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2012 / *** (PG-13)Posted Thursday, November 19, 2009, at 2:18 AM
John Cusack runs for his life along with the entirety of the human race in the disaster flick to end all disaster movies, "2012".
I've been fairly forward in reviews about how disappointing Roland Emmerich's films have been in the past. Up until now, the only film of his I've liked was 2000's "The Patriot". While that one embraced a figure--however inaccurately--in American history, all his other films have been special effects extravaganzas, with several attempting to reproduce the atmosphere of the great Irwin Allen disaster flicks that were so popular throughout the 70s. With his new movie "2012", it seems he may have actually studied some of the better disaster movies.
The story deals with the end of the world, as we know it. What it gets right is not focusing on preachy soapboxes about humanity's insignificance or man's responsibility to his environment, as Emmerich's less successful "The Day After Tomorrow" did. Nor does it delve too much into the Biblical implications of an apocalypse, although it doesn't entirely ignore them either. Certainly a gathering of many of the Earth's animal species by our collective governing bodies and the construction of vessels referred to as "arks" leans toward the Biblical, if not exactly the Apocalypse.
While "2012" is heavy on special effects--and there are some seriously overblown effects sequences here--the journeys the characters must take through these events are firmly the focus of the movie. The shear amount of effects on display here cannot be denied, but the characters don't merely serve to get from one effects sequence to the next, as they did in Emmerich's last film "10,000 B.C.". Here the characters have lives and minds that are not content to simply fall into the pattern of racing from one danger to the next. They stubbornly go from one effect to the next. Often it's their stubbornness that lands them in danger and gets them out.
Like many a great disaster flick the cast of this movie is epic and includes A-list actors at every level of the plot, including Danny Glover ("Lethal Weapon" series) as the President of the United States, Thandie Newton ("Crash") as the first daughter, George Segal (the original "Fun With Dick and Jane") as a doomed jazz musician on a cruise liner, Oliver Platt ("Frost/Nixon") as a White House staffer concerned more with preserving the government institution than the fundamentals of humanity, and Woody Harrelson ("Zombieland") as a spaced out conspiracy nut who somehow has everything right.
Also along the lines of a classic disaster pic, the plot focuses primarily on two main characters, i.e. the Paul Newman and Steve McQueen characters in "The Towering Inferno". One is an expert in the disaster situation at hand, the other is simply an everyman caught up in the event trying to survive against the odds. The enigmatic Chiwetel Ejiofor ("American Gangster") plays the scientist who discovers that geological events have transpired that will bring about drastic seismic shifts in the Earth's crust by the end of the year 2012, essentially bringing about the end of the world. John Cusack ("1408") handles the everyman duties as a failed writer and husband who must survive the most extreme of these calamitous events with his estranged family in tow.
When I first saw the ads for this movie I was a bit concerned about how totally implausible the destruction of the world looked. It is totally implausible, and perhaps Emmerich goes a little too far overboard with his first major disaster sequence, where California essentially falls into the Pacific. A subtler, slower developing disaster might have served his characters' flight a little better. I can still recall those first flames building quietly while the guests partied in "The Towering Inferno". But despite a few repetitive "let's fly this plane out of here before the land drops out from under us" sequences, Emmerich eventually finds his stride and does a good job developing new catastrophes for the characters to survive before all is said and done.
"2012" is a movie that must be taken with a suspension of disbelief. If you can do that, this movie's extremely suspenseful and a hell of a lot of fun. For all the efforts Emmerich has made throughout his film career to resurrect the classic Hollywood disaster flick, it seems a bit of irony that he finally made a good one with what he claims will be his final disaster flick. He's spent many years trying to establish himself as the modern Irwin Allen. This time he actually lives up to the legacy of that Hollywood giant.
"2012" is currently playing at Marshall Cinema.
Visit A Penny in the Well for DVDs, movie clips, and a classic disaster flick based star rating scale.
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Andrew is a professionally trained actor and stage director. He was a reporter for the daily newspaper The Marshall Democrat News. He has been critiquing film since Mr. Lucas released the first of his "Star Wars" prequels in 1999. His reviews can also be seen at his blog site.