Friday, November 13, 2009

2012: End of days

2012 (2009) • View trailer for 2012
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity, considerable carnage and brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.13.09
Buy DVD: 2012 • Buy Blu-Ray: 2012 (Two-Disc Special Edition) [Blu-ray]

Goodness, it's déja vu all over again!

Its modern CGI effects aside, director/co-scripter Roland Emmerich's 2012 is a throwback to the cornball disaster flicks of the early 1970s  think Earthquake and The Towering Inferno, along with a nod to The Poseidon Adventure  and their rigid formulas: stalwart good guys, women and children in peril, grim fates for the sexually adventurous, and B-list actors introduced solely so they can perish after exchanging noble sentiments with each other. ("I've had a good run, son; don't you worry about me.")
This could be the computer-screen from a particularly difficult air-flight-
simulator game, but no: It's actually a rip-snortin' action sequence that finds
five of our central characters -- in the plane -- trying to dodge and climb above
the crumbling Los Angeles high-rises that rather peskily keep threatening to
hit them, during an early sequence in this film.

Bowing to our 21st century demand for bigger and noisier, of course, Emmerich and co-writer Harald Kloser couldn't be satisfied with demolishing a single building or even all of Los Angeles; no, they've got to take out Earth itself.

One wonders what could possibly come next. The destruction of all eight-and-a-half planets in our solar system, along with their various complements of moons?

Familiarity aside, Emmerich orchestrates this mayhem with considerable panache, and 2012 never flags during its bloated 158 minutes. That's pretty impressive, when the explosive money sequences start after a brief introductory half-hour. You'd think it unwise for a film of this nature to lead off with the sinking of California  all together now: "It's San Andreas' fault!"  but Emmerich has plenty of equally bombastic cards left up his sleeve.

Indeed, once beyond the obligatory mayhem and mass destruction, this film evolves into a strong echo of 1951's When Worlds Collide, the solid adaptation of Edwin Balmer's sci-fi novel that wonders how the people of Earth would behave, after learning of the impending arrival of a massive celestial body that will strike and destroy our planet.

Both When Worlds Collide and 2012 subscribe to the hail-fellow-well-met view of humanity: that we will (for the most part) behave virtuously and pull together for the common good, in an effort to save as many people  and as much of our way of life  as possible.

This may be naively optimistic, but it's a helluva lot more entertaining and gratifying than the bleak, every-cannibal-for-himself attitude on display in the upcoming adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

2012 takes its premise from the pseudo-scientific twaddle currently making the rounds, about how the Mayans supposedly predicted a massive celestial event  an alignment of planets and our sun that takes place only once every hundreds of thousands of years  that will destroy life as we know it on Earth.

Translations being what they are, calmer heads tend to believe (if they address this nonsense at all) that the Mayans simply recognized that, as of 2012, it would be time to flip the page and start a new calendar. But hey, that would take all the fun away from the conspiracy wingnuts who stand on street corners and carry those cardboard signs proclaiming that "The end of the world is near" ... a phenomenon that this film acknowledges with a good laugh.

John Cusack is properly plucky as our primary hero: the amazingly courageous and resourceful Jackson Curtis, a failed novelist whose sole hardcover sale  Farewell Atlantis  idealistically dealt with just this sort of end-of-days crisis. (Emmerich undoubtedly wishes us to view this as "dramatic irony." We'll call it a cute gimmick and let it go at that.)

Jackson is estranged, separated or divorced from his wife, Kate (Amanda Peet); the specifics are irrelevant. On this average weekend, he stops by her house to collect their two young children  Noah (Liam James) and Lilly (Morgan Lily)  for an overnight camping trip in Yellowstone National Park.

Jackson exchanges a few politely barbed glances with Kate's new boyfriend, Gordon (Thomas McCarthy): just enough to cue us that these two men will Bond As Brothers before too long.

The trip to Yellowstone proves unsettling; a former lake has transformed into a bubbling, scalding hot spring, and a local conspiracy theorist  Charlie Frost, wonderfully overplayed by Woody Harrelson in manic mode  broadcasts rather unsettling accusations about government cover-ups, secret maps, massive evacuation plans and worldwide catastrophe.

Jackson's a stable guy; he dismisses Frost as a nutcake. But then Kate and Gordon have a nasty encounter with a supermarket that rips in half along a cavernous fault line, and Jackson hears something quite disturbing from the bratty twin boys of the mildly sinister Russian boxing promoter (Zlatko Buric, as Yuri Karpov) for whom he works, by day, as a chauffeur.

Suddenly, displaying the sort of split-second decision-making that CEOs struggle their entire careers to master, Jackson roars back to Kate's house in Yuri's limo, orders everybody into the vehicle and then takes off as the entire neighborhood collapses into sink-holes that keep nipping at the car's rear wheels.

The subsequent race/chase  first by car, then by light plane  plays for all the world like a particularly nasty computer game, with Jackson abruptly turning this way and that, in order to avoid getting crushed by this section of freeway or that collapsing building. The whole sequence is, in a word, preposterous: blithely ignorant of essential laws of physics, for openers, such as how a plane would react to the sudden updrafts and downdrafts caused by geological catastrophes on such a massive scale.

But hey: It's popcorn entertainment, right? Just go with the flow.

Well ... perhaps.

There's something more than a little distasteful about watching our five "heroes" successfully navigate all this carnage due solely to scripted fiat, while hundreds of thousands of other Los Angeles-area civilians perish, sometimes in slow-motion, as their cars and homes are crushed, or their subways plunge out of tunnels and into bottomless fissures, or their high-rise apartments tip and spill them into space, or  a bit later  they drown beneath the crushing waters of the tsunamis that inevitably follow such shifting of land masses.

It seems arrogantly callous and cavalier: millions of people snuffed on the sidelines like dead leaves in an autumn wind, solely to juice up pedal-to-the-metal action sequences given even more power by Kloser and Thomas Wander's enthusiastically bombastic score.

Granted, Emmerich doesn't showcase eviscerated bodies or even mangled limbs; these views of mass death are distantly removed, the camera pausing just long enough, on any given scene, to make us believe we're watching thousands of people meet their doom each second. It's more suggestion than anything else, and we can be grateful for Emmerich's restraint.

But it still leaves a rather sour taste, particularly when occasional cheap laughs are added to the mix.

Elsewhere, in Washington, D.C., idealistic geologist Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) clashes repeatedly with the more pragmatic White House chief of staff, Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt), the sort of Capitol Hill hawk who isn't exactly Evil, but nonetheless exists solely to demonstrate the venality of certain political animals.

In direct contrast, Danny Glover makes a suitably principled U.S. president, who struggles to do right by both his conscience and his nation.

Thandie Newton brings little to the party as Laura, the president's daughter, who of course strikes romantic sparks with Adrian, who just happens to be one of the few people to have purchased Jackson's novel. (It's that kind of story.) Beatrice Rosen is properly pouty as Yuri's mistress, dolled up to resemble a Paris Hilton-style celebutante, complete with teacup dog; George Segal and Blu Mankuma pop up as a jazz duo hired as entertainers on a cruise ship embarking on a lengthy ocean voyage.

Oh, yes, and we musn't overlook Osric Chau as Nima, a young Tibetan monk introduced so innocuously, and apparently pointlessly, that we just know he'll have A Major Role To Play.

It's all stuff and nonsense  not to mention relentlessly absurd coincidence  but Emmerich keeps a firm hand on the controls of his roller coaster; you can't really catch your breath until the lights finally come up, and only then will the story's many plot flaws and logical inconsistencies rear their ugly heads.

Consider: At one point, Anheuser confronts Helmsley over the necessity of having "removed" (ahem, murdered) the few individuals who, having learned what is going down during the three-year ramp-up to secret preparations for this celestial catastrophe, attempted to alert the media. The idea, of course, is to prevent world chaos. And yet Yuri's two snotty sons spill the beans the first time we see them with Jackson, meaning they would have been shooting off their mouths at school for months. Continuity, anyone?

In order to enjoy 2012, then, one must surrender fully to its popcorn thrills ... and, in fairness, it's a helluva ride. Emmerich may be re-hashing an overly familiar formula, but he does so with plenty of panache. And his newest bid to destroy the planet is, without question, superior to the equally similar clichés he mined in 2004's The Day After Tomorrow ... although not as good as 1996's Independence Day.

But really, Roland, what is this fixation with demolishing our poor planet?

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