An American novelist (John Cusack) and his daughter (Lily Morgan) flee… (Joe Lederer )
Reporting from Beijing — "Welcome to the People's Republic of China," declares an officer of the People's Liberation Army as he crisply salutes an American novelist (played by John Cusack) who has just fled the United States, which -- like much of the world -- has been destroyed by an environmental catastrophe.
It is a line that has thrilled thousands of Chinese filmgoers who have made writer-director Roland Emmerich's “2012” among the most popular Hollywood films of all time on the Chinese mainland. The plot has helped: In Emmerich's ("Independence Day," "The Day After Tomorrow") latest version of the apocalypse, only the goodness of man and Chinese ingenuity can save humanity from extinction.
"It is just like a love letter from Emmerich to China," one enthusiastic Chinese wrote about “2012” on Sohu.com, a popular host for blogs.
Since opening in China on Nov. 13, the global blockbuster has grossed about $65 million in local currency, according to distributor Sony Pictures Entertainment. That puts the studio's end-of-the-world epic on track to top, by Friday, “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” as the most successful foreign film ever released in China. Last summer's "Transformers" grossed about $65.8 million at the Chinese box office, beating "Titanic's" 1998 record of $52.7 million.
"It really has been unbelievable," says Jeff Blake, vice chairman of Sony Pictures. "The revenues from the market just keep improving all the time." Blake says "2012" is playing in nearly 2,000 Chinese theaters -- 1,300 of which have state-of-the-art digital projectors. "It's the biggest release for the film outside of the United States," Blake says. "The infrastructure is really exploding in China."
On a recent Thursday afternoon outside the cinema at the Joy City department store in Xidan, a popular shopping district in central Beijing, about a dozen young couples and students stood in line. Another group sat in the carpeted lobby area, sipping Coke and eating caramel popcorn while waiting for their movies to start. Most of them were there to watch "2012," which was playing to crowded auditoriums every half-hour.
"During opening weekend, we added extra showings," said theater ticket collector Liu Ming, 23. Liu said many people still have not seen the film because evening shows are always sold out.
Although it was panned by critics, "2012" has captured the Chinese imagination.
In the movie, the world is facing a massive environmental crisis, and the kindly American president (played by Danny Glover) is powerless to save his citizens.
The planet's core is overheating so quickly that the Earth's crust disintegrates, sending tidal waves of water across the globe. California is among the first to go when an earthquake rips the state into pieces and sends Los Angeles crashing into the ocean. Soon the whole planet will be underwater. In the face of imminent annihilation, the G-8 countries hatch a plan to build a series of massive arks, and China is the only country capable of building the rescue boats in time.
"That's closer to the truth of what China's like. I hope there will be more scenes like that in Hollywood," said Shi Ying, a 20-year-old computer science student who works part time at the movie theater's gift shop.
Although she was not pleased with the depiction of the Chinese as pitiless mercenaries charging astronomical sums to save lives (in the movie, each seat on the arks costs 1 billion euros), Shi found the scenario somewhat plausible.
"At the end of the world, China will build an ark," she said. "There will be the same question of money, and China will also be very pragmatic."
In a country that carefully selects and censors all foreign movies (only 20, including those from Hong Kong, are allowed in each year), "2012" is one of the first blockbusters to pass Chinese censors without having any content cut.
Making the cut
"Mission: Impossible III" went through weeks of censoring before hitting theaters. Last year, Warner Bros. didn't even attempt to bring "The Dark Knight" to China, citing "pre-release conditions" and "cultural sensitivities." In the movie, Batman attempts to capture a gangster in Hong Kong.
Even “Kung Fu Panda” inspired a lawsuit from a Chinese artist who complained that the fat, lazy protagonist was an insult to China's national symbol, the panda.
The Chinese have long felt sensitive about portrayals of China as a mysterious land of martial arts and ancient folklore.
"The movies usually show old China," said Tong Xue, a 30-year-old government employee who saw "2012" with his girlfriend. "What they should show is modern China, its improvement and its cultural heritage."