A cute dog will leap to safety at some point. Every disaster movie cliche is dutifully followed with a minimum of originality or creativity.

One thing this movie does really, really well are the scenes of destruction. Apparently this movie cost $250 million to make and I believe it. There is an incredible limo chase through the streets of L.A. as the buildings collapse all around them (also a notable scene for featuring the world's worst Arnold Schwarzenegger impression). Aircraft take off as the runway plunges into a chasm behind them. Entire chunks of the continental shelf snap off and drop into the ocean. It's all very spectacular. Naturally, Emmerich applies the same anthropomorphic malevolence to earthquakes that he has to explosions (Independance Day) and cold (The Day After Tomorrow), with rifts in the earth chasing people all over the place. The most hilarious touch is when the Sistine Chapel cracks in two, right through the point where Adam and God's fingers touch. Well played, sentient earthquake, well played. There is also some great cinematography from Dean "The Patriot but not the Roland Emmerich one" Semler, with the camera kept at a respectable distance so that we aren't rudely interrupted by the reality of millions upon millions of people being killed. There really should be a name for this kind of apocalyptic spectacle cinema. Perhaps spectacalypse or funnageddon.

It is, to use a cliche, a roller coaster ride, but there's a reason that roller coaster rides don't go for 158 minutes, interrupted every half hour for a teary-eyed speech from Chiwetel Ejiofor. I mean, you'd get really bored and nauseous and you'd be thinking "Why is the guy from Redbelt lecturing me about humanity?" 2012 could have been the most entertaining 90 minute film ever made, but instead it's bloated with cliches and too damn long. Even the scenes of destruction get boring after a while and Emmerich has to make things more and more ridiculous to keep your attention. I defy you not to laugh when President Danny Glover gets slam-dunked by an aircraft carrier. It's not possible.

I figured the film was over at the point where Curtis and his family sneak aboard one of the arks, the US one naturally; everyone else has to share. The UK, France and Germany sharing an ark? Yeah, that should work out great. Instead Curtis and Co. end up dropping a piece of hardware into the gears, jamming the doors open and creating a horrifying disaster by extending the film for another half hour or so. Seemingly unaffected by the freezing arctic waters flooding the chamber, Curtis manages to repair the damage and is hailed as a hero for fixing the fault that he caused, costing the death of thousands in the process.

One thing I did like about this film is that it played things relatively straight. None of this Michael Bay bullshit where everybody is constantly cracking jokes to relieve non-existent tension. I think Emmerich realises that the boundless stupidity of a film like this provides it's own humour. The ending is a perfect example. After floating around for a few months they realise they just plum forgot about Africa and it survived all this apocalypse business just fine. Also the flood waters begin to recede so I guess the liquefaction of the Earth's crust is just a temporary problem. I wasn't really expecting Emmerich to have the balls to go through with a global apocalypse like in Deep Impact, but this is just insulting.

Roland Emmerich has made quite a career out of blowing shit up in big, stupid films, so it's no small thing to say that 2012 is Emmerich's biggest, stupidest and explodiest film ever. In fact, I believe that with this film Emmerich has reached the apotheosis in all three categories. With nowhere left to go I suggest Emmerich take up another profession such as shoe-making or dog grooming.

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