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movies / November 15, 2009
By Eileen Jones


Sometimes you just want to see a lot of people die, but if you did anything about it in real life, you’d get entangled in a lot of red tape. So you head off to the cinema instead and watch stuff like 2012, which is really funny, in spots. It reminded me of Oscar Wilde’s nice line about the death of sweet, saintly Little Nell in Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop, one of the great tearjerkers of the 19th century:

One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.

2012 is writer-director Roland Emmerich’s latest disaster epic (Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow), but this time he’s going for the whole enchilada, the destruction of the planet, wiping out “life as we know it.” And it’s about time. We’re all pretty fed up, at least in America. We know it’s not going to end well for us and, frankly, we’re sick of hassling over it. So we take a lively interest in imagining End Times. First the earthquakes, then the tidal waves, huh? Okey-dokey. Let’s watch.

And that’s the perversity, of course, the way we all want to watch and don’t necessarily want to fall into a mile-deep crevasse, or burn to a cinder, or drown, or something. We can’t help it. The death drive is the most sensible drive we have, after a certain age, but for most of us, it stays buried under a confusing urge to live, no matter how burdensome and repetitive everything gets.

2012 is all about this irrational determination to live and perpetuate our crappy civilization. The film concentrates fiercely on who’s going to get a spot on the ark in the end. I won’t tell you, but will merely pose a question: in American culture, do we still revere the white middle-class nuclear family, in spite of all the hell it embodies? The tight-faced Mom, the doofus Dad, the two annoying children? Answer yes or no, then draw your own conclusions.


The film posits a few decent notions about What Must Be Saved, including the elephant, the giraffe, the dog, and the philosophical sci-fi fantasy book. Oddly, it appears there must also be an Obama. The US president in 2012 is an older Obama figure (played by Danny Glover, speaking mellifluously and looking noble and weary), a widower with a daughter who’s like a projection of Malia Obama in fifteen years (Thandie Newton). But there’s a handsome younger male Obama-type (Chiwetel Ejiofor) waiting in the wings to marry her and take over the decimated government, so the neo-New World can still have an elegant black couple in charge.

SPOILER: We’ll be starting over again in Africa, by the way. Yet another indication in the film that if humanity had it to do all over again, we’d do it all the same. And if that doesn’t make you root for the apocalypse, nothing will.

The premise of the film is the highly enjoyable popular-wingnut belief in the Mayan calendar, which supposedly puts a period to our sorry existence in 2012. Woody Harrelson seems elated to be the representative wingnut, playing a talk-radio loon who turns out to have been right all along. His goofy eye-rolling and upbeat blather as he rides the apocalyptic high are a real relief from all the government types solemnly standing around computer screens, saying “How much time do we have?” and the suburbanites yelling, “Run! The mushroom cloud’s right behind you!”

John Cusack is pleasantly detached from his dreary role as the divorced dad who must redeem himself from his doofiness and save his annoying family. He seems to be perpetually miming out a version of his Grosse Point Blank line, “Hey, this isn’t ME.” The female lead looks disturbingly like an airbrushed Maria Shriver—turns out it’s Amanda Peet—but okay, I guess somebody has to play the thankless, naggy wife-mother role. And then there’s a diverse assortment of actors representing The Peoples of Earth.

The Russians don’t do so well in this film. I’m not sure why. I’ll have to ask my fellow members of team exiled why Russians are so thoroughly punished in 2012. No matter how brave, smart, strong, or good-looking they are, they, uh…well, it’s pretty rough. Meanwhile the Chinese are given a pass. Hmm.

You can’t avoid judging people by nationality in this film, since all the characters are representing their nations like mad, the French being super-Frenchy, the Indians knocking themselves out conveying clichés of Indianness, etc. And if there’s still too much nuance for you, Emmerich orients you in the world he’s destroying by including last looks at famous tourist sites like Mount Everest and the Eiffel Tower.

Yeah, it’s a colossally stupid film, no getting around it. And long? Crikey! Almost three hours, structured thusly:

1. Government officials convene to assess the end of the world, which is at hand.

2. Somebody says a sobby telephone good-bye to a loved one just before disaster strikes, and the loved one dies with a poignant scream followed by an old-fashioned dial tone.

3. The earthquake/tsunami/whatever hits, crumbling buildings and ripping up landscapes and killing hordes of shrieking people.

4. Our heroic band escapes, just seconds ahead of the earthquake/tsunami/whatever, and races on to the next undestroyed setting.

5. Government officials convene to assess the end of the world, which is even nearer at hand.

Repeat steps 1 – 5 till sheer butt-ache drives the audience out of the theater.

But still, there’s some fun death here for people in the mood, which, let’s face it, we are. Nothing especially inventive or visceral here, all very PG-13. It’s really the quantity of death that’s enjoyable. The true benefit of CGI may turn out to be the infinite amount of destruction filmmakers can plausibly achieve with it. Sooo many faceless digital figures ululating in horror, waving their little arms and legs over yawning chasms, getting crushed to a fine spray in the wreckage of mass transit.

Watching it, you feel like a child again, staging elaborate vehicular crashes, knocking over whole made-up cities, stomping on crowds, threatening to kill your brother if he doesn’t leave you alone. Ah, happy times.

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Add your own

  • 1. ridesallyride  |  November 15th, 2009 at 2:10 pm

    but what does it all MEAN?

  • 2. chugs  |  November 15th, 2009 at 6:56 pm

    what i don’t understand is if the end of the world is meant to happen then having survivors hardly makes it the end of the world, especially if they end up on Earth again.

    The end of the world is exactly that. The end.

    Back to films and such where does it end. Will we have a film titled “End of the Universe” soon enough where we get to watch CGI films of the universe blowing up?

    i know i’m going to see this. Probably grab a rip from a torrent but seriously if your going to end the world then end the fucker and be done with it.

    Why this bullshit amercian born dream that all stories have a happy ending, especially those about the end of the world.

    Why can’t you stupid fucking yanks watch Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and swan dive off the the fucking ledge into the falls already?

  • 3. AIG  |  November 15th, 2009 at 7:38 pm

    where is the Fantastic Mr. Fox review?

  • 4. xyz  |  November 15th, 2009 at 7:47 pm

    I have only watched the trailer and puked at the ‘scientifically verified’ part. Is this ‘end of the world’ some Gods punishment? If so why not just take out all the oxygen and end all aerobic life in a few seconds.

  • 5. captain america  |  November 15th, 2009 at 8:43 pm

    chugs, there was “no country for old men.” that didn’t end cheerily. nor did “mulholand drive.” “fargo” only ended half happy. there must be others.

    oh yeah, ESB!!!

  • 6. Down and Out of Sài Gòn  |  November 15th, 2009 at 9:30 pm

    What does it mean, ridesallyride? What Eileen is saying is that Disaster Porn is meant to be fun. Unfortunately, 2012 sounds a little too long and serious to be fun. It sounds like the movie needs a funky soundtrack.

  • 7. Jay  |  November 16th, 2009 at 12:44 am

    Is Eileen also a boy’s name, like Ashley or Stacey? She writes too well, i.e. too much like a man. What’s up with that? Is she a box-muncher? Don’t make me re-evaluate my opinions about female writers at this point in my life.

    S/he kind of dances around it, so I’ll just make his/her point more clear: Americans are fascinated with disaster films where America gets blown up because deep down we know we’ve done a lot of bad s*** and someday we’re going to have to answer for it. While we can’t accept answering for it to a Russia or China, we can accept answering to an angry planet that wants to kill us.

  • 8. fuzzy  |  November 16th, 2009 at 2:40 am

    Wait, chugs, are you telling me life doesn’t always have a happy ending? Wow, next thing you know you’re going to tell me radiation exposure doesn’t give you super powers, just cancer.

  • 9. zerohr  |  November 16th, 2009 at 3:32 am

    “Repeat steps 1 – 5 till sheer butt-ache drives the audience out of the theater.”

    Haha! Brilliant, love this.

  • 10. Pádraig Ó Buth Chanain  |  November 16th, 2009 at 6:01 am

    “The Russians don’t do so well in this film. I’m not sure why. I’ll have to ask my fellow members of team exiled why Russians are so thoroughly punished in 2012.”

    Because Roland Emmerich is a Bundeskraut, perhaps? Even though they aren’t proper Germans, they still hate the Russians for kicking the shit out of the real Germans.

  • 11. Connors  |  November 16th, 2009 at 6:26 am

    2012 is absolutely terrible, even though billions of people died. We didn’t get to appreciate any of those deaths because they weren’t shown. Instead, we get a constant flow of maddeningly idiotic dialogue. And that dreadful Russian ‘accent’, when ignorant American actors speak English with a pseudo-Russian accent. Everything that happens in the movie is, of course, entirely predictable. How can anyone enjoy a movie that contains zero surprises and no real suspense? A movie about the end of the world that lacks suspense?

  • 12. Plamen Petkov  |  November 16th, 2009 at 10:29 am

    we ALL knew this movie was gonna be pure sh*t so why bother stating the obvious?
    maybe you ought to expand and start reviewing new books and music too. On second thought…

  • 13. thoroughly_sits_on_face  |  November 16th, 2009 at 10:50 am

    Why is Dolan posing as a chick?

  • 14. Concerned Citizen  |  November 16th, 2009 at 2:05 pm

    Thoughts on 2012: A) Mt.Everest makes a fantastic iceberg and B) Scramble for Africa Redux? C)What was with all the Wisconsin shoutouts?

  • 15. Unger  |  November 16th, 2009 at 5:47 pm

    Hah, I’m surprised this passed muster here. The Ordinary American Family that got saved was (by far) the exception to the rule. The lead-in to the climax was…heads of state, billionaires, their flunkies, and their pets getting onto luxuriously-outfitted ships built largely at (unwarned, unthanked, and now un-living) taxpayer expense. But ah, one of the ships was damaged before boarding, so the great moment of pathos was, uh, a bunch of the aforementioned high-rollers getting the run-around because the dock authorities couldn’t stick them on the damaged ship, their fellow high-rollers on the undamaged ships didn’t want to make room on theirs, and they couldn’t be told they were being left to die because then there’d be a riot.

    Of course, you can’t run Goldman Redux with a bunch of washed-up proles, so it’s no surprise that the leftover high-rollers get rescued before the shit really hits the fan.

    And the very end? Where would they all go? Hah, you guessed it. Africa, mirabile dictu, was mostly unharmed, so that’s where the grand fleet of white billionaires goes. The Cycle Repeats…

    In that vein, I suppose it *was* the most realistic disaster movie ever made.

  • 16. wall  |  November 16th, 2009 at 6:13 pm

    Thanks for the great review, Eileen Jones. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I have great hope that this will be my new “Battlefield Earth”. Crossing my fingers.

  • 17. Like yah!  |  November 16th, 2009 at 8:15 pm

    After half an hour of scientific nonsense and overacting i put on my earphones and listened to White Zombie. Loved every minute of the movie from that point till the finish. My favorite part is when the monk rings the bell to bring in the rest of the ocean over the Himalayas (at that point i’m listening to “more human than human”). It’s all very clearly a tie in between mayans and tibetans as the old Rinpoche explains to the young one by spilling the tea while he’s telling him how the story ends. I’m thinking of doing an alternate version of this movie where i substitute those pesky neutrinos by U.S. Dollars; No dates have to be altered but John Cusack plays Geithner as he strives to save Goldman Sucks and other assorted scum.

  • 18. Tarf Noogies  |  November 17th, 2009 at 2:40 am

    Disaster porn really does it for me, and your review is really the icing on top of the cake for my pathetic life.

    Eileen, you can sit on my face any time! Unless you’re actually John Dolan, of course.

  • 19. Mark  |  November 17th, 2009 at 6:04 am

    Why is a chick posing as Dolan?

  • 20. Allen  |  November 17th, 2009 at 9:00 pm

    That Oscar Wilde quote was truly laugh out loud funny … nice review, sounds like a movie with some potential, though probably best watched in the early AMs while drunk or otherwise intoxicated. That will minus the tedious dialog, story, and acting, and plus the orgiastic destruction … even out the viewing experience.

  • 21. adriana  |  December 17th, 2010 at 7:38 pm

    real will die 2012

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