Something 2012‘s makers get inexplicably wrong is their entirely (pseudo-)scientific plot. They’re hanging their story on crackpot theories about the Mayan calendar having only been calculated as far as the end of 2012, yet don’t connect to the mystical. This film has the sun’s radiation “mutating” into something that cooks the earth’s core like a microwave, melting everything under our hard candy shell until the planet’s surface is literally slipping across its gooey interior. Fine enough excuse for earthquakes and giant floods, but this could have been set in 2010. Or 1985, or 2041. Kinda a waste of a good hook, huh?
Something 2012 gets right is its interesting cast. John Cusack dials way down the stylistic ticks that often power his more emotionally centered movies to become a likeable, if somewhat bland (for which we blame the script) everyman facing unbelievable odds. The requisite earnest scientist is played by the really entertaining and not-yet-famous-enough Chiwetel Ejiofor (see the criminally underrated sci-fi thriller Serenity, and the criminally underrated comedy Kinky Boots, which he plays in drag). Their respective love interests are provided by Amanda Peet and Thandie Newton. Newton and Ejiofor, in particular, have great chemistry in their limited shared screen time. It’s a great thing that the film, probably in good measure because most of the budget is in the effects, doesn’t parade the usual action-flick suspects.
For all this, the film is strangely unaffecting. It’s a jumbo destruction flick, meant to exist mostly to give us carnage in giant doses. The movie delivers that, with a fairly crisp execution of a 40-minute windup before the runaway forces of nature deliver the first big money shot, the absolute destruction of Los Angeles. This is probably too long a wait, and in general, the two hours and forty minutes the film extracts from your life is just too damned much. It’s not that the film is poorly paced, or especially boring at any point, it’s just that the promise of eye-candy distaster-porn isn’t worth that much of anyone’s time.
The formulaic film’s biggest sin is the dialogue, which is ham-fisted, cliche-ridden stuff that never should’ve made it out of a weekend writers’ workshop. That the words don’t utterly sink the film is a tribute to the actors speaking them. Also, while all these big-action effect things stretch the laws of physics and plausibility, you gotta swallow some whoppers here. A guy who’s barely had two flying lessons is able to stunt-fly a small plane through utterly unbelievable chaos, for one thing. For another, Cusack plays a writer whose book, a disaster novel, sold fewer than 500 copies. One of those copies is currently being read by Ejiofor, who’s just knocked out by the story, a really big fan. And then the two of them meet, repeatedly, on opposite ends of the planet. If, knowing that, you still wanna see the film just to watch California slide into the Pacific, then you’ll probably be fine with any other story flaws.
Simpler guideline: Did you think Independence Day was a good movie? Our cowriter/director fulfilled the same duties on Independence Day. That 1996 Movie of Mass Destruction offered some amazing special effects slathered over a lackluster redemption arc for Will Smith, who then saved the world with an ad hoc software virus. This movie has the same git-my-woman-back redemption arc, but John Cusack isn’t saving humanity, he’s saving his family, and there’s nothing to fight, there’s just running from Mother Nature. But again, the destruction of the White House is a major point. Every time a Democratic president tries to overhaul health care, this Emmerich guy makes blowing up the White House a centerpiece of his end-of-the-world movie. Just sayin’ ….
When it’s all over, and an incredibly awful 80s-ish rock power ballad spews over the credits, you feel like the familiar pieces were adequately pushed across a familiar game board, and that’s about all you feel. I’d like to vote that we grab Cusack, Peet, Ejiofor and Newton and put them all into something with a more human scale and better dialogue, something that feels like it was written by a human rather than by a software program designed to fill in a basic script template.