Filming, originally planned for Los Angeles, began in Vancouver in August 2008. The plot follows novelist Jackson Curtis as he attempts to bring his family to safety amid a worldwide geological disaster. The film refers to Mayanism and the 2012 phenomenon in its portrayal of cataclysmic events.
After a lengthy advertising campaign which included the creation of a website from its main character's point of view and a viral marketing website on which filmgoers could register for a lottery number to save them from the ensuing disaster, 2012 was released internationally on November 13, 2009. Critics gave the film mixed reviews, praising its special effects and dark tone relative to Emmerich's other work and criticizing its screenplay and length. It was a commercial success and one of 2009's highest-grossing films.
In 2009, American geologist Adrian Helmsley visits astrophysicist Satnam Surtani in India and learns that neutrinos from a huge solar flare are heating Earth's core. Helmsley presents his information to White House Chief of Staff Carl Anheuser, who brings him to the president.
In 2010, during a chaotic mass protest in Vancouver, U.S. President Thomas Wilson and other world leaders begin a secret project to ensure humanity's survival. China and the G8 nations begin building nine arks, each capable of carrying 100,000 people, in the Himalayas near Cho Ming, Tibet. Nima, a Buddhist monk, is evacuated and his brother Tenzin joins the ark project. Funding is raised by selling tickets at €1 billion per person. By 2011, articles of value are moved to the arks with the help of art expert and First Daughter Laura Wilson.
In 2012, struggling Los Angeles science-fiction writer Jackson Curtis is a chauffeur for Russian billionaire Yuri Karpov. Jackson's former wife (Kate) and their children (Noah and Lilly) live with Kate's boyfriend, plastic surgeon and pilot Gordon Silberman. Jackson takes Noah and Lilly camping in Yellowstone National Park. When they find an area fenced off by the Army, Jackson and his children climb over the fence. They are caught and brought to the geologist Adrian, who has read Jackson's books. After they are released they meet Charlie Frost, who hosts a radio show from the park. After Jackson and his children leave, Adrian learns that the Earth is about to undergo drastic changes in a few hours, earlier than expected, with only four of the arks completed.
That night, after the military evacuates Yellowstone, Jackson watches Charlie's video of Charles Hapgood's theory that polar shifts, Earth crust displacement and the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar predict a 2012 phenomenon. According to Charlie, anyone who attempted to inform the public was killed, including Jackson's NASA contact. After Jackson and his children return home, he delivers Yuri's sons Alec and Oleg to Santa Monica Airport. Realizing that Charlie was right, Jackson rents a plane and rescues his family as the Earth-crust displacement begins, causing a 10.9 magnitude earthquake, and they escape from LA by air as the city is destroyed and sinks into the Pacific Ocean.
They fly to Yellowstone to retrieve a map from Charlie with the arks' location. As they leave, the Yellowstone Caldera erupts; Charlie stays behind to cover the eruption and is killed. The group lands in Las Vegas to find a larger plane and meet Yuri, his twin sons Alec and Oleg, his girlfriend Tamara and their pilot Sasha. Sasha finds an Antonov An-500 and pilots it with Gordon, and they leave just as the Yellowstone ash cloud consumes Vegas.
Adrian, Carl and Laura fly to the arks on Air Force One. Knowing that his daughter will survive, President Wilson remains in Washington D.C. to address the nation for the last time before. He, along with millions of people, die in earthquakes and tsunamis worldwide. With the presidential line of succession gone, Carl assumes the position of acting commander-in-chief.
The group arrives in China. Everyone except Sasha escapes on a Bentley Continental Flying Spur stored in the cargo hold just before the plane runs out of fuel. Sasha is killed when the plane crashes, and the others are spotted by Chinese Air Force helicopters. Yuri and his sons, possessing tickets, are brought to the arks and the Curtis family, Tamara and Gordon are left behind. On Ark 4, the American ark, Adrian is contacted by Satnam, who tells that he is stuck on the Nampan Plateau with his entire family as the airlift meant for them never came, with a massive tsunami coming from the east, killing Satnam himself, his entire family and all the evacuees around them. Enraged, Adrian estimates that the wave will hit the arks in 28 minutes. The remaining group consisting of Jackson, Tamara, Noah, Lilly, Gordon and Kate, gets picked up by Nima and brought to the arks with his grandparents. With Tenzin's help they stow away on Ark 4. Due to the lack of time, Carl wants to leave immediately, but Adrian manages to use Satnam's death to convince the world leaders to let the people outside in.
As the wave breaches the Himalayas and approaches the site, an impact driver lodges in the ark-door gears, keeping a boarding gate open and preventing the ship's engines from starting. In the ensuing chaos where many people attempt to board the ships, Yuri, Tamara and Gordon are killed, Tenzin is injured, Ark 4 begins filling with water and is set adrift after Air Force One crashes into one of its supports, while also causing it to skim the hull of Ark 6 before drifting off. With Jackson and Noah's help, the crew of the Ark manages to regain control of the Ark narrowly before it fatally smashes into Mount Everest.
Jackson is reunited with his family and reconciles with Kate. Twenty-seven days later, as the waters recede, the arks approach the Cape of Good Hope, where the Drakensberg (now the tallest mountain range on Earth) is emerging. Adrian and Laura begin a relationship, and Jackson and Kate rekindle their own romance.
An alternate ending appears in the film's DVD version. After Captain Michaels (the Ark 4 captain) announces that they are heading for the Cape of Good Hope, Adrian receives a phone call. He answers the call, and is shocked to recognize the voice as his father's (Harry). Harry tells Adrian that he, his friend Tony (whose left arm is in a sling) and several others survived the megatsunami and are shipwrecked on an island. Adrian informs Captain Michaels of this and the Ark heads for them. Kate thanks Laura for taking care of Lilly, and Laura tells Jackson that she enjoyed his book. Jackson returns Noah's cell phone, which he recovered during the Ark 4 flood. Lilly says that she sees an island, and the ark finds the shipwrecked Genesis and her survivors on a beach.
Graham Hancock's Fingerprints of the Gods was listed in 2012's credits as the film's inspiration, and Emmerich said in a Time Out interview: "I always wanted to do a biblical flood movie, but I never felt I had the hook. I first read about the Earth's Crust Displacement Theory in Graham Hancock's Fingerprints of the Gods." He and composer-producer Harald Kloser worked closely together, co-writing a spec script (also entitled 2012) which was marketed to studios in February 2008. A number of studios heard a budget projection and story plans from Emmerich and his representatives, a process repeated by the director after Independence Day (1996) and The Day After Tomorrow (2004).
Later that month, Sony Pictures Entertainment received the rights to the spec script. Planned for distribution by Columbia Pictures, 2012 cost less than its budget; according to Emmerich, the film was produced for about $200 million.
Filming, originally scheduled to begin in Los Angeles in July 2008, began in Kamloops, Savona, Cache Creek and Ashcroft, British Columbia. With a Screen Actors Guild strike looming, the film's producers made a contingency plan to salvage it. Uncharted Territory, Digital Domain, Double Negative, Scanline, and Sony Pictures Imageworks were hired to create 2012's computer-animated visual effects.
The film depicts the destruction of several cultural and historical icons around the world. Emmerich said that the Kaaba was considered for selection, but Kloser was concerned about a possible fatwā against him.
2012 was marketed by the fictional Institute for Human Continuity, featuring a book by Jackson Curtis (Farewell Atlantis), streaming media, blog updates and radio broadcasts from zealot Charlie Frost on his website, This Is The End. On November 12, 2008, the studio released the first trailer for 2012. With a tsunami surging over the Himalayas and a purportedly-scientific message that the world would end in 2012, the trailer's message was that international governments were not preparing their populations for the event. The trailer ended with a suggestion to viewers to "find out the truth" by entering "2012" on a search engine. The Guardian called the film's marketing "deeply flawed", associating it with "websites that make even more spurious claims about 2012".
The studio introduced a viral marketing website operated by the Institute for Human Continuity, where filmgoers could register for a lottery number to be part of a small population which would be rescued from the global destruction. David Morrison of NASA, who received over 1,000 inquiries from people who thought the website was genuine, condemned it. "I've even had cases of teenagers writing to me saying they are contemplating suicide because they don't want to see the world end", Morrison said. "I think when you lie on the internet and scare children to make a buck, that is ethically wrong." Another marketing website promoted Farewell Atlantis, the fictional novel about the events of 2012.
Comcast organized a "roadblock campaign" to promote the film in which a two-minute scene was broadcast on 450 American commercial television networks, local English-language and Spanish-language stations, and 89 cable outlets during a ten-minute window between 10:50 and 11:00 pm Eastern and Pacific Time on October 1, 2009. The scene featured the destruction of Los Angeles and ended with a cliffhanger, with the entire 5:38 clip available on Comcast's Fancast website. According to Variety, "The stunt will put the footage in front of 90% of all households watching ad-supported TV, or nearly 110 million viewers. When combined with online and mobile streams, that could increase to more than 140 million".
The film's score was composed by Harald Kloser and Thomas Wander. Singer Adam Lambert contributed a song to the film, "Time for Miracles", and expressed his gratitude in an MTV interview. The 24-song soundtrack includes "Fades Like a Photograph" by Filter and "It Ain't the End of the World" by George Segal and Blu Mankuma. The trailer track was "Master of Shadows" by Two Steps From Hell.
2012 was released to cinemas on November 13, 2009 in Sweden, Canada, Denmark, Mexico, India, the United States, and Japan. According to the studio, the film could have been completed for a summer release but the delay allowed more time for production.
The DVD and Blu-ray versions were released on March 2, 2010. The two-disc Blu-ray edition includes over 90 minutes of features, including Adam Lambert's music video for "Time for Miracles" and a digital copy for PSP, PC, Mac, and iPod. A 3D version was released in Cinemex theaters in Mexico in February 2010.
2012 grossed $166.1 million in North America and $603.6 million in other territories for a worldwide total of $769.7 million against a production budget of $200 million, making it the first film to gross over $700 million worldwide without crossing $200 million domestically. Worldwide, it was the fifth-highest-grossing 2009 film and the fifth-highest-grossing film distributed by Sony-Columbia, (behind Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy and Skyfall). 2012 is the second-highest-grossing film directed by Roland Emmerich, behind Independence Day (1996). It earned $230.5 million on its worldwide opening weekend, the fourth-largest opening of 2009 and for Sony-Columbia.
2012 ranked number one on its opening weekend, grossing $65,237,614 on its first weekend (the fourth-largest opening for a disaster film). Outside North America it is the 28th-highest-grossing film, the fourth-highest-grossing 2009 film, and the second-highest-grossing film distributed by Sony-Columbia, after Skyfall. 2012 earned $165.2 million on its opening weekend, the 20th-largest overseas opening. Its largest opening was in France and the Maghreb ($18.0 million). In total earnings, the film's three highest-grossing territories after North America were China ($68.7 million), France and the Maghreb ($44.0 million), and Japan ($42.6 million).
2012 received mixed reviews from critics. On Rotten Tomatoes the film has an approval rating of 39% based on 238 reviews with an average rating of 5/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "Roland Emmerich's 2012 provides plenty of visual thrills, but lacks a strong enough script to support its massive scope and inflated length." On Metacritic, the film has a score 49 out of 100 based on 34 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews". Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "B+" on an A+ to F scale.
Roger Ebert praised 2012, giving it 3 1⁄2 stars out of 4 and saying that it "delivers what it promises, and since no sentient being will buy a ticket expecting anything else, it will be, for its audiences, one of the most satisfactory films of the year". Ebert and Claudia Puig of USA Today called the film the "mother of all disaster movies". But Peter Travers of Rolling Stone compared it to Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen: "Beware 2012, which works the dubious miracle of almost matching Transformers 2 for sheer, cynical, mind-numbing, time-wasting, money-draining, soul-sucking stupidity."
North Korea reportedly banned the possession or viewing of 2012. The year was the 100th anniversary of the birth of the nation's founder, Kim Il-sung, and was designated as "the year for opening the grand gates to becoming a rising superpower"; a film depicting the year negatively was deemed offensive by the North Korean government. Several people in North Korea were reportedly arrested for possessing (or viewing) imported copies of 2012 and charged with "grave provocation against the development of the state".
In 2010 Entertainment Weekly reported a planned spin-off television series, 2013, which would have been a sequel to the film. 2012 executive producer Mark Gordon told the magazine, "ABC will have an opening in their disaster-related programming after Lost ends, so people would be interested in this topic on a weekly basis. There's hope for the world despite the magnitude of the 2012 disaster as seen in the film. After the movie, there are some people who survive, and the question is how will these survivors build a new world and what will it look like. That might make an interesting TV series." However, plans were later canceled for budgetary reasons. It would have been Emmerich's third film to spawn a spin-off; the first was Stargate (followed by Stargate SG-1, Stargate Infinity, Stargate Atlantis, Stargate Universe), and the second was Godzilla (followed by the animated Godzilla: The Series).