REVIEW: 2012 (It’s The End of the World As We Know It)

2012 poster ©2009 Sony Pictures, all rights reserved

2012 poster ©2009 Sony Pictures, all rights reserved

The Roland Emmerich Sci-Fi Terrestrial Destruction Tour continues. Not satisfied with immolating the White House by alien visitors in Independence Day or icing over Earth in post-global warming catastrophe in The Day After Tomorrow, the audacious director goes for cataclysmic broke with 2012, a bona fide disaster epic. Light on solid science, heavy on jaw-dropping special effects, the eradication of humanity and its habitation never felt so visually scintillating. review and science discussion, under the “continue reading” jump.

REVIEW: 2012 Grade: A-

Let’s get something clear right off of the bat. Whatever you may or may not have heard, 2012 is a good old-fashioned Hollywood blockbuster romp. Oh, sure, there’s a perfunctory plot, and some scientific jargon interspersed here and there to give the whole thing an official air (about which we’ll have more to say later), but above all else, there is action. Heaps of spellbinding, impossible action. A countdown of sorts spirals the film into its opening credits. In 2009, in an underground physics laboratory in India, abnormal neutrino masses are detected from inexplicable solar eruptions, leading to a dire conclusion. The ominous warning is delivered to the White House by geologist Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor, in a star turn). In 2010, the protests and religious zealotry begin. In 2011, preparations around the world commence for impending doom amidst strong reassurance from political leaders that everything is fine. And in 2012, the word comes to an end.

In the middle of all this mayhem are some familiar Roland Emmerich archetypes. There is the well-meaning, avuncular President (Danny Glover). There is the Everyman Hero, novelist Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), who is just trying to get his estranged family back but reluctantly saves the world in the process. There is the unscrupulous power broker, in this case science advisor to the President Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt). There is even an evil Russian oligarch, Curtis’s boss. On a camping trip in Yellowstone with his children, Curtis encounters the eccentric radio conspiracy theorist Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson, in a hilarious movie-stealing role), who insists that the rapidly increasing temperatures and global earthquakes are leading to demise, and that the government is killing off any naysayers who try to issue warnings. Furthermore, Charlie claims to have secret maps in his camper to secret Chinese vessels being built to house the remaining survivors. Only when he encounters the U.S. military and Helmsley does Curtis get an inkling that Frost may be right about everything (he is)—just in time to rescue his children, ex-wife (Amanda Peet) and her chump of a boyfriend Gordon (Tom McCarthy). After narrowly escaping a decimating 10.0 earthquake in Los Angeles, the family drives to Yellowstone, where Gordon, who has had two flight lessons, is tasked with flying the clan across the world to China. Turns out that Curtis’s Russian boss bought the several-billion Euro passes aboard the modern ark, so the family somehow manages to arrive by a combination of cargo plane, Bentley and Himalayan pickup truck. From here, the movie becomes nothing more than a race to navigate the ship under the arrogant guidance of self-appointed President Anheuser amid a series of mechanical breakdowns, last-minute portentous scientific recalculation, and heartfelt emotional revelations. Is all of this recycled, predictable and formulaic? Heck, yes! Is there ever a shred of doubt that the Curtis family will be reunited and what’s left of humanity will reach its safe harbor? Heck, no! But by the time your heart rate returns to resting state, it will be too late to realize that you’ve been duped.

The White house goes under a rip tide, along with the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy in a scene from 2012.  ©2009 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group

The White house goes under a rip tide, along with the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy in a scene from 2012. ©2009 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group

Plot, acting, and pacing, normally the linchpins of a movie, are in this case incidental and superseded by the Oscar-worthy special effects and CGI. The Earth does not just destruct in 2012, it does so in high definition, with every painstaking detail preserved by a team of digital effects supervisors. According to an interview in the New York Times, a room of supercomputers worked for 16 months to render proper shadows from the sun on every surface and infuse realism in the fault cracks, tsunamis, fires and other demolitions in each frame. And it works. Individual cars and humans can be seen falling from collapsing skyscrapers and crunching freeways and bridges. Every pixel of crumbling ground and droplet of raging water show through on the big screen. During one particular heart-pounding car chase, in which Jackson Curtis navigates his family to safety as Los Angeles literally drops off beneath them, I realized that I’d forgotten to breathe. That was the beginning of the movie. By the time Rio de Janeiro, New York, Rome, Washington, DC, and even Hawaii disappear, all you can do is sit back, hold on to your arm rests and enjoy the ride. Take a look at this exclusive video from Sony Pictures that shows how special effects artists turned Yellowstone into a supervolcano:

There have been a lot of naysayers and negative reviews decrying everything from the propriety of showing such wanton destruction on a wide scale to the grandiose special effects (over-the-top was used) to the flimsy pseudo-science used as a plot basis. I can’t legitimately argue against a single one of these points except to say this: who cares? On the sliding scale of sensational movie escapism, 2012 ranks off the charts. If a roomful of professional movie critics could erupt in spontaneous applause over car chases and airplane maneuvers, perhaps the rest of us, too, can set aside our cynicism for two and a half hours and be dazzled by the movie magic of it all. Oh, and, by the way. If there’s a struggling creative writer in your life, be nice to them. They just might save all of humanity one day.

2012 goes into wide release Friday, November 13, 2009 at theatres nationwide.


Now for the bad news. The “science” on which 2012 is based? Bunk. To be fair, a whole host of documentaries and programs centered around the Mayan prediction fallacy have or are set to air, including Ancient Code: the Movie, SyFy Channel’s 2012: Startling New Secrets, 2012: An Awakening, and the riveting 2012: Mayan Prophesy and The Shift of the Ages. And so on, and so forth. Wikipedia has an excellent archive of references to 2012 in fiction. But what did the Mayans actually say and where did this harebrained idea come about?

Mayan stargazers observed and recorded astrological planetary motion in cycles of 26,000 years, dated back to a mythological “creation” date. The large overarching cycle is then broken down into five lesser cycles of 5,125 years each, known as their own creation or world age. We are currently in the fifth or final creation cycle that corresponds in the Gregorian Calendar to August 11, 3114 BC—December 21, 20012. This calendar is known as the Mesoamerican, or Long Count, Calendar. In Long Count, the initial date of entry into the fifth world was demarcated as Each cycle was said to have been ushered into a new one by destructive forces of one of the elements: Jaguar, Wind, Rain, Water or Earth. The fifth cycle, according to the Mayans, is said to be ruled by Earth, which in the Aztec and Mayan languages can translate to anything from movement, shift, evolution, earthquake, navigation, synchronicity, clue tracking, or turtle. Yes, you read that right—our planet could be destroyed by either an earthquake or a turtle. One can certainly understand harboring a soupçon of skepticism about things getting lost in translation!

Dr. David Stuart, a world-renowned expert of Mesoamerican Art at the University of Texas at Austin, has written a comprehensive and worthwhile Q&A blog post about 2012. Worthy of note are the following two questions:

What did the Maya say about 2012?
They actually said very little, if anything. Only one ancient inscription refers to the upcoming date in 2012, from a now destroyed site named Tortuguero. The question we scholars have struggled with is whether the final few hieroglyphs of that text describe anything about what will happen. A few years ago I put forward a very tentative and incomplete reading of these damaged glyphs, including a possible use of a verb meaning “descend” and a name of a god, Bolon Yokte’. Much of it was iffy and remains so; I’m not sure I believe much of what I wrote back then. More recently my colleague Steve Houston has pointed out the glyphs may not even pertain to that date anyway. So there’s considerable ambiguity just in the reading of the glyphs and the rhetorical structure of the Tortuguero passage. What we can say with confidence is that the ancient Maya left no clear or definite record about 2012 and its significance. There is certainly no ancient claim that the world or any part of it will come to an end.

Who came up with this crazy idea?
New Age hacks and, now, Hollywood producers. The idea can be traced largely back to the novelist and mystic named Frank Waters, who in the 1960s and 70s wrote a number of novels and cultural treatises on Native Americans of the American southwest, including his 1963 work, Book of the Hopi (he was not an anthropologist). One of Waters’ last works was Mexico Mystique: The Coming Sixth Age of Consciousness (1975), an odd pastiche of Aztec and Maya philosophies wherein he proposed that the “end” of the calendar would somehow involve a transformation of world spiritual awareness. Waters’ ideas got picked up and expanded upon by Jose Arguelles in his insanely misguided but influential book The Mayan Factor: Path Beyond Technology (1987). Many different writers have followed with their own strange books and essays on the “meaning” of 2012, mostly contradicting one another.

Harmless fun, to be sure, but on a more serious note, in an exceptional article entitled The Carnival of Bunkum, h+ Magazine writer Mark Dery decries the effect the aforementioned 2012 cultural collective will have on amplifying public hysteria as the clock slowly turns towards this most inauspicious date. Offering the case study of Daniel Pinchbeck and his ooga booga book 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, Dery points out that such “mysticism” exchanges those petty scientific principles of rationalism and empiricism for cultural arrogance and anthropological ignorance. Worse yet, accepting the belief that rising CO2 levels and worsening environmental conditions are foretold by mythical or Biblical prophecies, and will end in mass apocalypse anyway, prevents us from taking imminent action to combat these anthropogenic threats in a necessary way.

So relax, people. Instead of planning for doomsday, go watch a movie about it.

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  1. Alphy Hoffman
    7:18 am on November 14th, 2009

    Great review, saw it, loved it and Script PhD was right on the money with the review…Thank You

  2. ScriptPhD
    10:18 am on November 14th, 2009

    Thanks Alphy! Appreciate the feedback!

  3. Troy Gardner
    11:40 am on November 14th, 2009

    The Aztecs were right. The world IS coming to an end by turtle.

    Didn’t you know the world is flat and it’s turtles all the way down? The world turtle is are finally tired of doing the circus stacking act, it’s been a millenia and it’s time for break.

    So down comes humanity craters for all.

  4. Brad Munson
    7:38 pm on November 22nd, 2009

    It’s all about TEOTWAWKI (I almost named my last daughter “Teotwawki,” but that’s another story). Westerners just LOVE the notion of the apocalypse; it seems the more we have to lose the more we are intoxicated by the notion of losing it. Emmerich — though he’s shallow as a storm puddle — figured that out quite a while back, right down to the iconic level, and 2012 is essentially the culmination of that cultural death wish: almost an hour of just STUFF BLOWING UP OR FALLING OVER, with Cusack and company in place to give the much-loved “personal” touch to the “Aaaaiiiiiii!” ing. I’m not quite sure we-as-a-society love this whole subgenre so much; maybe it’s a longing for simplicity in the face of a complex world (true, we wouldn’t have any more polio vaccine or HBO, but we wouldn’t have the IRS, either!)’ maybe it’s the fulfillment of a dark wish to just break things with impunity. Or maybe it’s a celebration of our ineradicability: after all, if you’re reading/experiencing/enjoying the story of The End, then you’re by definition one of the *survivors,* not one of the untold m’billions who died when Things Fell Apart. So … that’s a good thing, right? WE’LL make it through, it’s just the REST of ‘em who died. Notice, in virtually all the EOTW books, movies, and slide shows, there are ALWAYS survivors with real names and frequently cool costumes (viz. Mad Max, Terminator, et. al.), while damn near all the dead are nameless and often faceless, and the survivor’s story is infinitely more interesting than OURS. Except for maybe Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove.” Looks like pretty much EVERYbody dies in that one.

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