In “2012,” there’s got to be a morning after, if for no other reason than formulaic disaster epics have to have some measure of hope at the end.
And make no mistake: “2012” is a formulaic disaster epic — to the 10th power. As in, with its characters dodging the non-stop dangers of massive earthquakes, lava fireballs, tumbling architectural landmarks and behemoth tidal waves, it seems as much like a prototype for a theme-park virtual thrill ride as it does a movie. Holy shifting tectonic plates, Batman!
From director Roland Emmerich, who also brought us “Independence Day,” “The Day After Tomorrow” and “Godzilla,” “2012” is somewhat based on a Mayan prediction that the end of the world will arrive on Dec. 21, 2012. Seriously, who plans that far ahead, aside from Hollywood studios? (Apparently not the Maya, who peaked more than a millennium ago.) Emmerich wants to corner the market on end-times and disaster scenarios; he borrows bits of everything from “The Towering Inferno,” “The Poseidon Adventure,” “Airport” and “Jaws” to his own films.
The result is a slam-bang adventure that demands viewers leave their brains at home. Disbelief can’t be simply suspended — it has to be bungee-jumping from the Empire State Building. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
When unusual solar activity in 2009 alerts scientists to unavoidable, disastrous changes coming soon to planet Earth, world leaders start making plans for the survival of the human race, or at least certain members of the species. Ordinary folks like Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), a failed writer with a failed marriage, don’t have a clue that the Earth’s core is melting. Coincidence or fate, however, puts Jackson in the center of things when the calendar flips to 2012.
He’s the one the camera follows as a bungled camping trip to Yellowstone with his young children, Noah (Liam James) and Lily (Morgan Lily), introduces him to top White House scientist Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as well as crackpot conspiracy-theorist radio host Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson). When Jackson returns home to Los Angeles, he puts two and two and two and two together — Adrian’s off-limits Yellowstone research site, Charlie’s crazy talk about Earth’s crust shifting, seismic activity in the L.A. area and his billionaire Russian boss’s secretive behavior — and comes up with 11th-hour heroics to save his kids, his ex, Kate (Amanda Peet), and her beau, Gordon (Tom McCarthy).
Meanwhile, Adrian does his best to keep President Wilson (Danny Glover) and White House chief of staff Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt) abreast of the impending end of the world, which inconsiderately does not stick to its timetable.
Aside from the jerky, globe-trotting set-up and a third act that wallows in hyper-contrived suspense and lumbering life lessons, “2012” crackles with preposterous action set to an adrenalized tempo and breathtaking computer-generated world-going-to-hell special effects. Mr. Curtis’ Wild Ride — in which limo-driving Jackson speeds his brood through Los Angeles streets that are literally collapsing beneath him — is an E ticket and then some. Airplane flights are unforgettable. And “The Perfect Storm” looks like child’s play in a bathtub compared to what Emmerich does with the high seas.
The plot suffices, but what really sustains the story is the casting, as it was in “Independence Day.” Likable Cusack is the unlikely action hero — the white Will Smith, as it were. Endearing Ejiofor (“Inside Man,” “Talk to Me”) is less geeky than Jeff Goldblum, with a noble streak a mile wide. Harrelson, Glover and Platt deliver perfectly according to type. Burly Croatian actor Zlatko Buric brings a fun, consumerist spin to the mix. McCarthy, an actor whose forays into writing and directing (“The Station Agent,” “The Visitor”) seemed to have rerouted him, does a charming makeover on the image of plastic surgeons.
Emmerich and his co-screenwriter, Harald Kloser (also the film’s composer), lean toward scenarios in which men take care of the womenfolk, leaving Peet and Thandie Newton, as the president’s art-conservator daughter, Laura, mostly to look fetching while in distress. Blatant eye candy gets equal time in the form of Johann Urb, as Sasha, and Beatrice Rosen, as Tamara.
“2012” isn’t as invigorating as “ID4” or as thoughtful as “The Day After Tomorrow,” but it delivers what it promises: escapist, over-the-top entertainment. Hollywood shouldn’t set its watch by it, though. Crazy people may consider this their confirmation, but if everyone else buys that the world has just three years left, they might decide that spending two and a half hours watching “2012” isn’t the most efficacious use of their time.