2012 was directed by Roland Emmerich (Stargate, Midway), written by Emmerich and Harold Kloser (Moonfall, 10,000 BC), and stars John Cusack (The Numbers Station, Pursuit), Amanda Peet (Identity, Brockmire), Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave, Inside Man), Liam James (The Killing, Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem), Morgan Lily (Joe Bell, Cooties), Tom McCarthy (Fair Game, Good Night and Good Luck.), Oliver Platt (Chicago Med, Lake Placid), Thandiwe Newton (Crash, Reminiscence) and Woody Harrelson (Triple 9, Out of the Furnace). It follows a group of people as they try to survive through a myriad of disasters and what could possibly be the end of the world as they know it.
The Plot: Emmerich’s been making disaster films for a long time, almost all of his movies focus on destruction; so one would think that he’d have mastered the simple setup and beats that follow, but that’s not the case.
In 2009, Adrian (Ejiofor) finds out that a solar flare has begun releasing new kinds of neutrinos that have heated up the Earth’s core. He brings the news and the proof to Chief of Staff Anheuser (Platt) in hopes that he and the world’s leaders will do… something. What that something is, is unknown.
The world leaders got the memo and built ark-like ships, with plans of rounding up the best and brightest to survive the incoming end times. All the rich enter first, of course. This introduction is worked through swiftly and instills hope that the rest of the movie will keep this pace rolling, but it doesn’t, continuing with startling slowness until the disasters begin.
Fast forward to 2012, the year of our doom, and Jackson (Cusack) is picking up his son Noah (James), and daughter Lilly (Lily) from ex-wife Kate’s (Peet) husband Gordon’s (McCarthy) house to go on vacation in Yellowstone. It’s there that they run into conspiracy theorist Charlie (Harrelson) who convinces Jackson and company to seek safety. Luckily, and I do mean luckily, Gordon can fly and he takes the whole family, who’ve just returned to California, back to Wyoming for maps. It’s this kind of redundancy that allows time to think about the stretching of the movie.
Now they, parallel with Adrian, Anheuser and the First Daughter, Laura (Newton) need to find one of the ships built for survivors, which should’ve been the last act. Instead, the movie finds new ways to stifle the journey like needing another plane, being abandoned by the Chinese military, and running out of unique disasters to showcase before the budget is depleted.
It doesn’t matter that 2012’s plot is formulaic, that’s the point. What does matter is how fast it works through the beats it wants to hit, leaving nothing but rumination on its said stupidity to be focused on.
The Characters: Just like 2012’s plot, the participants within it are rote templates that don’t have the slightest bit to set them apart from the majority of characters in other movies by the same man.
Jackson is a has-been sci-fi writer who hasn’t scored a hit in a while, now working as a chauffeur for rich clientele and using his free time to try and write another hit. He’s estranged from Kate and Noah more than Lilly, though it isn’t made clear why. Both Lilly and Noah are prerequisites that follow the exact arc one would expect from this kind of movie.
It’s Jackson’s quest for further success that drove away Kate, although she clearly still respects (and loves) him. Gordon only exists to get the two characters back together. Emmerich and Kloser never make him out to be a bad guy or even have a rivalry with Jackson, he’s there to do the inevitable.
A hair more personality is given to Adrian and Anheuser in the form of Adrian’s expectations which weren’t met, although he never seemed too pressed about them before 2012. Or at least there weren’t any scenes of him making a fuss about the government not preparing the country for the end times. A somewhat interesting back and forth between the two is introduced surrounding the necessity of notifying the world’s population that their homes will soon be nothing, but the movie hangs up the subplot before it reaches a finish.
Close calls with character development and morality are approached, but 2012 is more than content to offer played-out tropes, wacky side characters with no bearing on the plot, and cardboard substitutes for people. The actors all give 110 percent, but the movie only gives 5.
The Action: This disaster movie was intended to be the one that owns the subgenre, offering catastrophe after catastrophe and contrivance after contrivance. It’s got its moments, but the movie shows too much of a good thing.
With the first few showcases of destructive force, 2012 can’t decide on its tone. As the crust starts cracking, Kate and Gordon are in the middle of a conversation about their relationship being torn apart that’s cut off by them being torn apart by shifting plates. Following suit is the escape from California that hosts some groan-worthy gags like the main characters being stuck behind old ladies and accidentally destroying a car. The action at hand is fun to watch, improbable as it is, but the movie can’t keep that up for long stints.
Spectacle is all that 2012 wants to deliver, so it continues with the eruption of the Caldera in Yellowstone, which Jackson and Lilly escape from in a way that completely breaks whatever immersion was had. As the Earth collapses it shows no signs of stopping, but as soon as Jackson runs into trouble, the destruction stops until he can get his bearings. It’s aggressively stupid; too stupid in a movie built on being surface-level action.
That’s not to say it’s all bad though, as several sequences are great, like the view of Hawaii encompassed with lava as the main characters pass it by and the overturning of the USS John F. Kennedy onto the White House are striking visually, and even have the slightest bit of emotional resonance. The finale is one of the best parts of the movie too, able to finally summon some stakes instead of watching CGI toppling over more CGI.
The Technics: Producers and studios threw a lot of money at this movie. 200 million dollars, in fact, so it’s a hugely impressive movie from a technical standpoint.
Being worked on by some of the best effects houses in the business has resulted in most of 2012’s CGI, and therefore most of the movie, looking terrific and surprisingly immersive with its detailed shadows, textures, and composition. Contributing to the awesome look of the movie is cinematographer Dean Semler (Maleficent, Dances with Wolves), who keeps the movie from looking as flat as its script. Visually, the only consistent flaw is the greenscreen compositing, which was subpar to begin with, now looking like some of the worst of the big-budget movies of the 2000s.
What keeps 2012 several steps back is its refusal to end. At nearly 2 hours and 40 minutes, the apocalypse feels much farther away than the filmmakers intended. A handful of natural endpoints, or at least opportunities for them, are presented and (sometimes literally) flown right over. The movie is devoted to bashing the audience over the head with its visuals which, while impressive, overstay their welcome by at least 50 minutes.
2012 isn’t a complete disaster (pun intended) thanks to its technical achievements and occasional flashes of depth, but it runs way longer than it should, leaving the audience to digest the blandness (or badness) of most everything else.