Today, however, director Roland Emmerich has — with the very important assistance of CGI technology — largely assumed Allen’s crown.
Emmerich has already obliterated the White House (ID4 ), stomped Manhattan (Godzilla ) and buried the globe in ice (The Day After Tomorrow ). And now, in 2009, Emmerich presents his masterwork in the disaster genre: the epic 2012, which, in every tangible way, one-ups his own previous efforts, as well as Allen’s now-quaint-appearing contributions.
Want to see a capsized ship? 2012 has it. Want to see buildings on fire? 2012 has it. Want to see massive volcanoes erupt (taking the initiative from Dante’s Peak  and Volcano )? 2012 has it. Want to beat Allen’s made-for-TV disaster, Flood (1976) too? Well, 2012 offers mountainous tidal waves wiping out whole populations. Oh, and I almost forget: there are also earthquakes in 2012, thus burying the non-Allen 1974 disaster epic Earthquake directed by Mark Robson (and written by Mario Puzo).
The only cataclysm Emmerich leaves out of 2012? The killer bees from The Swarm. Perhaps for his next project…
Besides CGI and copious amounts of green screening, what permits Emmerich to depict all of this global destruction is the screenplay’s conceit of huge solar coronal ejections. In 2012, the sun roils with colossal solar storms, and the Earth is bombarded with neutrinos. These neutrinos create a “new kind of nuclear particle,” ones super-heating the Earth’s core and acting “like microwaves.” This means that the world “as we know it…will soon come to an end.” Humorously, the film also terms the event “the biggest solar climax in recorded history.”
In more human terms, Emmerich’s film follows the efforts of failed novelist Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) to get his estranged wife and two children from Los Angeles to China, where the world’s governments have constructed vast arks that can survive the end of the planet and re-colonize the globe. So, Curtis and his family outrun an earthquake that plunges Los Angeles into the sea, the fiery, volcanic destruction of Yellowstone Park, more earthquakes in Las Vegas, a crash landing on an ice glacier, and other calamities. They are literally only seconds ahead of every single disaster that befalls the planet. The Curtis family is clearly the luckiest one on the face of the Earth, given their survival success rate as dramatized here.
2012 is extremely lucky itself, to have a great actor in Chiwetel Ejiofor playing Dr. Adrian Helmsley, another lead character and the heart and soul of the film. He’s the scientist who reports to the U.S. President (Danny Glover) about the coming end-of-the-world scenario, and fights, at every opportunity, for some humanity to dominate plans for “continuity of the species.” Ejiofor invests every one of his key moments in the film with gravitas, decency, and emotion. It’s a vain effort, but damn, he gives it his all.
A few weeks ago, I reviewed The Fourth Kind (2009) on this blog, and noted that any carefully-considered opinion of the film had to take into account the kind of movie it wanted to be: a pseudo-UFO documentary, like those crafted in the 1970s. I would be hypocritical if I did not, similarly, judge 2012 by the conventions of its form: the disaster epic. At a whopping two-hours and 38 minutes in length, 2012 is an example of this film form on steroids. It features dozens of characters, multiple subplots, and more impressive scenes of destruction than any you’ve ever seen. The shots of L.A. falling apart (with parking decks spitting out cars by the half-dozen…) are jaw-dropping.
2012, also like other disaster films, concerns itself with last goodbyes, heroic sacrifices, and human bravery in the face of terrible circumstances. I confess to feeling a lump in my throat during one moment, near film’s end, when a sweet family in India is overcome by a tsunami. A tender father gazes down at his little boy’s angelic face, and holds that precious visage in his hands…and then the tidal wave takes them away in an instant.
Outside that moment and a few others, however, I feel — as I often do with Emmerich’s work — that despite rigorous adherence to the disaster formula, he relies too heavily on low-brow humor and cliched conventions for us to really connect meaningfully with his characters or storylines. This writing/directorial approach actually undercuts the formula in my opinion.
2012’s final scene illuminates well both the highs and lows of Emmerich’s approach. A few arks (think When Worlds Collide, but with ships…) have survived the crust displacement and solar climax. The exhausted survivors face the dawn of a re-shaped globe. Our heroes see that one continent, Africa, has survived the catastrophe, resurfacing and proving habitable. The captain of Ark 4 makes sail for the Cape of Good Hope. We get a good, lingering look at the continent of Africa on a computer display, and even get to ponder, for an instant, that this is exactly where mankind was born, generations ago. In all senses, we have returned to the beginning. Mankind has been given a second chance, and, ironically, it’s where we began our first chance.
Then, this moment of quiet reflection, which actually approaches poetic levels, is immediately usurped by a scene in which John Cusack’s seven-year old daughter tells him she no longer needs “pull-ups.” Yep, his daughter is potty-trained…and only 6 billion people had to die!
A happy ending, right?
Emmerich’s film veers wildly from high camp to human tragedy in just such dreadful fashion throughout its overstuffed running time. Though 2012’s effects are no doubt impressive, the film never truly generates the impact of, say, Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005). Whatever that film’s flaws, it did capture, in vivid terms, the sense of terror and dread as human civilization falls apart, and whole populations are displaced or destroyed. Here, ninety-nine percent of the human race dies horribly, and we’re supposed to be soothed at the coda because one little girl is no longer wetting her bed.
Another cringe-worthy moment arrives relatively early in the film. Kate Curtis (Amanda Peet) and her new husband, Gordon (Thomas McCarthy) argue in a grocery store. Right after Gordon states (out-of-the-blue, really…) that something “is pulling them apart,” a fissure opens up between them on the ground…and literally pulls them apart. See? It’s just…unnecessarily jokey.
The film also works against itself. 2012’s central narrative conceit is that Jackson is an unabashed optimist and humanist. He believes that we stop being human the moment that “we stop helping each other.” The last quarter of the film involves a pertinent question of morality aboard the ark, as Helmsley and the others must decide if they can take on additional passengers, even with a tsunami just fifteen minutes away and closing. This is an interesting take on human nature and our responsibility both to the species and our fellow man.
But, you know, 2012 doesn’t walk the walk. At all. Why? There’s a scene earlier, set in Las Vegas, during which Cusack’s family and another family flee a packed airport and board a Russian jet filled with probably a dozen empty cars in the hold. It’s obvious to anyone with eyes: the plane could house everybody in that airport if you dumped the cars. Not comfortably, perhaps. But adequately. But not once – not once — does “Mr. Optimism” Curtis (or anyone in his group) think about saving his fellow man in this crisis. The Curtis family just flees the disaster and leaves everybody else to die in the earthquake. Don’t tell me there’s no time. Because there’s no time to get those people aboard the ark in the finale, either, but Curtis and Helmsley still make the attempt in that situation. So the movie is inconsistent in approach and in the voicing of its theme.
Later in 2012, as people riot to board the parked ark, several rioters fall to their deaths off a high ledge. But Emmerich is more concerned with a pet dog walking a tight-rope to get back to its worried owner. Again, cheer for the dog! (And never you mind those human beings plummeting to their doom!). It’s like the movie is schizophrenic. It has to pay the God of Generic Movie Blockbusters by offering bread and circuses — and deaths by the hundreds — but it also wants you to feel good about human beings. Yay us!
2012 indeed hits all the notes we expect of the disaster film. Audiences get to vicariously experience something awful and wonder what they would do if facing the same crisis. We get to laugh and cry, and the special effects are amazing, but still 2012 doesn’t manage to satisfy as a film. This is a movie about the end of the world; about the fact that there’s nowhere to run, and half the time the movie just wants to play the circumstances for laughs.
Blockbusters fail or succeed, I suppose, by trying to please everybody. All the demographics need to be satisfied. All the bases need to be covered. The irony is that by trying to satisfy everyone, by trying to cover everything, 2012 emerges a huge, inconsistent, manipulative mess.
Nice special effects, though.