Friday, May 7, 2010

Maggie 2010: Resignedly, 2012

#64. 2012

I confess to being happy this movie exists, because the moment I heard about it I realized there was actually a chance in hell that the whole 2012 sensation would run its course before the fateful year in question. I mean, once you've seen John Cusack play out the whole scenario in a schlocky, B-grade movie, the thing becomes a little passe, don't you think? We have the T-shirts, we have the books, and now the motion picture. Next apocalyptic nightmare, please?

That said, it took just under five minutes into 2012 to start laughing at the science behind the disaster scenario -- neutrinos from the sun mutating into a new kind of particle that interacts concretely with the earth's core, causing gross tectonic shifts and building towards both volcanoes and tsunamis on an unprecedented scale -- and with tremendously low expectations come to appreciate the fact that the film starts years before the solar flares yield cataclysmic results, so that when apocalypse hits there's actually a measure of hope for survival. This is important, because if the world were really about to end for all humanity what the hell would be the point of watching John Cusack try to save his family from destruction? You might as well watch the final episode of The Dinosaurs again -- you know, for laffs.

Okay, so John Cusack plays Jackson Curtis, a struggling writer with a lone novel that sold just over 400 copies. This is important because the scientist who discovered the end of the world was coming, Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), is somehow a big fan, so when he finds Jackson and his two young kids in Yellowstone Park, now off-limits because the lake has mysteriously dried up, Jackson's underlying message as a writer -- that people will sacrifice themselves to save others -- kind of resonates with Adrian's personal crisis. See, Adrian had all these super-cool survival plans built on a vision of the world ending at least a year or two later; but since his calculations were wrong, the governments of the world are now scrambling to complete the four Arks they've contracted in China, and Adrian is slowly awakening to the fact that the greater public never actually factored into their governments' survival plans at all. Major bummer. Meanwhile, Jackson's encountered a nutter in the forest who tells him all about the end of the world and the Arks, so when the nutter's predictions start coming true Jackson hurries off to pick up his kids and ex-wife (and... the new husband, a cosmetic surgeon, can come along, too) and do whatever it takes for his family to survive.

There are the elements here of a quality action flick, but director/writer Roland Emmerich misses the boat (no pun intended). In the course of the film you see the set-up to what might easily have been a classy, Armageddon-style climax, in which Jackson, embodying the ethos of his own writing and coming to terms with the fact that his kids actually like their new dad, goes off on a suicide mission and dies so that a whole crap-load of people may live. Meanwhile you see the set-up to a kind of government accountability that finally risks everything in order to save as many people as possible (really, really, really late in the game, but, you know, better than nothing?). However, when push comes to shove either the writers wimp out, or else completely manhandle various crises to the point of tedium. Truly, some of what should be the film's tensest moments are in fact so long and overwrought that even last-minute twists become anti-climactic and dull. The actors themselves don't often seem very emotional about what's going on -- so why the hell should we?

The world is ENDING, people. Feel good conclusions in such films need to be meagre threads of "Shit, son, that was bad, but hey! It could still have been worse!" (Take, for instance, Sunshine, which delivers for the first two acts, falls miserably apart in the third, but still recognizes that centrality of sacrifice and loss to any culminating, bittersweet victory.)

In short, I'm not cranky with 2012 because it was a mediocre End of the World action flick. I'm just cranky because it's not as pleasurably bad as others of that ilk, when it had all the basic elements and came so close to being something more. When Adrian gives a speech aboard the Ark about chance and randomness, after a really gentle subplot about Buddhist philosophy yielding positive, real-world outcomes, you almost think "Sweet! They're not ham-fisting it, and they're still pulling off a measure of profundity!" But then, near the end of the film, one of the characters reads aloud the ending to Jackson's novel, its very title beating viewers over the head with the synchronicity between word and action, and that's it. The dream is over. The ship of awesome apocalyptic films has sailed, and 2012's not on it.

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