Movie Review: 2012

By Matthew Huntley

November 30, 2009

Roland Emmerich isn't having fun if he's not destroying the world.

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Watching 2012 is like eating a pizza with every single topping but not tasting any one of them. The combination may feed your hunger but it doesn't necessarily satisfy you. Perhaps if the filmmakers focused on one really interesting idea and storyline, the movie wouldn't be such an indiscernible mess. Granted, it's a harmless and cheesy mess, but a mess nonetheless.

As the name implies, it takes place in the year 2012 and, just as the Mayans predicted, the world is coming to an end. But it's not going down quietly or without a spectacle. When the Earth's core begins to boil and Yellowstone starts to erupt, and when crustal displacement causes huge land masses to sink, it's quite a show. During my screening, viewers were actually laughing and cheering when the ocean swallowed up Los Angeles.

Like so many other disaster movies of this type, the screenplay (laughingly bad) follows about a dozen characters as they narrowly escape harm's way - several times over. There's the unlikely hero (John Cusack) and his two kids; his ex-wife and her annoying new companion (Amanda Peet and Thomas McCarthy); the noble scientist (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who attempts to spread humanity instead of chaos; the scientist's bitter and political counterpart (Oliver Platt) who's more concerned with business, order and maintaining bureaucracy - even as the world is burning; and the crazy stoner guy (Woody Harrelson) who knew this would happen the whole time but whom everybody thought was crazy.

Oh, there's also the president of the United States (Danny Glover), his daughter (Thandie Newton) and various other characters related to the principals. They're placed at strategic locations around the world so the movie has a reason to show different areas being destroyed.

Anyone who's ever seen a disaster pic, particularly one directed by Roland Emmerich, knows what they're in for with a movie like 2012. But even so, I wanted more from it, particularly in the thrills department. Despite its $200 million budget and hundreds of effects shots, the movie failed to provide me any considerable rush. Also, to me, the special effects looked cheap and unconvincing probably because I could always tell they were there. So much of the movie is shot in front of a green screen that I never once felt like I was watching these actual events happen, even after suspending my disbelief.


What makes it even less effective is I never feared for the characters' lives. It was so easy to know, by process of movie convention elimination, who would live and who would die. With so many characters to spare, couldn't the screenplay offer us a few more surprises? And why even bother pretending the important people aren't going to out-fly, outrun, or outmaneuver whatever disaster is chasing them? We see the Cusack character escape death by mere seconds at least three times and after that much luck, it's hard for the movie to maintain tension or doubt they all won't live through the entire ordeal.

Another problem is Emmerich doesn't give us enough point of view shots. Michael Bay got it right in Transformers 2 when the characters are being tossed around in a car and there's a shot when the camera actually flips upside down to mimic the characters' perspective. I actually felt this scene and imagined I was in one of those egg rides at the carnival that rotates all around. 2012 didn't make me feel that. It was all visual without being visceral.

I can excuse the movie's cheap sentimentality, dumb humor and forced plot contrivances - I found all these things amusing instead of offensive - but even so, I didn't take away anything from it. For me, it failed to be an exciting and fun popcorn adventure. Not that the movie is self-righteous and pretends to be anything more than a visual extravaganza, but just because it's all in the name of fun, it doesn't excuse its inefficacy.

Plus, it goes on and on for over two and a half hours, and it seems like we're watching the same scene repeatedly. If the movie does one thing right, it brings up a slew of ideas that could be turned into compelling movies all their own, like how a government decides who lives and who dies in a moment of crisis; or whether the world is prepared for a full-on catastrophe (are there really secret ships being built?); or what's the last word you would say to your family if you knew you were going to die (there's a touching moment when Ejiofor's on-screen dad, well acted by Blu Mankuma, says good-bye to his son)? I know the movie is only supposed to be mindless entertainment, but if it couldn't succeed at that, it should have expanded on its promising concepts. But it merely takes pieces of each and throws them under a blanket of effects. The result is an overwrought hodgepodge that, while delivered on a huge scale, is less than memorable.



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