Apparently T.S. Eliot had it wrong. According to 2012, the latest disasteraganza from director Roland Emmerich (The Day After Tomorrow), the world will end not with a whimper, but a bang – and another bang, and another bang, and another…
The conceit of the film is that the apocalypse will arrive in 2012, as predicted by an ancient Mayan calendar. There is a lot of scientific mumbo jumbo to explain this, none of which I could follow until it was succinctly summarized at one point by Woody Harrelson’s crackpot conspiracy theorist.
What it all essentially amounts to are continent-wide earthquakes, a rash of volcanoes and tsunamis twice the size of India. Basically, the planet begins to resemble the awful land of Mordor from the Lord of the Rings films, albeit rendered in far blurrier special effects.
Navigating this hellish landscape – and I mean literally navigating, considering he’s a limo driver – is John Cusack’s Jackson Curtis, a neglectful, divorced dad who pulls up in front of his ex-wife’s house just as the streets start to split. He piles her, the kids and her new husband in his vehicle – it’s awkward at first, but worth it in the long run considering the new husband (Thomas McCarthy) knows how to fly a plane – and off they go. The Harrelson character has tipped them off to massive arks the world’s governments have been building, and Jackson plans to sneak his family onto history’s final cruise ship.
2012 is wearying, and not in a good way. It runs two and a half hours and mostly consists of this ragtag crew fleeing in terror while monumental threats nip at their heels. First it’s the falling skyscrapers of Los Angeles, then giant fireballs spit from a newborn volcano in Yellowstone, then a wave of volcanic ash that overtakes Las Vegas and finally a tsunami that swallows China. (They cover a lot of ground.)
Unfortunately, the movie’s faults aren’t entertaining ones, as is usually the case with disaster films. There really isn’t any outrageously bad acting, while the special effects are shoddy, but not laughably so.
In fact, the movie’s worst attribute is simply grating. 2012 has an expansive cast, and among the members are some of the most insufferably noble characters this side of an episode of “Barney & Friends.” When things start falling apart, the movie counters its disaster imagery with grandiose, selfless acts on the parts of certain characters: the American president (Danny Glover), who stays behind to help the injured on the streets of Washington, D.C.; his daughter (Thandie Newton), an art historian who risks her life to preserve the Mona Lisa; a geologist (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who gives a pandering speech about how the Chinese workers who built the arks should be allowed aboard, not just the rich who bought tickets.
Cusack’s Jackson – by the time he rouses himself into a state of protective fatherhood – counts as a selfless hero too. Yet this plot strand unfortunately brings to mind Steven Spielberg’s far superior (War of the Worlds. (That thriller had a real sense of apocalyptic dread, while this is a vision of the end times as screen saver.) What’s more, Jackson’s heroics eventually squeeze the step dad out of the picture, resulting in a Pollyannaish resolution that may not sit too well for those mixed families who are doing just fine, thank you very much.
2012 is simultaneously sentimental and gauche. For all its paeans to sacrifice, ingenuity and the inherent goodness of the human race, it’s still, essentially, a global snuff film. Considering Emmerich has made a career our of this sort of thing – he’s also behind the likes of Independence Day and Godzilla – it makes you wonder: When he watches footage from something like Hurricane Katrina, does he feel like he’s looking at the Mona Lisa?