I saw 2012 yesterday, partly in celebration of Friday the 13th. Swell movie, despite all the negative attention from movie reviewers and IMDb members. I was encouraged, though, by the fact that Roger Ebert gave it three-and-a-half stars. Ebert is a smart reviewer and a true student of film, but he's no snob.
I can see what everybody is complaining about. I could see it, that is, if the movie had been titled The Seventh Seal or An Inconvenient Truth. But to my knowledge nobody went into the theater expecting profundity or credible instruction on plate tectonics. It's a fucking disaster movie, people. It follows all the conventions of the genre, going back at least as far as War of the Worlds (the first one) and When Worlds Collide, from which 2012 borrows heavily. Criticizing the movie for plot holes and weak character development is like criticizing a Three Stooges movie for lack of nuance and the failure to include a fourth stooge. Schmaltzy sentiment, improbable coincidences, and liberties with scientific fact are to be expected and enjoyed. And how can you fault a movie about the end of the world for predictability?
And it's totally a red herring to concern yourself about whether 2012 is an accurate prediction of the future. Was 1984? Was 2001?
But, as Ebert points out, 2012 raises the bar for the disaster movie genre. For one thing, the special effects are astounding. They require a large screen to appreciate the moviemakers' attention to detail. The collapse of Los Angeles into the Pacific Ocean (not really a spoiler since you can see part of it in the movie's trailer) brought tears to my eyes ... partly because I usually tear up in disaster movies (for their "O the humanity!" moments), partly because the technicians who created the scene have created something magnificent, rather like the amassed details on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which (a spoiler here, OK?) crumbles down on the Pope and attendant cardinals about an hour later.
Religion, by the way, is rather central to this movie. Besides seeing the Pope get squished, we see a Tibetan lama get buried under a tsunami, which sweeps across the Himalayas as if they were Florida. We also see the arms fall off the art-deco O Cristo Redentor above Rio de Janeiro. (So much for the fun for us atheists; the bible thumpers get to see the final destruction of sin cities like L.A. and Vegas.) We have a main character, who may or may not redeem the world, whose initials are JC (get it?), played by an actor whose initials are JC (John Cusack), and he (the character, not the actor) has a son named Noah. Pay attention now. And his mission begins at the feet of a ragged mad-eyed pirate deejay (Woody Harrelson), whose voice is literally "crying in the wilderness."
We also get a bad guy griping that the fanatic religious doom-mongers (think: Tim LaHaye) have finally been proved right (even the word "rapture' is used ... but incorrectly ... to refer to the bizarre geothermal events). Of course, the title of the movie and its premise refer to a Mayan prophecy, or at least Mayan fatigability, in that the Mayan calendar ends in 2012. But the movie takes on religion in more subtle, interesting ways, too. The US President (Danny Glover) seeks solitude for prayer. A young Buddhist monk (Osric Chau) becomes (at least temporarily) a savior for two families. "Faith" is spoken of on several occasions ... sometimes with the usual associations with faith in a god or gods, sometimes with associations with faith in human nature or even faith in science.
We also get, for perhaps the first time since the Cold War, a scientist as a hero. Scientists from Frankenstein to Strangelove have usually been depicted in Hollywood as mad egoists, their minds darkened by curiosity about taboo subjects and knowledge of befuddling statistics. But in this movie, the scientist (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a dashing hero, driven by reason and humanistic compassion for his fellow man.
The movie also does a good job of blunting the most probable criticisms of it. Partly it does this through fine acting, as in a scene when Ejiofor says what he believes to be his final farewell to his father (Blu Mankuma). The scene could be as sappy as they come, but the two actors carry it off ... an amazing feat.
It also mimics the probable criticisms and puts them in a bad light. The John Cusack character is a science-fiction writer, whose one book Farewell Atlantis (2012's working title) was a commercial failure. The title, by the way, seems to allude to Pat Frank's 1959 post-apocalypic novel Alas Babylon. What's interesting is that this book (pure sentimental entertainment, even by the author's estimate) bears the seeds by which human civilization may somehow endure post-2012, having something to do with acknowledging the brotherhood of all human beings and respecting the planet. I won't say any more about that.
My point here is the movie justifies itself by analogy. Silly idealistic drivel can inspire human greatness. Whether the drivel is God's inspired word, a sci-fi novel that flops but nevertheless inspires one person who may be able to save (some) humanity, or a big-bang summer blockbuster opening in November.