Roland Emmerich. The German director's name is synonymous with motion-picture spectacle. "Independence Day" in 1996. "Godzilla" in 1998. "The Day After Tomorrow" in 2004. Destruction is his wheelhouse, and he brought his A-game for "2012," which explodes in theaters nationwide today.
Cast as "an epic adventure about a global cataclysm that brings an end to the world and tells of the heroic struggle of the survivors," the $260 million film revels in annihilation, obliteration, devastation.
Kicking the plot into gear is the doomsday scenario some fear will come to pass at the 2012 winter solstice – a scenario that the film holds was predicted by the Mayan calendar.
"2012" is template storytelling, with all the story points you'd expect from an Emmerich disaster film: kids and a dog, zipping around to far-flung global points, bit parts for veteran actors (e.g., George Segal), smashing architectural icons and the like.
Emmerich takes his sweet time before letting the world start ending, setting the stage by taking us to India, Washington, D.C., British Columbia, Tibet, London and Paris as the reality of final days sets in – but only for a select few in the know (e.g., heads of state and top scientists). We finally land in quaking, cracking Manhattan Beach, Calif., with Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), a small-time author whose literary obsession cost him his family. But Curtis is clever, and he figures out that the government has a plan to save at least some souls.
Once Emmerich decides to let the dominoes start falling, they fall fast. The film goes from zero to 60 almost in the blink of an eye as the California coast basically collapses. Of course, this kind of filmmaking packs an imagistic wallop that's consequentially meaningless. In other words, so what if we just saw 2 million people die – it sure did look cool!
As Curtis spends his nine lives avoiding earth cracks and crust upheaval, scientist Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is busy working with administration officials (notably Carl Anheuser, played by Oliver Platt) to calculate a timeline for total annihilation and what possibilities exist to save some of Earth's species.
At about 2 hours 30 minutes, "2012" is a tad long. And it's definitely not for young children on account of the plentiful scenes of mass destruction.
It's not as dark as Steven Spielberg's "War of the Worlds," but it owes much to the modern master of cinematic spectacle. "2012" echoes everything from Spielberg's"Close Encounters of the Third Kind"(government takeover of a national park) to "JurassicPark" (a clever animated sequence tries to lay out in simple terms the "science"of what's happening).
In fact, when all hell breaks loose in "2012," the audience's complete lock-in to the screen reminded me of the emotional grip that the first T-Rex attack in "JurassicPark" had on audiences back in 1993.
"2012" also feels like "Deep Impact" and "Armageddon" – on steroids. And at the end of the day, er, world, it feels an awful lot like the Bible. After all, they're trying to save the species when most everyone is getting wiped out. For that reason, the film really has its genesis in ancient texts like, well, Genesis.
The film offers a few nods to faith: the president (Danny Glover) goes toa chapel to pray, thefaithful across the world bend knee, and the president even says he thinks all faiths could be summed up in these words: the Lord is my shepherd …
If the world is ending, there's philosophy to consider as well as science: Who should be saved? What should be saved? "2012" mulls those questions, but not as much as it could have.
But it's a genre film, and "2012" has undoubtedly set the bar for Hollywood's imagining of disaster.
Cliff Vaughn is managing editor and media producer for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense disaster sequences and some language. Reviewer's note: Take the rating seriously on both counts.
Director: Roland Emmerich
Writers: Roland Emmerich and Harald Kloser
Cast: John Cusack: Jackson Curtis; Amanda Peet: Kate Curtis; Chiwetel Ejiofor: Adrian Helmsley; Thandie Newton: Laura Wilson; Oliver Platt: Carl Anheuser; Woody Harrelson: Charlie Frost; Danny Glover: President Wilson.