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Cinema in Focus: ‘2012’

The latest in a group of apocalyptic films doesn't blame humanity for the environmental disaster

3 Stars — Entertaining

The claim has been made that the Mayan calendar ends on Dec. 21, 2012. That is not true. It is true, however, that the date marks what the Mayan calendar calls the “Great Cycle,” and a new cycle will begin at that time. Because of that, people have imagined a climactic change will occur on that date that will be apocalyptic. That is the premise of Roland Emmerich’s film simply titled 2012.

As both author and director, Emmerich tells a classic tale full of the necessary elements of the genre of disaster fiction. There is a touch point with reality, not only with the Mayan calendar but also with the cycles of solar storms. But those are only starting points. Like his earlier films Independence Day and Stargate, Emmerich weaves primitive fears with visual effects that have his audience sitting on the edge of their seats as the Earth’s crust rips apart and cities cascade into the sea.

Along with the visually intense event, the tale also tells a familiar story of salvation and love. Salvation comes in the proverbial “ark” to save remnants of humanity and animals. Love comes in two couples whose lives are interwoven. The first is a scientist, Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the first daughter, Laura Wilson (Thandie Newton). Intensely driven by their own intellectual and scholastic pursuits, they predictably become paired to begin human life again after the global environmental disaster.

The other couple is writer Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) and his estranged wife, Kate (Amanda Peet). As the parents of Noah (Liam James) and Lilly (Morgan Lily), Jackson and Kate have lost their way and their relationship. When he serendipitously meets Helmsley during a camping trip at Yellowstone with his children, and gets a quick tutorial by seeming madman Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson), Jackson becomes aware of the impending disaster. Trying to save his family, the predictable reigniting of their love occurs.

Though similar to other films of this genre in which environmental disaster occurs and humanity must be saved, this film is unique in the cause of the disaster. Rather than blaming it on humanity, the humans in the film are simply trying to cope. Some are self-serving with disregard for others, while others are self-sacrificing as they give their own lives to save others. This causes all of us to wonder how we might respond in a similar situation.

Realizing that death is inevitable for every human being is a pervasive part of life. As disaster films struggle with this inevitability on a global scale, they allow us to face this great nemesis. The question, though, is not when the end will come, whether in 2012 or not, but rather how will we live both now and then. That is the question upon which the climax of the film rests, and it is a question worthy of an answer in our own lives.


» NASA scientists have gone on record debunking the thinking behind the 2012 theory. Does this convince you? Why or why not?

» The film allows the characters’ motivations and actions to be mixed, as when Yuri Karpov’s (Ziatko Buric) selfish disregard for others is balanced by his sacrificial death to save his sons. This nuance of character development creates a better tale and allows us to see ourselves more clearly. Who else in the film is presented in a nuanced manner?

» The expectation that government would not tell us if there was a cataclysmic event about to occur is a premise of the film. Do you believe our government would hide such a truth or reveal it? Why?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit

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