Wednesday, March 31, 2010

2012 (Columbia/Sony, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

We eventually watched the movie 2012, a large-scale disaster movie directed and co-written (with Harald Kloser) by Roland Emmerich, who’s probably the only film director in history who’s made cinematic apocalypses his market niche the way Cecil B. DeMille did with historical spectaculars and Alfred Hitchcock did with suspense thrillers. 2012 was supposedly inspired by the prophecy of the Mayan “long count” calendar that the world will end in December of that year, but almost nothing is done with the supposedly central premise; instead the film opens in space, with a straight-line alignment of several celestial bodies (as an MST3K-style joke I started humming the opening bars of Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and then said, “Oops, wrong movie”) that supposedly cause the most gargantuan solar flares in the sun’s recorded history, which in turn triggers neutrinos in the earth’s core to mutate, thereby eating away the earth’s entire surface and generating major earthquakes and tsunamis all over the world, signaling the utter (though, we learn at the end of the movie, only temporary) destruction of the earth’s surface and therefore its ability to support life.

This is, of course, scientifically preposterous — but that doesn’t really matter any more than it matters, when you’re watching a porn film, why these characters are having sex with each other. Emmerich was quoted in USA Today as saying that 2012 would be his last cinematic apocalypse (which is hard to believe) and therefore he wanted to throw everything he could think of into it, from the vividly depicted destruction of historic landmarks (the Washington Monument, the Sistine Chapel and the Christ of the Andes statue — he was going to do the Ka’aba, the famous stone in Mecca that’s the final destination of the Muslim hajj, but co-writer Kloser didn’t want himself and Emmerich to end up on the wrong end of some Muslim cleric’s death sentence and so the Ka’aba is depicted but remains intact). As usual with Emmerich’s films, the most impressive and oddly beautiful parts are the scenes of death and destruction, starting with an early sequence in which a Southern California supermarket is literally split in half by one of the first quakes and ending with some of the same awesome shots of skyscrapers literally tumbling to the ground in waves — reminiscent of the shots in Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996) that eerily foreshadowed the destruction of the two towers of the New York World Trade Center in the 9/11 attacks five years later.

Typically, the destruction porn way overshadows the intrigues of the human characters, including Danny Glover as U.S. President Thomas Wilson (he doesn’t look at all like Obama but, given how long this film was probably in development, Emmerich deserves credit for correctly forecasting that the U.S. would have an African-American president during the three years — 2009 to 2012 — over which his film takes place — and the name is based on the given name of a real-life U.S. President, Thomas Woodrow Wilson); Thandie Newton as his daughter, Laura; Chiwetel Ejiofor (in a part that, unlike most of the ones he’s played previously, does not allow him to go shirtless, darnit) as scientist Adrian Helmsley, who along with an (East) Indian colleague correctly prophesies the coming disaster and thereby sets the plot in motion; and another set of characters (white) representing the hoi polloi: Jackson Curtis (John Cusack, top-billed), a science-fiction writer who wrote a book called Farewell Atlantis that prefigured the plot of the movie but only sold a few hundred copies; his estranged wife Kate (Amanda Peet); their kids, Noah (Liam James) and Lilly (Morgan Lily); and her new boyfriend Gordon Silberman (Tom McCarthy in an appealingly nerdy performance).

They steal a plane and attempt to escape — in one of Emmerich’s most spectacular scenes they drive to the airport, commandeer the plane and take off in it just in time as the freeways and runways buckle and collapse just behind them — and when they realize they need a bigger plane to flee successfully, luck (or the authorial fiat of Emmerich and Kloser) puts one at their disposal, owned by Russian tycoon Yuri Karpov (Zlatko Buric) and also carrying his mistress, Tamara (Beatrice Rosen); his pilot (and, it’s hinted, her boyfriend) Sasha (Johann Urb, easily the hottest-looking guy in the movie); and a priceless collection of classic cars he was flying in to be displayed at the Las Vegas auto show; Yuri was also in Vegas to see his son fight for the heavyweight championship. At base the film is a clever reworking of When Worlds Collide (1951) — itself slated for a big-budget remake in, you guessed it, 2012 — it may be an internal meltdown of the earth rather than its impending collision with two planets that is triggering the catastrophe that will end all life on earth as we know it, but the response of the authorities has been the same: to build a series of craft that will allow a remnant of earth’s population to survive the apocalypse and rebuild.

The craft are supposed to launch from a mountain redoubt in China — though they’re not scheduled to fly into space; instead they are, in every sense of the word, “arks,” which will keep alive every known species of life and rest on the seas until earth’s surface returns to normal and there is once again stable dry land humans can inhabit. Emmerich and Kloser even copy the famous climactic scene from When Worlds Collide in which the super-tycoon tries to force his way onto the ark (actually there are at least nine of them, and he had a ticket for one but it is damaged and nonfunctional, so he tries to crash his way onto another one) and is left out just as the gates to it close in front of him. At least they don’t copy the annoying conceit of When Worlds Collide, in which the 40 people who were going to restore the human race on the new planet Zyra (the first of two on a collision course with Earth; it’s established that Zyra will take the place of Earth in its orbit around the sun while the second planet, Bellus, will hit Earth straight-on and destroy it) were all white.

There are a few bits of quasi-liberal ideology in 2012, in which the hints that the disaster could have been averted if the human race had responded sooner echoes the debate about global warming (which was the pretext for the earth’s destruction in one of Emmerich’s previous apocalypse movies, The Day After Tomorrow), and there’s an intriguing subplot between Helmsley (whose father is named Harry, after the hotelier whose fortune Leona famously married, in one of Emmerich’s and Kloser’s weirder in-jokes) and Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt, who bears an odd and entirely appropriate resemblance to Newt Gingrich), who takes control of what’s left of the U.S. government after President Wilson decides to stay in Washington, D.C. and die rather than take the seat allotted to him on the ark. Anheuser has been in charge of who does and doesn’t get on the ark, and Helmsley has a good liberal’s hissy-fit about the fact that the Chinese workers who actually built the arks won’t be allowed on them; he’s also upset that Anheuser has taken money from various fat-cats for tickets to the arks — and given how rapidly Rightward the American Zeitgeist is switching these days I’m surprised Emmerich and Kloser didn’t give Anheuser (their quasi-fascist would have a German name!) an Ayn Randian speech to the effect that he’s skewing the ark population towards successful people because the revival of the human race is going to depend on people who’ve shown the entrepreneurial spirit rather than a whole bunch of proletarian losers.

2012 is good fun, with a welcome awareness of its own campiness (some of the scenes are out-and-out funny, and I suspect Emmerich and Kloser, cognizant of their genre’s tendency towards silliness, meant them to be) and the kinds of awesomely beautiful shots of death and destruction that leave you entertained if also torn by one’s knowledge that these pretty pictures represent the mass deaths of millions of people. It’s the sort of movie that you can only enjoy if you keep reminding yourself, “It’s only a movie,” and while When Worlds Collide is the ur-inspiration it also owes something to virtually every previous cinematic apocalypse, from the little-known (and quite remarkable) 1933 film Deluge to On the Beach, Dr. Strangelove, 2001 and the earlier works in Emmerich’s world-ending oeuvre — but it’s still good entertainment even though, at 2 hours and 38 minutes, it’s about half an hour too long for its own good.