© 2009 Ray Wong
Once in a while, Roland Emmerich reemerges and we know we're going to get something that is loud, busy, brimming with special effects, with a moralistic message. And we flock to see it, just like we would 2012.
It's probably silly to even attempt to outline the plot, but I'll try. Doctor Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a geologist who discovers the sun's radiation and the alignment of the planets (or some such) are going to create a disastrous result for Earth's core and crust. With his help, under the direction of Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt) and President Thomas (Danny Glover), the world leaders are racing against time to make sure that the human species survives, although they know well ahead that most of the world's population would perish.
Two years later, the "event" happens way ahead of their anticipation. The plans to evacuate and protect the human race are not fully operational yet. The scientists and world leaders begin to panic. Meanwhile, major earthquakes occur in California with destructions that are of epic proportion. Writer-limo driver Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) manages to get his family out in time. He also learns from the a crazy guy named Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson), who broadcast his messages out of Yellowstone National Park that the world is going to end in 2012. Charlie's predictions have all come true. Charlie also tells Jackson the world's governments have a secret plan to bring only the privileged few onboard of a few ships (possibly spaceships), currently being built in China.
Jackson and his family escapes mayhems to arrive in China, only to discover that they're not among the select few to survive. The leaders have decided, secretly, who gets to live and who will die with the rest of the world. Fighting for their lives, Jackson makes a fateful decision. Meanwhile, the end of the world comes sooner than everyone has expected, and even those who are privileged enough to get on the ships may not have enough time to escape.
All the actors do their best in their respective cliched and two-dimensional roles. It's rather silly to expect great performances in movies like this. John Cusack (War, Inc.) is slight as the protagonist -- in fact, he's rather annoying and whiny, but his role is not particularly heroic, so that fits him well. Amanda Peet (Martian Child) has only one thing to play: concerned mother, and she's neither convincing or ridiculous. Chiwetel Ejiofor (Endgame) has one of the characters that actually have some depths as the conflicted scientist who helps to save the world.
Oliver Platt (Year One) is boring as the stereotypically obnoxious and pompous ass. Thandie Newton (W.) doesn't have anything to do. Thomas McCarthy (Duplicity) and Woody Harrelson (Zombieland) are the comic relief -- we actually get to like them enough to care about their eventual fates. Danny Glover (Saw V) plays the President with dignity, but I have a feeling we're getting tired of the stately black Presidents in disaster movies.
Written and directed by Roland Emmerich (The Day After Tomorrow) with cowriter Harald Kloser (10000 BC), the script is just an excuse to get us to all those epic SFX set pieces. The dialogue, as expected, is extremely cheesy and standard. The plot unfolds almost exactly the way it did in The Day After Tomorrow. Emmerich must be the world's greatest plagiarizer of not only his own materials, but other films. Every scene reminds us of something we've seen before. It's so predictable there is hardly any suspense at all -- the only thing to wonder about is who is going to get it and who will survive. Granted, some deaths are rather unexpected and some are, in a way, poignant. But still, we come to see these films to see people die.
We also come to expect great special effects from Emmerich, and he does not disappoint. Sure, don't expect everything to be photorealistic. This is, after all, a fantasy. So the special effects are in general grand, epic, loud and spectacular. Los Angeles has never looked so beautifully disastrous before -- a mass tome of awesome deaths in true "end of the world" splendor. There are other spectacular scenes to behold: the demise of Yellowstone, the Poseidon's Adventure-like capsize of a huge cruise ship, the giant tsunamis… the list goes on and on. In fact, Emmerich has piled the film with so many effects he never really lets us stop and take everything in. It's one big disaster after another -- you seriously get your money's worth if you're a special effects junkie.
Emmerich also slows down the plot enough, at various points, to let us know more about the characters and their relationships, and to give us some breathers before the next big disaster. But don't let that fool us -- nobody really cares about these characters. They are just pawns to get us to the next mayhem.
Is 2012 a masterpiece? It depends on your criteria. It certainly is not something we should take seriously, but it is entertaining -- it gives us what we expect. I'm also glad that it's not as obnoxious and convoluted as Transformers, so I thank Roland Emmerich for that restraint. Still, seeing it once is probably good enough. OK, maybe just once more on October 21, 2012 just for the fun of it.
Stars: John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Thandie Newton, Oliver Platt, Thomas McCarthy, Woody Harrelson, Danny Glover
Director: Roland Emmerich
Writer: Roland Emmerich, Harald Kloser
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense disaster sequences, mass deaths and some language
Running Time: 158 Minutes
Script – 5
Performance – 6
Direction – 6
Cinematography – 9
Editing – 7
Production – 9
Total – 6.4 out of 10