Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
Hot Babe Scientist. Linus Pauling never looked like this. Hollywood is now capable of dealing with a woman scientist. Someday they will be capable of portraying a plain, middle-aged or overweight woman scientist.
Hunk Scientist. Linus Pauling never looked like this, either. Stephen Hawking may be a great heroic role model, but good looks sell tickets.
High Caloric-Intake Monster. Large animals eat a smaller fraction of their body weight each day than small ones, a manifestation of surface to volume ratio. Hollywood critters, on the other hand, eat like shrews.
Pompous Ass who Pays With His Life. The pig-headed boss or political figure who refuses for selfish reasons to listen to warnings and gets killed. Occasionally it really happens; the governor of Martinique refused to evacuate when Mont Pelee began erupting 1902, and died in the resulting catastrophe. So did 30,000 innocent people.
Superfluous Kids. Kids (generally repugnant) who serve no real dramatic purpose except to generate audience sympathy. I root for the monsters, especially when the kids do something stupid after they've been told not to.
Cookie Crumbs Have No Calories. And large objects (like asteroids) cease to exist once they're broken up.
No Other Scientists in the World. Apart from the two or threecharacters in the film, nobody else in the entire worldwide scientific communityis aware anything unusual is going on. Nobody else seems to be aware of the hugetidal waves, plagues of locusts and frogs, rain of blood, global slaughter offirst-born, etc.
I have so looked forward to this movie. I expected it to be truly craptastic. I was surprised that it was a much better movie than I expected. Yes, the science is silly, but not shoot popcorn out your nose laughing silly. Compared to Impact or10.5 Apocalypse, 2012 is almost scholarly. And if you want to destroy things in style, Roland Emmerich is the guy.
2009: At a deep copper mine in India, geologist Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his Indian colleague Satham realize that the earth is in trouble. Huge solar eruptions have blasted great fluxes of neutrinos at the earth. None of the other neutrino observatories in the world have noticed this. Not Sudbury, not Kamiokande, not Brookhaven. Normally neutrinos pass through matter without interaction (right so far) but these neutrinos have suddenly begun interacting. They've begun "mutating" into a particle never before seen, and "behaving like microwaves." And none of the other nuclear physicists in the world have picked up on this Nobel Prize winning discovery.
If these neutrinos are capable of heating matter, I wonder why they haven't heated living things to lethal temperatures, started fires, caused oil tanks to explode, and so on. But Satham opens the hatch to the water tank that makes up the neutrino detector, to show it boiling. Adrian hustles back to Washington to report to the President's science advisor, Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt).
2010: The President shares the discovery with the rest of the G10 leaders. Things Begin To Move.
2011: A covert plan to spirit away the world's great art begins. Also shadowy operatives begin approaching the world's billionaires.
2012: Finally, just before "The End," the actual title credits roll.
Jackson Curtis, played by John "Nicolas Cage Wasn't Available" Cusack, picks his kids up for a vacation in Yellowstone. He's divorced and the kids are with his ex-wife Kate (Amanda Peet) and her new guy Gordon (Tom McCarthy), an amiable plastic surgeon and novice pilot. The two kids are tweener Noah and young Lilly, played by Morgan Lily. Noah is pure Superfluous Kid, a cynical, snarly pre-teen, but Lilly is actually appealing.
One commentator noted that the kids are in the movie, apparently to appeal to kids watching the movie, and raised the excellent question where did Hollywood ever get the idea that kids want to see kids in movies? Based on my own recollections, kids mostly fantasize about being adults and doing heroic stuff, plus not having anyone tell them what to do (They're kids. They don't realize). Kids old enough to watch this movie and still sleep without a night light mostly want to watch hot members of the opposite sex. I don't think I have ever heard an eight year old kid say "Let's go see this movie. There's a kid my age in it."
Jackson, Lilly and Noah hike up to a lake Jackson recalled from earlier vacations and find it fenced off. They scale the fence, find the lake has disappeared, and are rounded up by the Army. And the Army, observing tight security, take them off to a holding area while they get instructions. No, they take them right into the center of their operation, where we see a huge encampment with a gigantic drill rig in the center. Adrian is one of the few people who actually read Jackson's last book, recognizes him, and has the Army take them back to the campground.
As Jackson is brought in, we hear a scientist tell Adrian the earth is heating dramatically. "It's 2700 degrees at 40,000 feet." Centigrade or Fahrenheit, that is much hotter than any lava. And if this is happening globally, the stage is set for a much worse scenario than anything the movie actually presents. In the movie, the molten subsurface mostly serves to allow the earth's crust to slide around rapidly, generating huge megaquakes and hypertsunamis. If this were really happening, the thermal expansion would create extensional cracking all over the world. Basically volcanism could break out anywhere. And if the rocks a few kilometers down were at 2700 Centigrade,the magma would have about the viscosity of heavy cream. It is even possible it would be so low density that surface rocks would sink in it. Emmerich really missed a chance here. Sure, he gives us Los Angeles sliding into the ocean, but he could have given us Dallas or Chicago sliding into a sea of molten lava.
Despite the fact that the rocks just a few miles down are hotter by far than any known magma and almost certainly molten, only Adrian and people privy to the secret know it. There are no other seismologists in the whole world who have noticed that S-waves have stopped propagating through the mantle (since S-waves only travel through solids). Nobody has noticed elevation changes because of thermal expansion. And volcanoes, which are tapping into magma in the superheated depths, are all behaving normally.
After their brush with the Army, Jackson meets Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson), a conspiracy nut with a blog and a radio program. Frost explains about the Maya predictions for 2012 and the great cover up. He also tells Jackson that the government has built arks. He pulls down a chart of news clippings of prominent people who have died, supposedly killed off by the government. Maybe, but we also learn later that 400,000 people have been selected to be on the arks. Only in the fantasy land of 2012 believers, 9-11 truthers, Birthers and JFK conspiracy cultists can you have 400,000 people in on a secret and no leaks.
Meanwhile, Kate and Gordon are shopping when a huge fissure splits the supermarket in two. Kate calls Jackson and tells him she wants the kids back. So he drives from Yellowstone to Los Angeles and drops the kids off at dawn.
Mean-meanwhile, Adrian informs the President that things are happening much faster than expected and there are only a few days to save the passengers on the arks. So passengers are alerted. One who gets the message is Russian billionaire Yuri Karpov, who, like a number of clients, paid a billion Euros for a ticket. Yuri is at a boxing match with his girl friend Tamara (Beatrice Rosen). You put the kids in the movie to appeal to kids in the audience? Trust me, from here on, any male over ten is watching Tamara. Yuri calls Jackson, who has been working as his limo driver, and tells him to pick up his two boys. These two are completely repulsive. Just what kids want to see in movies: bullies. Jackson takes the kids to Yuri's private jet where we see Sasha, Yuri's pilot. From here on, any female over ten is watching Sasha.
As earthquakes begin pummeling the globe, Jackson realizes Charlie was right. And when the Governator goes on television to reassure the public, Jackson races to Kate's house. Kate assumes he's crazy until the earthquake hits. Jackson bundles them all into the limo and races to Santa Monica Airport. Now this quake is powerful enough to collapse frame dwellings in seconds and make palm trees rock, yet Jackson and his family have no trouble keeping their balance. They careen through a crumbling city pursed by great waves that fling cars into the air, yet Jackson has no difficulty steering. And somehow a limo doing 50 miles an hour stays ahead of surface waves that normally travel about a mile a second. But they have to avoid all sorts of dangers. They narrowly miss a giant rolling doughnut broken off a bakery ("Mmm doughnuts..." said Homer Simpson in the monorail episode, "is there anything they can't do?") A cement truck tumbles off a freeway and bursts into flame. Maybe if Los Angeles weren't built out of flammable and explosive concrete, it wouldn't be so badly damaged. They squeak under a collapsing freeway, dodge falling cars from a garage, and punch through a collapsing building which amazingly does not have any desks or filing cabinets to block them. This is so absurdly over the top, like Pierce Brosnan driving off a cliff in Goldeneye and catching up to a plane, that it's fun to watch anyway.
At the airport, Jackson finds his pilot dead and presses Gordon into the job despite only having a single engine license. They take off, or more precisely have the ground drop out from under them, and weave through a crumbling Los Angeles. At one point a train plummets off the edge of the chasm and almost hits them. Because this earthquake opens huge chasms in the ground, topples great buildings, shatters freeways, but trains stay on the rails! And they keep rolling full throttle. Because we're Amtrak. And safety (and being on time) is our highest priority.
Once airborne, Jackson looks back to see Los Angeles broken into great tilted blocks that are slowly sliding into the Pacific. Amazingly, Emmerich picked about the only plausible way to sink Los Angeles. It can't just drop straight down, because where would all the rock beneath it go? On the other hand, the continental shelf off California is very narrow so big crustal blocks could drop several kilometers as they slide seaward. Also, it's a mechanically reasonable way to open great fissures. But remarkably, all this mass sliding into the Pacific isn't generating any waves.
Jackson explains that it's not just California, but the whole world. He realizes Charlie had been right about everything and convinces Gordon to fly to Yellowstone to talk to Charlie and get his map showing where the government had built ships for refuge. Charlie is sitting on the rim of the Yellowstone Caldera waiting for it to blow. He tells Jackson where the map is just as the caldera begins to vent. Then there is a stupendous blast that flings fireballs and blocks big enough to have trees on them. And yes, score another one for Emmerich. Volcanoes have flung blocks that size. Charlie remains behind to broadcast the blow by blow but Jackson and Lilly race back to the airstrip, barely outrunning a gigantic pyroclastic flow. In a scene that justifies the cost of a ticket, Jackson tries to calm Lilly by saying "Look at me. Do I look scared?" To which she whimpers "Uh-huh." They make it to the plane just in time, and race the pyroclastic flow to take off. The flow actually envelops the plane briefly but they escape. Possible? Maybe. It depends on how hot the edge of the ash cloud is. I'd be just as worried about fouling the engines.
Okay, now what about the time line here? Supposedly the critical event is an alignment of the Sun, Earth, and galactic center on December 21, 2012. It has only been a couple of days since Jackson drove to Yellowstone. He drove back to Los Angeles, and flew back to Yellowstone within a day or two. Yet there's not a speck of snow. In fact they're wearing light clothes.
Yes indeed, the Earth, Sun and center of the galaxy will be aligned on December 21, 2012. And 2011, 2010, 2009.... Also on June 21 of every year as well.
So Emmerich mostly got the Yellowstone eruption right. From Yellowstone, Jackson and his family fly south to Las Vegas because, well, just because. And Emmerich figures, if giant fissures are okay in Los Angeles, why not Las Vegas? Because there's no deep ocean basin next to Las Vegas for blocks of crust to slide into, that's why not. Anyway, in Las Vegas, Jackson encounters Yuri, who is trying to fly out to board his ship. It turns out that Gordon had done some of Tamara's er, elective, surgery. Sasha explains he needs a copilot to fly his Antonov 500 cargo plane, and Jackson volunteers Gordon, who has graduated from a single engine license to flying a jumbo cargo jet in a day. You do what you have to do. The Antonov is full of Yuri's cars, which he had been exhibiting in Las Vegas. That's going to be important later.
The edge of the ash cloud is fast approaching Las Vegas, so Yuri and the gang board the Antonov and begin taxiing for takeoff over the orders of the control tower. Soon the ash cloud wipes out the tower just as the jet takes off. Now the pyroclastic flow might extend a hundred miles or more from Yellowstone, but not all the way to Las Vegas. By the time the ash cloud spreads to Las Vegas it will maybe result in darkness and heavy ash fall, but it won't hit with force. In fact, since winds generally blow eastward across the U.S., why would the ash reach Las Vegas at all?
On takeoff, the Antonov clips the Eiffel Tower. Not that one, the other one. The replica in Las Vegas. Now since the Strip is north of the airport in Las Vegas, and the ash cloud is approaching from the north and has already taken out the control tower, it's a bit mystifying why they flew into the ash cloud. More garbled movie geography, like movies that think the Empire State Building and Coney Island are a few minutes apart, or getting from downtown San Francisco to the Golden Gate Bridge is a short easy drive.
Meanwhile the ash cloud blows east and the order is given to evacuate Washington. For some reason or other, there is a story line involving Adrian's father, who is a musician on a cruise ship in the Pacific off Japan. Adrian and his father share a final phone call. Then his father goes out on deck to see a gigantic wave building. The wave capsizes and overturns the ship. Okay, what kind of captain sees a huge wave building and doesn't at least try to turn his bow into it? And the earthquakes that generate the tsunami are big, but not unusual in magnitude, and centered in the middle of the Sea of Japan, where they are very unlikely to generate tsunamis.
Ash is falling heavily in Washington. As the White House prepares to evacuate, Adrian auditions for the role of Pompous Ass, asking when there will be a public announcement. Now Adrian has been at the center of planning for three years, and is certainly aware that it is physically impossible to save more than a miniscule fraction of the human race. Also he's aware that there's virtually nothing anyone can do individually to survive. So where does the moral posturing come from? His delivery of the line "Isn't it also decided that people have the right to fight for their lives?" is Shatner-esque scenery chewing. Carl Anheuser is no teddy bear but he at least acts like he's aware of the painful moral dilemmas.
President Wilson (Danny Glover) remains behind to address the nation one last time. An earthquake rocks Washington, toppling the Washington Monument. Then a tsunami sweeps in, carrying the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy into the White House. The symbolism of JFK returning to the White House was intentional, by the way. ("JFK II - he's back, and he's bad")
The cruise ship captain might have been dumb but at least he was aboard (I think, although maybe not since he made no attempt to maneuver) There are no signs of lights on the aircraft carrier at all. Even if it was in port, there should have been a crew aboard. In fact, why wasn't the ship far out to sea? Why were there planes on the flight deck? There have already been huge tsunamis, and long before that, all the predictions called for them. So why wasn't every naval vessel ordered to sea? In fact, why not load all the crew dependents aboard as well?
And the only thing floating on the wave is the ship. Where are all the other boats from Chesapeake Bay? Where are the smashed houses and other floating debris?
Aboard Air Force One, Anheuser announces that the President is certain to die, the Vice President was killed in a helicopter crash, and the whereabouts of all other high ranking officials are unknown. Until someone more senior turns up, he is assuming command. He does seem to enjoy it altogether too much, and he is very far down in the pecking order, but he's right. He may be pompous but he is not an ass.
The Antonov, meanwhile, is headed across the Pacific, with Sasha planning to refuel in Hawaii. A flicker of orange outside the cockpit hints at what is to come. Hawaii has gone totally volcanic with rivers of lava running everywhere. Honolulu is in flames and a fire fountain is playing above Diamond Head. Okay, Oahu hasn't had any large scale volcanism for three million years, and Diamond Head erupted about 200,000 years ago. Still, we can give Emmerich a pass. With superheated rock below the crust and huge crustal disturbances, maybe the Hawaii Hot Spot has gone hyperactive. In any case, it looks very impressive.
Sasha announces that they don't have enough fuel to make it to China and they will have to ditch in the ocean. But as the Antonov begins to run out of fuel, they discover they are over the Himalayas after all. The earth's crust has shifted by 1500 miles. But the plane is out of fuel. Sasha tells everyone else to drive a car out of the plane once he opens the rear loading ramp. It works. Although I wonder why all the other cars, which are not running and come tumbling out afterward, overtake a car that is running. Sasha brings the plane to a halt on the edge of a cliff, exhales in relief, then the plane topples over.
It turns out the earth's crust is shifting all over the place. There's a wee grain of real science here, just a nanoparticle. As seen from any particular continent, the poles appear to move. Actually the continents are moving and the motion of the poles is only apparent, which is why it's called apparent polar wander. Tricky, huh? However, there's also "true" polar wander where the entire earth's crust slips bodily. "True" is in quotes since the rotation axis of the earth doesn't change, but the entire earth's surface slips relative to the poles. If - if - it happens, and it's controversial, it happens at rates comparable to continental drift, not thousands of miles in a few hours. To shift Asia by 1500 miles in the time since the apocalypse began means the crust was sliding around 100 miles an hour. No wonder tsunamis are sloshing all over everything. But if the earth's interior is heated to the viscosity of a milk shake, anything goes, I guess. A scientist monitoring the changes shows the pole located in western Wisconsin. "That's the south pole," he adds.
The survivors are spotted by a helicopter and greeted by a Chinese Army patrol, who ask what color their passes are. Yuri produces passes for himself and his sons, leaving Tamara in the lurch. He fires the parting shot that he knew perfectly well that she and Sasha were having an affair.
Jackson and his family, with Gordon and Tamara, are heading toward the ships when they encounter a Tibetan family determined to sneak onto a ship. One of their sons had been a worker and came up with a plan. They sneak into the ship via service ducts. But a huge tsunami washes into eastern India, shortening the evacuation timeline from over two hours to less than half an hour. Anheuser orders the ships to begin closing up, trapping thousands outside. Tamara sends Yuri a rude gesture just as the hatch they're sneaking into closes.
All this time Anheuser has been jealous of Adrian and decides he wants a crack at being the Pompous Ass. He and Adrian engage in a rhetorical battle over opening the hatches. Eventually the other ships all agree to open up. In the process, Gordon gets caught in the huge gears that open the hatch. Also the Tibetan worker who sneaked them in dropped his power wrench into the gears. When everyone is aboard, the doors begin to close, only to have the gears jam on the wrench. Because gears capable of grinding a full grown human can't crush a small power tool. But that's not the worst of it.
The engines can't start until the doors are closed! I would expect Ralph Nader to come up with a stupid idea like not letting your car start if the glove compartment was open, or not letting a jet start its engines as long as there was a seat belt unfastened, or, if you can believe something so dumb, making you restart your lawn mower every time you let go of the handle. But ships designed to ride out a global tsunami can't start their engines if a hatch is open? The tsunami hits and the ship simply drifts while water pours into the open hatch. Watertight doors start to close. Tamara is caught between two and drowns.
Killing millions of people is okay, but to really get us emotionally involved, sympathetic characters have to die. That rules out Noah, or Adrian, or Anheuser. We need Jackson for the rest of the movie, so Tamara draws the short straw. It would have made for a much more satisfying ending for Gordon and Tamara to survive. Jackson magnanimously says to Kate and Gordon: "I wish you two the best of luck. Tamara and I will do just fine, thank you."
The first crisis is that the wave has hit the airfield supporting the site, and Air Force One has been swept up by the tsunami and is on a direct course for the ship. I mean, who would build a ship to withstand a mega-tsunami and expect to find debris in the wave? This tsunami has swept hundreds of miles across India, but when it gets to Tibet people are surprised to discover that the wave has stuff in it. Actually, about all it has in it is Air Force One; no houses, people, elephants, tigers, boats, rocks, or trees.
Jackson dives through flooded tunnels to free up the jammed wrench. Because even though this wrench is tightly jammed between massive gears, freeing it should be a piece of cake. Holding his breath. Under water. Noah decides it's time to start earning his way and dives down to help. They free the gears, the door closes and the engines start, just in time to avoid slamming into Mount Everest. This is an amazingly clean tsunami. No floating debris, and, even more amazing, it washes over glaciers and there's no floating ice!
28 days later ...no, wait, wrong movie. 27 days later, things have calmed down enough to open the decks and allow people to go outside. The captain warns people about crowding since there are far more people aboard than planned. This is one of several references to overcrowding. How does this work? These people (except for Jackson and friends) all had passes. They were all supposed to be on the ships anyway.
The whole building ships in Tibet thing makes no sense. Why build the ships inside a fake dam and risk damage if an earthquake causes a collapse, as actually happened to one of the ships? Why build in a mountain valley where there is a risk of the ships being slammed into mountainsides? Why build them so close together that a tsunami might slam them together? If the purpose of building in Tibet is to build at high altitude in case tsunamis might not make it that high, there are vast tracts of open, high, uninhabited land in Tibet. Not to mention Bolivia. But the ships are designed to seal up completely, so there's no real reason they couldn't have been built someplace more sensible. Like, say, a shipyard? Secrecy? Say they're a new class of warship, or a mega-liner.
The captain announces that South Africa is now the highest spot on the globe. Africa generally has risen, and the ark, together with two sister ships, sets course for the Cape of Good Hope. The camera pans out to show a generally intact Africa, and curiously enough, with all that fissuring going on, the East African Rift is completely undisturbed. The equatorial rain forest is still there. So the story has a happy ending. I can hardly wait to see how the ODS (Obama Derangement Syndrome) sufferers react when they figure out that the surviving human race is now 95% black.
Oh, and why do all the upheavals stop? Have the neutrinos all returned to normal? Has all that excess heat in the earth cooled off?
Created 18 November 2009; Last Update 24 May, 2020
Not an official UW Green Bay site