It takes the death of billions to bring a family together
Roland Emmerich
John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Thandie Newton, Oliver Platt
The Setup: 
Apocalyptic, state-of-the-art special effects connected by arbitrary story.

I am drawn to special effects depicting disaster and large-scale destruction like a bee to sugar, and apparently I’m not the only one. And this movie has the special effects of mass destruction that are certainly, uh, big and detailed, if not particularly imaginative, and I knew going in that this would just be The Day After Tomorrow with the rote family drama and special effects switched out [which is precisely what it was], so I think lowered expectations helped. By the way, now’s as good a time as any to pitch my idea: Don’t you think, for movies like this, with massive special effects but a dreary story, that, maybe two weeks after the film is released, you should be able to pay $5 to see a specially-edited version that is JUST the special effects, and cuts out the human drama entirely? Because I could sit through the effects endlessly, but as for the Cusack’s rivalry with his wife’s new husband and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s tedious speeches about mankind fighting for survival—never again.

Things were looking dire before the movie even started and all the trailers were for movies about the importance of family. I ask again: If family is really so great, why do we need to many movies telling us how great it is? It’s like the way New Yorkers can’t stop repeating to themselves that they live in the greatest city in the world. Doesn’t sound like it’s ME that needs convincing. Anyway, our film opens, as all great films must, on the surface of the sun. Then we’re way underground in this lab in India. I’ll bet you didn’t know there are top-secret ultra-high-tech science labs miles underground in India! They don’t mentions THAT in Slumdog Millionaire. Anyway, the sun is shooting out all sorts of flares and these are shooting out neutrinos [Isn’t that a nutritious breakfast cereal?] which aren’t just passing through the earth, as is neutrinos wont, but for the first time ever, are creating a physical reaction. That’s it folks, that’s your scientific explanation right there: they’re causing a physical reaction, and no one knows why. Sucks to be you, Earth. The planet is essentially being turned into a giant marshmallow in a microwave, and the core is heating up and soon the continents will start shifting around on a surface of magma which—well, at least you won’t have to save for retirement.

The beginning of the movie covers the period from now until 2012, charting, if not the government response, then at least a bunch of people standing around intoning ominously. Eventually we meet John Cusack as Jackson Curtis, author of a roundly-ignored sci-fi novel and current limo driver. He is divorced from Amanda Peet as Kate, with which he has two gosh-darn adorable kids. She is a harpy gold digger who dumped his low-earning ass for a rich plastic surgeon who can keep her in the manner to which she feels she’s entitled. She, like most women in movies, treats him as though, as a male, he could not possibly know how to breathe and walk at the same time. He takes the kids camping at Yosemite and discovers that the lake he used to enjoy is now gone. In here he meets Ejiofor as Helmsley, government dude who just happens to love Jackson’s book, as well as Woody Harrelson as a conspiracy theorist who claims to have a map of where the government’s secret end-of-world escape pods are. He is EXACTLY the same character as Randy Quaid’s from Independence Day. There’s a minor earthquake, blah, blah, and eventually Jackson, Kate [that’s Peet, remember?] the kids, and plastic surgeon husband Gordon are all in a limo as L.A. gets completely destroyed. The special effects are astoundingly detailed—panes of glass falling out of skyscrapers and cars with little people inside, etc., but Emmerich wants, as usual, to create an end-of-the-world funhouse rather than really scare or unnerve or move people, so the effects unfold at an emotional remove as we watch Jackson and family evade death again and again [and again and again and again]. Whether we SHOULD be emotionally removed—if not amused—as we watch widespread destruction and the implied [but not shown] death of billions is something I’ll leave you to consider privately.

So they have to drive to Yosemite to get the map of escape pods from Harrelson, wherein we get to watch the park explode is a massive volcano and our pals try to escape in a plane as the runway is collapsing beneath them. When this comes out on video an excellent drinking game can be made where you take a shot every time someone just misses dying by an instant. They fly to Las Vegas, for the simple reason that it is very important to destroy major tourist destinations—no one wants to see rural strip malls get destroyed. In here Jackson and family connect with this Russian mobster who has two bratty twin boys and a young, pretty woman who is a plastic surgery patient of Gordon’s. The mobster paid billions for himself and the kids to be on the “arks” the government is building to withstand the apocalypse, but the mistress just isn’t worth it. Take a lesson, girls. Anyway, through some twist of fate too bothersome to go into, Jackson and family and the Russians all fly together to China. This of course involves still more narrow escapes, still more runways collapsing under planes, still more skyscrapers about to fall on planes. I suppose if you’re familiar with the landmark casinos it might be some sort of frisson to see them destroyed, and I expect that whatever one that is that lasts the longest and gets its showcase moment in fact paid for the privilege. I forgot to mention the reams of product placement the first half is loaded with [which goes off the chart during a scene set in a supermarket], and… yeah, I guess positioning your brand as the Thousand Island Dressing of the apocalypse really IS invaluable branding.

Anyway, of course they run out of fuel, causing them to have to land on some icy tundra, where they meet some nice Tibetan grandparents who have a survival ticket although, hello, they’re like, OLD. We need breeding stock, not bedpan-fillers. In here we have abruptly cut to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to see a crack run right between God and Adam’s finger, which is just tacky, and the whole of St. Peter’s fall down and roll over. And Emmerich gets to destroy the White House again, this time with the aircraft carrier the John F. Kennedy, which I can only guess is supposed to be some sort of ironic statement, though I’m not sure anyone knows what it is supposed to be saying. Might have generated some buzz had Bush still been in office.

Anyway, so on the plane Kate and Jackson are starting to rekindle their romance, which can only mean one thing: GORDON MUST DIE. And not only that, but die in a way that is neither of their faults, and a death that neither of them wants. I was laying money that he would heroically sacrifice himself at some point so he can go out like a hero, but still end up quite dead, so that our family can be reunited. And while we’re on the topic, WHY in movies is it always presented as the best thing for estranged husbands and wives to get BACK together? Hey, didn’t work out the first time, right? Why not take a moment to assess and move on? Another thing that shows up a lot in movies is people yearning for and marrying their high school sweetheart, which seems FUCKING INSANE to me. Sorry, I’ve grown and changed a lot since my high school days, and if I were to end up with the people I thought were dreamy when I was a moronic and arrogant late teen I would kindly ask that you kill me as quickly and painlessly as possible. This is a whole other topic, I just wanted to raise a preliminary WTF?

So turns out mankind is not going to colonize space, which I thought would be hot, but no, we’ve just built “arks” [at this point we groan as we recall that Jackson’s son is named Noah] that are built to withstand the massive tsunamis that threaten the world and are loaded with Twinkies and Triscuits for the trip. The film is quite up front about the fact that if you don’t have enough money or connections to buy your passage, you will die, which I guess we kind of have to appreciate. This is where a lot of big speeches are made about whether the chaff have the right to force their way onto the ships, blah blah, etc.

During this time Jackson and family have snuck onto one of the ships and inadvertently dislodged something that prevents the door from closing, causing Jackson to make a heroic attempt to swim down and dislodge it before the ship smashes into Mount Everest, as the whole place is now flooded with water. He tells his son to stay put, but of course the kid shows up saying “I only wanted to help!” This served as another reminder to me that I should never have kids because my first [and second and third] impulse was to shake the brat by the throat and shout “I do NOT have time to deal with YOUR SHIT RIGHT NOW!”

I hope you won’t be shocked to learn that they succeed, Gordon gets ground up by the giant gears of fate, although without explicitly sacrificing himself so the others may live, as expected. This leaves Kate free to love Jackson again, and the original family is reunited. And it turns out that Jackson’s book is now going to be a major cultural text. That’s the new sure-fire way to bestsellerdom—Keep your book in a safe place, then destroy nine-tenths of humanity.

A month later the waters have receded and the arks alight in Africa. I’m sure it’s no accident that the birthplace of mankind also ends up as its new birthplace. The film treats it as though everything’s all right now, the deaths of billions SO not a big deal, just a glitch, really, and despite the fact we have no guarantees that the sun won’t act up again in five minutes. The film ends with Jackson turning to Kate and saying “Yeah, it’s great that we’re back together and all, but I’m going to be in high demand for breeding, so, you know, I’m sure I’ll see you around. Okay? You can follow me on Twitter.”

Like I said, it was exactly The Day After Tomorrow with new actors and new effects. But, expecting that and setting my hopes in the basement, I was able to enjoy it much more than I expected. Plus it’s always nice to see Amanda Peet, although I wish someone would find something to do with her that really uses her talents. And the special effects are amazingly detailed, if lacking in palpable urgency or a sense that they're really happening or have any weight.

I find it curious that the amount of movies in which the world ENDS, not just endures significant damage, is up so high lately, and wonder what that says about our society and the international mood. I also wonder at the project of a film like this, that invites us to thrill to the sight of mass destruction on a global scale. The end of the world is here treated as a giant funhouse ride, with actual deaths of people kept discreetly offscreen or in the far distance, lest they ruin the mood. In part because of this the film suffers from Schindler’s List syndrome, in which our major characters survive and thus we leave with the feeling that everything worked out just fine. Hey, you can’t make an omelet without breaking an egg, right?

PS: Soon after I published this review, my friend wrote me and said" I just finished your review of 2012, and nowhere did I see the phrase 'TOTAL PIECE OF SHIT.'"

Should you watch it: 

If you like apocalyptic special effects of mass destruction, or just love perfunctory drama and big noble speeches.