Review: 2012 (2009)


Roland Emmerich’s 2012 is slightly better than Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow — the hack director’s two previous opuses involving mass devastation. But that’s a bit like saying that imbibing a thimble of urine is better than eating a shit sandwich or employing an embalmed corpse as a surrogate dining table. That one must pay ten George Washingtons for the privilege of drinking a soupçon of pee is hardly a recommendation. But the piss remains compelling. For it has become every dutiful American’s duty to sit through vile cinematic “entertainment” in order to remain on the same page. Still, there’s a part of me pondering 2012‘s potential.

“Something like this can only originate in Hollywood,” says a character early in the film. And indeed, Emmerich is right on this point. Emmerich is only a mite more talented than Uwe Boll, his fellow German sellout. But one shouldn’t compare two cultural criminals who have both severely setback the intelligent possibilities of mass entertainment. The film presents a primitive political viewpoint to entice the kooky charlatans now banging out insipid and predictably contrarian viewpoints for the New York Press. Two African-American male characters are presented here with noble intent — a humanist geologist played by Chiwetel Ejiofor at loggerheads with the cold and clinical Oliver Platt (here, with an American accent) and Danny Glover’s President Thomas Wilson (beckoning phony comparisons to Woodrow, whose first name was actually Thomas), who stays behind at the White House as giant waves and dust clouds ravage the nation. And while it’s heartening to see African-Americans shift from “magical black” side characters and wiseacres into take-charge positions, the film also serves up a distressing sexism. The Speaker of the House is, three years hence, a “he.” When a giant plane heads to a safe point in China, the women are compelled to stay downstairs while the men are summoned to the cockpit to witness recent developments. President Danny Glover insists that the people have the right to know about forthcoming disaster because “a mother can comfort her children.” Why can’t a mother kick ass? These misogynistic politics are at odds with the film’s purported humanism. Make no mistake: This is a film designed for an Armond White pullquote.

On the other hand, I cannot deny the sheer pleasure I experienced in seeing the two centers of vapid American entertainment — Los Angeles and Las Vegas — destroyed by cheap-looking CG effects. (It should be noted that Emmerich also manages to obliterate the Sistine Chapel, complete with a crack forming between God and Adam. But the man is running out of landmarks to destroy. Will public memory permit him repeats?) I cannot deny being amused by the fact that one million Euros, not dollars, is the asking price to get on board one of the arks destined to save the remainder of humanity. (There’s even a nod to Douglas Adams’s Golgafrincham, where one of the arks is damaged, proving unsuitable for the flailing crowds clamoring to get on board.) I was even amused at times by Woody Harrelson’s wild-eyed, pickle-eating, radio-ranting mountain man. But Harrelson serves the same purpose as Brent Spiner’s wild-haired scientist in Independence Day: a forgettable cartoon providing as much human depth as a TV dinner. Not that anyone will remember the formulaic similarities. As Harrelson says at one point, just after urging Cusack to “download my blog,” “You lure them in with the humor. Then you make them think.” It’s safe to say that Emmerich cannot follow his own crude advice.

There comes a point in any Roland Emmerich film in which anyone with a brain must give up and ponder why such superficialities remain a draw. For me, it came about ninety minutes in, as certain characters defiantly survived even the most liberal geophysics. It is also profoundly insulting for Emmerich (and his co-writer and composer Harald Kloser, who is overwrought in both of his “professional” duties) to offer us a character who reads books (Ejiofor’s Adrian Helmsley, “moving on up” just like Sherman did a few decades ago) and a shah using an e-reader, while also offering us this shoddy science behind the Earth’s destruction: “Neutrinos are causing a physical reaction.”

Here is a filmmaker so utterly stupid that he takes us to “the deepest copper mine in the world” in the opening minutes, features buckets of ice, and yet provides only a single consumer fan to cool the expensive computer equipment residing at the bottom. Here is a filmmaker so happy to whore himself out to product placement that the most important government representatives all use Vaio laptops. Here is a filmmaker so tone-deaf to politics that the President of the United States actually utters, “‘I was wrong.’ Do you know how many times I’ve heard that? Zero.” At the risk of invoking Godwin, Roland Emmerich is Hollywood’s answer to a dutiful Sturmabteilung. He was only following orders. And he will be rewarded for his hubris and ignorance by the considerable cash that this film will generate worldwide.

John Cusack, who is one of our most underrated actors, gives this material more sincerity and dignity than it deserves. The man (or his agent) clearly needed the cash or a way to boost his box office standing. He is, much like Dennis Quaid in The Day After Tomorrow, the Believable Presence. The guy to identify with. That guy is a writer named Jackson Curtis, the author of Farewell Atlantis, which has sold only 500 copies. Curtis is driving a limo to pay the bills. And while every other actor in this film understands that this assignment represents a fat paycheck, and is only partially exonerated, it is Cusack alone who obdurately refuses to ham it up. He is therefore just as culpable and responsible as Roland Emmerich. Let him suffer a metaphorical car accident worse than Montgomery Clift’s.

The film has lifted a good deal from 1998’s Deep Impact — the broken family gathered at the beach as a giant wave is about to hit, the older African-American President addressing the nation with the grim reality, the millions killed along the coastlines, and the efforts to alert a senior scientist of the impending catastrophe. But Deep Impact, as problematic as it was, had two half-decent screenwriters (Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin) attempting to imbue some humanity into the improbable scenario.

But 2012 doesn’t even provide the unadulterated fun of an unintentionally hilarious B movie. Emmerich, with considerable resources at his disposal, has made a dumb and unfulfillable movie. And instead of Emmerich using his exploitative skills to make his audience think, he has produced the cinematic equivalent of an audience member running out of toilet paper when she most desperately needs it. His audience is doomed to run around the house with pants around legs, hoping to seek out a Kleenex or paper towel substitute and praying to the deities that nobody else is home. But the film is so long (it runs a needless two hours and 38 minutes) and the quest so fruitless that it goes beyond any uncouthly rectified inconvenience. As such, 2012 is, to paraphrase Jefferson, the movie that the American public deserves.

[UPDATE: In a rare drift in sensibilities, Armond White has panned 2012 in what appears to be a hastily written review. The big surprise is Roger Ebert, who has awarded this film three and a half stars. I note Ebert’s review largely because he points out (correctly) that the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling has been inexplicably relocated within St. Peter’s Basilica — a detail that I failed to note in the above review.]


  1. Boll and Emmerich are sellouts? They’ve never demonstrated any talent or integrity in the first place. So what did they have to sell?

    “Let him suffer a metaphorical car accident worse than Montgomery Clift.”

    Montgomery Clift is a car accident?

  2. I must agree with the above poster. They must already have integrity before they can sell it. As for the product placement whoring, this is to be expected in studio films in general. Though, some at least make it probable.

  3. “But that’s a bit like saying that imbibing a thimble of urine is better than eating a shit sandwich or..”
    Uh-oh, not looking good!

    “Emmerich is only a mite more talented than Uwe Boll, his fellow German sellout.”
    Ouch! Bwaaahahaha. This review had me rolling, it’s hilarious! I doubt the movie could be nearly as entertaining. I haven’t seen it yet but the review sounds pretty spot-on what I imagined it being. These disaster films are usually sexist, but the people in power are often beyond what we’ve had. Why not have a woman president? Why not have, I don’t know, an openly gay man as speaker of the house? I guess if I had a movie to make, I’d live out my fantasies. Maybe his fantasy was putting women in their place?

  4. Peter: Let me clarify what I mean by sellout. Emmerich clearly has a limited faculty for getting us interested in seeing a movie, most prominently displayed by the White House blowing up in the INDEPENDENCE DAY trailer. Which is somewhat similar (although hardly comparable) the to the great talent that Stephen King has to keep us reading his books. Instead of using this faculty to give work to young and emerging filmmakers and having a pretty good run of fun B-movies (as Roger Corman did), Emmerich has instead used his position and half-assed Barnum qualifications to rake in more cash by producing a steady stream of crappy films. Ergo, Emmerich (and Boll by proxy) is a sellout.

  5. I think it’s a mistake to compare Emmerich with Roger Corman. Corman may have helped out emerging filmmakers back in the day, but he was always a low-budget B-movie producer/director; Emmerich is, on the other hand, a mega-budget director, and is hence of course only interested in making movies that generate a shit-ton of money. His budgets are so massive that if even one of the films goes in the red, he’s history. Thus, in order to assure his survival, he makes movies for the widest possible audience, and with very little risks. (He’s a lot like Spielberg in this sense, only without the talent.)

  6. this would be a great hatefuck of a movie to see if it starred nicholas cage, amirite Ed? why wasn’t the cagemaster in it? from the trailer, he seemed perfect for it. i guess cusack has given up, too. those were mean things to say, to be sure, and i haven’t even seen the movie. is it ok to hate on something you haven’t experienced even if it does end up sucking in the end? just trying to have constructive conversation. i saw independence day when i was in 4th grade and thought it was fantastic. but i also watched fresh prince in 4th grade and thought it was great. it’s one of those things i cringe when thinking about. destruction porn is blockbuster material. the masses want it. 4th graders want it. their beaten down parents take them to it. they convince themselves it’s a happening–the blockbuster appeal of the movie does it. i often wonder why blockbusters are such shit. is it because of advertising? is because of the taste of the vulgariat. the vulgariat. lol. im such a douche. and a bit drunk. at any rate, i’m gonna see New Moon this Friday. Who’s with me?

  7. so we’re agreed that emmerich is a sellout, right? that’s pretty much synonymous with whore, minus the in and out. and emmerich is a whore minus the in and out. did you see 10,000 BC? i have no evidence except his movies. and corman is, too, for the record. anyone that produces that much shitty shit for TV, which is by and large shit to begin with, is a–i don’t mean to sound way too fucking punk and blow your minds–a cocksucking corporate whore. fucking seriously. i know a lot of us like to be contrarian or play devil’s advocate because we’re that fucking smart. jesus, though, you’re defending ‘Dinocroc’, ‘Saurian’ and fucking ‘Supergator’. i think ed has this one spot on. sorry to be a dick.

  8. Great review and good to hear that it’s better than Independence day and Day after tomorrow. But of course your comparison between shit and urine is hilarious!! LOL. Anyway, I have booked the tickets for tomorrow morning first show. Can’t wait.

  9. I would also like to point out that (spoiler alert!)…
    it took every “genius” in the world to plan to save humanity by placing the amazing arks…All together in one place. And roughly 100 feet apart from one another. While expecting massive tsunami-like impacts that would inevitably shift them violently. But nah…They’ll be fine!
    Must have been planned by the same character that locates the medical unit in DC right under the 555 ft tall freaking monument. Uh huh.
    I know it’s supposed to be stupid cheesy fun and all, but can they maybe take one explosion off the project list, and use the money to pay a real WRITER? Just a thought.
    You know I loves me some Ebert, but this falls into the .1% of the time I disagree with him. Thank you for speaking the truth, brother! Heh.

  10. You might be interested in knowing that this movie has become a certified box office success story here in China. Just so you know the Chinese government only allows 20 foreign films to be screened in China every year and these films must go through a rigorous censorship/editing process, so pretty much every American film that is allowed to be shown here in a box office success. But 2012 has become a huge success and it’s only been in theaters for less than a week.

    There are reports (I haven’t seen the film) that the Chinese people love their country’s portrayal in the film. I guess China plays a large part in saving humanity from total destruction, so no surprise that people are happy. When the Chinese soldiers salute the American refugees arriving in China (this is from another person’s account) Shanghaiers/Shanghailanders have been clapping and yelling in nationalistic pride. 2012 was also the first American film that anyone can remember that was left intact after the intense Communist Party editing party, which really says something.

    Can I also just say, Independence Day was an awesome film. Maybe you just needed to be 10 years old when it came out to appreciate that.

  11. I just saw the movie, now I seriously don’t agree w what was said before, u see not everyone goes to the movies on a schedule, I loved the fact, that I cried, laughed and was kept in the tip of my seat! Many unspected things happend and I think the character Adrian was very interesting and the day after tomorrow was another awesome movie… now I believe this movie should open the mind of many ppl! Make them question our goverment, set out to find out more about our planet, bc if u guys aint noticed, just like the movie, out planet is not doing too well! And is not how the movie was done, how long the movie was or the actors in the movie is about the statement behind it, if not then u might need to watch that movie Al Gore made about out planet…it might be old but it opens our eyes to how we are not taking care of our planet!!! By the way recycle and save energy!!

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