The world is coming to an end!
In the epic disaster movie 2012, that’s an understatement. The sun is producing some new fangled type of neutrino, which superheats the Earth’s core, which causes the tectonic plates to shift, which cause earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and huge tsunamis. The forces of nature, as portrayed by tens of millions of dollars worth of digital special effects, are overwhelming – and occasionally awe inspiring – if you like that sort of thing.
Despite the dire circumstance, or because of them, many people are going to laugh while they watch producer-director-writer Roland Emmerich’s 2012. That’s okay too; the movie knows you’re going to laugh. At many points, it goes out of its way to make you laugh. Of course, many people will be laughing at ‘wrong’ moments, which are supposed to be scary or melodramatic. That’s okay too, but not necessarily what the moviemakers wanted, except in the sense that the whole movie is a parody of disaster movies, while at the same time it’s the ultimate example of the genre. The laughter is good, even if, when the show is over and you walk back to the car or down the street to a restaurant, you think “Well that wasn’t a great movie, but it was fun.”
If you like disaster movies, you will more than get your money’s worth. There’s melodrama, humor, clever details, and the pacing is generally good; but of course what sells this kind of movie are the effects. It delivers: Los Angeles folds in on itself; the White House is hit by an aircraft carrier on top of a tsunami; St. Peters Basilica literally rolls over on the Pope. (See what I meant about laughs?)
As a disaster movie must, the opening scenes set the table for the devastation to come. In this case, it’s a couple very handsome young scientists in India who discover the heating of the Earth’s core in 2009. Thankfully 2012 doesn’t present scientists as geeks or evil madmen. However, we do see how the world’s governments decide, in secret, to build huge arks to ride out the predicted floods. We learn that instead of having a sensible lottery to choose who goes on the arks, it’s the power elites and the highest bidders who get the ‘green tickets.’ Seems quite realistic to me.
Next we meet the obligatory more or less sympathetic characters, in this case a semi-dysfunctional family of divorced parents played by John Cusack and Amanda Peet, their two kids (Morgan Lily, Liam James) and a new boyfriend (Thomas McCarthy). The father, making up for poor fathering, takes the kids on a camping trip to Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone’s a three day drive from L.A., why not camp in the Sierras but hey, that’s where the volcanic action has to start, which it duly does.
After some ominous but preliminary quakes and cracks in California, the family is reunited back in L.A. with literally two minutes to spare. California is in the process of sliding into the ocean. The family boards a small aircraft to escape and has so many narrow escapes the story threatens to become an exercise in Perils-of-Pauline plotting.
First they return to Yellowstone to acquire a map from a crazy radio-prophet (played by Woody Harrelson). The map shows that the arks to save humanity are being built in the Himalayas. So the family has to get to Tibet. They need a bigger plane. Meanwhile, they have to get out of Yellowstone, which is in the process of turning into the world’s biggest erupting volcano. Several miraculous escapes later they arrive in Las Vegas (obviously also shortly going to Hell) to get a bigger plane. They get one (don’t ask). Hours later they make a belly landing in Tibet, only because the Earth’s crust has moved it thousands of miles closer to Califonia. There are more complications. They don’t have tickets for the ark.
At this point, the movie vamps while waiting for a tsunami to hit. There is much debate about the morality of who got to go on the arks and maintaining the essence of humanity in the face of annihilation. Meanwhile the family struggles to smuggle themselves on board an ark – although in this context, that’s heroic.
2012 works almost too hard at maintaining balance between the quiet ‘human moments’ and the high-decibel spectacle of destruction. How can the story compete with the disaster fx? Did the film makers know it would be a losing effort? Perhaps that’s why the story becomes desperately melodramatic toward the end. The noble father disappears underwater to save the ship. His disobedient and incredibly heroic young son joins him. After watching people wringing their hands in worry, the boy and his dad save the ship. There is wild cheering. The son surfaces into the mother’s arms; but father is still underwater. They wait, and wait, and wait. They wait so long that in a normal movie; the dad would be dead, having sacrificed himself to save everyone else. Not in this movie. After way too much waiting, he reappears and flops wetly into the arms of his ex-wife. They will live happily together ever after, we are meant to presume. Can there be a happy ending after the destruction of most of the Earth’s surface and the deaths of 5.6 billion people? This movie tries for it, glorious new day and all.
Some people will accept the rampant sentimentality and melodrama. Not too many, I hope. Many more people will sort of enjoy the movie. For most of its two hours and thirty-eight minutes it keeps eyes on the screen. It’s not a stupid script, nor is the acting inadequate. Of course the story is preposterous and the science fake. However, like I said, if you like disaster movies – or just plain BIG movies – you’ll probably find 2012 worth the price of a ticket and a box of popcorn.
[Bad science doesn’t always mean a bad movie. But it’s fun to blow raspberries at bad science!]
Here’s a few choice 2012 pseudo-science points. Add some of your own!
A flood of ‘mutated’ neutrinos from a hyperactive sun causes the Earth’s core to overheat, which is what creates the pressure to move the tectonic plates. This is the motivating science of the movie, presented in about three minutes of screen time. (Of course the science is unimportant, only the appearance of a scientific rationale is deemed necessary. Hey, they could’ve just left it with Mayan prophecies.) The idea of a new variety of neutrino is improbable, although we’ve already identified three types (electron, muon, and tauon with corresponding antineutrinos). It’s even more improbable that any kind of solar activity would produce enough neutrinos to affect the physical behavior of Earth’s core. Neutrinos pass through ordinary matter like it wasn’t there. It’s estimated that 50 trillion neutrinos pass through your body every second.
As one of the first mega-disasters, the Yellowstone super-volcano rises like an overheated pancake and explodes. A volcano the size of Yellowstone would not produce a surface rise of a hundred feet per minute (movie time), at least not without some extremely violent preliminary indications days or months in advance.
A 1,500 foot (500 meter) tsunami washes all the way across India into the interior high valleys of the Himalayas. These valleys are all above 15,000 ft (5,000 meters) and the sea is normally several hundred miles away. Even with the squeezing that occurs when water is forced into narrow channels, no way 1,500 ft makes it to 15,000 feet. Incidentally, the movie makes it clear that Tibet is the location of the arks, which is on the other side of the Himalayan divide, not in Nepal (the short side).
While the heroic families try to fly to Tibet, they run out of fuel and think they’ll have to ditch in the Pacific Ocean. However, they’re saved because the Earth’s surface has shifted about 1,500 miles in roughly twelve hours. Tibet is conveniently where the Pacific Ocean used to be. We are told the tectonic plates have moved, but my word…that’s whiplash writ very large indeed.