(2009)2.5Jason BuchananA hulking spectacle of surreal destruction, Roland Emmerich's 2012 is a theme-park ride masquerading as a motion picture -- the only things missing are an exclamation mark in the title and multiplex seat-jostlers to give us a good jolt when the action gets especially intense. Were Irwin Allen still alive today, he'd no doubt marvel at Emmerich's impressive ability to dispatch more people in ten seconds of screen time than Jason Voorhees did in the entire original Friday the 13th film series (albeit much less creatively, of course). You can almost imagine a bulky old clamshell VHS case for 2012 on the shelf of your local video store, its title rendered in a cold, bold giant font over images of a globe cracking in half, and small, sweaty action headshots of all the stars lining the bottom of the box. Like his predecessor in mayhem, Emmerich knows what buttons to push in order to get a rise out of us. Yet despite -- or perhaps because of -- the fact that 2012 presents the ne plus ultra of bummer scenarios, this trip to the end of the world can't quite help but feel like an amalgamation of every disaster script ever written.
The end of the world gets under way when an Indian scientist receives evidence of the largest solar eruption in the history of humankind, and that eruption launches a new breed of neutrinos directly into the planet's core. These powerful neutrinos are acting like millions of little microwaves, heating up the planet until the crust begins to crack and all hell breaks loose. As genius scientist Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) keeps President Thomas Wilson (Danny Glover) abreast of developments, Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), a divorced, down-on-his-luck author, heads into Yellowstone National Park on a camping trip with his son, Noah (Liam James), and daughter, Lilly (Morgan Lily). Before long the ground is splitting open all around, sending Jackson on a mad dash to save his family as the U.S. government offers salvation to the highest bidders. Thanks to the fanaticism of a conspiracy-theory radio show host (Woody Harrelson), Jackson is able to get his hands on a map detailing the location of several arks that have been constructed to ensure the survival of the human race. But those arks are halfway across the world, and as the earth continues to crumble and the poles begin to shift, reaching China in time to make the final boarding call is going to be no simple task.
Let's save space and just be honest. If you paid good money to see 2012, odds are you're not looking for high human drama -- you just want to live out your fantasy of watching the world fall apart without the risk of grievous bodily harm and all the other awkward complications that go with experiencing the apocalypse firsthand. In that respect, Emmerich and his immensely talented team of special-effects artists have succeeded amicably; the apocalypse itself becomes something like the ultimate movie villain as our harried cast of survivors dodge one sensory-shattering catastrophe after another, and everyone does a commendable job of projecting sheer terror when the moment calls for it. The prospect of making a "fun" disaster movie for a post-9/11 society is something of a thankless job, but Emmerich isn't concerned with re-opening old wounds, and the early scenes of California crumbling are thoroughly cartoonish in their shameless excess. To be fair, he and co-screenwriter Harald Kloser do inject a sliver of social commentary in the final 15 minutes of the film, but by that point it comes off as somewhat disingenuous -- a stealthy means of freeing up the previous 143 for sheer end-of-the-world overload.
The main problems with 2012 are bloat and repetition; in their compulsion to connect every dot in the story, Emmerich and Kloser put off the inevitable for far too long, and by the third time we witness an airplane zooming down the runway and narrowly averting disaster, our stomachs stay firmly planted in our torsos rather than jutting up into our throats. But when the pacing begins to falter, it's the film's talented cast that keeps us flailing on the hook. Though the characters are nearly all cliché -- the power-hungry government guy, the heroic everyman, and the benevolent scientist, just to name a few -- Cusack, Ejiofor, Oliver Platt, and Zlatko Buric manage to make them engaging and enjoyable. 2012 is junk-food cinema of the highest order: it satisfies your craving for something ridiculous and unhealthy, and makes no claims of having any nutritional value whatsoever. It may not rot your teeth, but there is the risk that upon exiting the theater you might have a few less ounces of grey matter than when you entered.