Through Independence Day and Godzilla, pre-9/11, and The Day after Tomorrow post-9/11, transplanted German filmmaker Roland Emmerich has inched closer to the edge of the abyss for a view of the apocalypse. In 2012, which in point of fact starts in the year 2009 in an Indian copper mine, he has achieved his fullest view to date. One can say that he has gotten more and more serious without saying that he has yet gotten really serious.
The curious fact that the ancient Mayan calendar runs out in the titular year will need to be shored up with some scientific mumbo-jumbo to do with solar eruptions, rogue neutrinos, an overheated core, a destabilized crust, and blah-bah-de-blah-blah. What it comes down to is what the President of the United States confides behind closed doors at the G8 Summit of 2010: “The world as we know it will soon come to an end.”
Given that the film runs in excess of two and a half hours, this pronouncement opens itself to critical cavils as to the definition of the word “soon.” And yet no sense of comfort or complacency can arise from a reflection that as recently as 1998, when the world faced a similar cataclysm in Deep Impact, the occupation of the Oval Office by an African-American, Morgan Freeman, seemed merely another element of science fiction. Science fiction, needless to point out, has a long history of being overtaken by external developments. Perhaps only in certain corners of Fox News will a black President still be classified in that genre, more precisely the subgenre of the alien invader. The black President in 2012, widowed with an artistic adult daughter who oversees the surreptitious packing-up of the Mona Lisa for safekeeping, is not Barack Obama by name; nonetheless the careworn face, the hoarse voice, and the receding hair of old Danny Glover bespeak the wear and tear of the job: a futuristic vision of Obama at the end of his term. (No explanation is put forth for the continued presence of an Austrian-accented governor of California.)
The human drama, such as it is, has two principal focal points: John Cusack as an uncelebrated science-fiction writer (“The critics said I was naive, an unabashed optimist”) with an ex-wife and two kids under the spell of a new man around the house, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as a geological adviser and self-appointed populist mouthpiece who has the ear of the President and the ire of the Chief of Staff. The best you can say for either of them is that Ejiofor, with a permanent crinkle in his forehead, makes a good worrier. Cusack, with his Harry Langdon elevated-eyebrow mask, makes a glib one.
It will give but a tiny taste of the levels of coincidence and contrivance in the film to mention that the geologist happens to be reading, while the planet is actively breaking apart, one of the five hundred copies in print of the novelist’s sole published book, Farewell Atlantis, when the two of them happen to cross paths in Yellowstone National Park. There is plenty of such stuff to scoff at in the plotting and characterization (the two diverging paths will manage to reconnect at the climax in China), and plenty of howlers in the dialogue, but in candor all such stuff strives to be no more than serviceable. What it strives to serve would of course be the special effects, the tail that wags the dog, the be-all and end-all. 2012 would not want to put up its human drama against, say, that of the little Canadian end-of-the-world indie, Last Night, from the same year coincidentally as Deep Impact. It would not mind at all putting up its human drama against the latter’s: simply par for the course. Contemplation is not in Emmerich’s makeup.
Where he seeks to set his film apart, where he seeks its justification, is in the intermittent spectacle of catastrophe: the sky-high eruption of Yellowstone (Old Faithful gone Vesuvius), the toppling of the Washington Monument and St. Peter’s Basilica (the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower would be so old-hat), the block-by-block collapse of Los Angeles (a rented limo outrunning the spreading crevasses and sinkholes, dodging the crumbling high-rises and overpasses), the monster tsunamis that engulf the White House (the President, almost white-face from the fallen ash, crying out to his departed wife, “I’m coming home, Dorothy!”) and even, very far from sea level, the Himalayas. All of that is quite something — quite a lot of things — to see. And the plot attempt to update, to technologize, to science-fictionalize the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark is something worth trying. Let the critics knock it as naive, unabashedly optimistic. The filmmaker, in exactly those terms, has anticipated them. He has braced himself.
As elsewhere in Emmerich’s oeuvre, the degree of glee in the destruction appears more than equal to any shock and awe in it. And a viewer might well rebel at a test of his humanity measured by his willingness to hold his breath for the survival of the star of a Hollywood blockbuster, and never mind the billions who missed the literal boat. Still, in the inadequacy of its response to its chosen subject matter, in its merry refusal to think about the unthinkable, in its whistling past the graveyard, the film after all seems only human. Strange to say about an FX extravaganza.