After the millenial fears of the year 2000, the next doomsday/apocalyptic phenomenon appears to be centred around the year 2012 AD, based on commentary by some on the Mayan calendar. This was picked up in the final episode of the X-Files (the alien colonisation would begin in that year), and latterly film directors have spotted an opportunity for a disaster movie of potentially vast magnitude. Step forward Roland Emmerich, already renowned for such apocalyptic and CGI spectaculars such as Independence Day and 10,000 BC.
The storyline commences a few years before 2012, with a visit by Dr Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to his friend and colleague in India, Satnam Tsurutani (Jimi Mistry, playing a straight role rather than the usual comedy roles). Tsurutani, doing his research at the bottom of a very deep mine, tells him that following the most massive solar flares, neutrino particles have mutated and are causing havoc deep in the earth's interior, ie below the crust. Helmsley, appalled at the findings, rushes to notify the White House Chief of Staff Anheuser (a saturnine Oliver Platt), and private meetings take place at G8. Meanwhile a young Tibetan signs up for what is supposedly a welding job on a dam up in the Himalayas, and paintings are being secretly moved from the Louvre and placed in storage.
Forwarding to 2012, we meet slacker-writer Jackson (John Cusack), about to take his kids on a camping vacation to Yellowstone National Park. Jackson is divorced and thus has to collect them from the house of his wife Kate (Amanda Peet) and her partner Gordon (Thomas McCarthy). Already cracks are mysteriously disappearing in the roads, but Jackson and his children head for the park, only to find a dried out lake fenced off, and to be spied upon by a crazy hippy Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson, clearly enjoying his role) and arrested by the US Army for trespassing. Helmsley has them released, and later Jackson gets to meet Charlie who is running a radio show and website countdowning the end of the world and why it's unavoidable. He does however tell Jackson of "ships" that are going to take people to safety, but warns that whistleblowers have all met mysteriously deaths in the past few years.
The pace hots up in more ways than one when the trio return to California just in time for a massive earthquake to strike, ensuing a rapid flight of the whole extended family by car and then plane from the city as the earth literally opens up and swallows whole city blocks. They return to Yellowstone for some vital information just as the supercaldera beneath it erupts while Charlie gives a rapid and gleeful commentary. After that it's back to California to find a bigger plane and then search for the ships and safety before the final disaster strikes.
Emmerich's film starts off promisingly, with a multitude of enigmatic suggestions (mutant neutrinos, disappearing works of art, people being killed off mysteriously, etc) and a series of exotic locations (India, G8, Tibet, the White House). Given the ambitious scope of the disaster, he also does well to have two leads (Helmsley and Jackson) rather than focusing on a single family, at least at the beginning. However the "saving the day" scenario kicks in with Cusack et al (thus reuniting the family) just before the end, which depending on your point of view is either uplifting or annoyingly schmalzy. For that matter, while I've enjoyed Cusack's performances in such comedic roles as America's Sweethearts, I'm not sure he would have been my first choice for the role, but that may be nitpicking on my part. Helmsley is however good as Helmsley. Unfortunately it's also true in this film that a lot of clichés and stock characterisations are plundered and used. To take the clichés first, in some ways the whole film is a remake of 1951's When Worlds Collide, including the theme of global catastrophe, a handful of survivors being selected and, at the end, the start of a new life. Other stock moments are the tsunamis engulfing the coast (Deep Impact), destruction of the White House (Independence Day), and the giant wave overturning the ocean liner (Poseidon Adventure - my thanks to the critic who pointed this out, though I knew I'd seen it somewhere before). To a certain degree this is forgiveable - after all, there are only so many variations on a theme with such a movie, and those moments in the film are still awesome even if you feel you've seen them somewhere before. Perhaps less forgiveable are the rather stereotypical roles such as Cusack's slacker father (cf Tom Cruise in War of the Worlds) or Zlatko Buric as Russian billionaire Yuri Karpov, dripping greed and harshness while dragging his surgically-enhanced girlfriend and spoilt young twins along. In a film where black men are portrayed in at least two noble roles (Ejiofor as Helmsley and Danny Glover as the President), it seems something of a blind spot to show a Slav so negatively, although possibly ordinary Russians may find this caricature of a New Russian rather gleeful.
In all fairness, Emmerich's films have always been about box office action rather than arthouse characterisation, and in the action department (itself leaning heavily on some spectacular CGI work) 2012 doesn't disappoint. As long as you understand the nature of the genre you'll probably not feel let down.
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