A feel-good story about the deaths of six billion people that manages to leave room for a sequel, "2012" is state-of-the-art in CGI disaster-porn, the movie version of that double-the-size-of-Texas plastic garbage float out in the Pacific Ocean.
It's a marvel of filmmaking at its most crassly indulgent and willfully tone deaf, as image after frictionless image of floods, fires, earthquakes and actors who clearly needed a paycheck rumbles away without depth or logic.
"2012" director Roland Emmerich has graced us with such epic stupidity before — the insipid 1998 "Godzilla" reboot, for example, and "The Day After Tomorrow," a sort of warm-up for "2012." Emmerich's breakout hit, "Independence Day," worked for a couple of reasons, almost none of them having to do with filmmaking.
He was the first director to tap into Will Smith's charm, perfect for summer blockbusters. And things were pretty good in 1996: The tech boom was taking off, our involvements overseas were limited, nobody knew what al Qaeda was, that sort of thing.
Thirteen years later, everyone is in a pretty lousy mood, Obama or no Obama, and "2012" isn't helping.
Riffing off of the old chestnut that since the Mayan calendar comes to a halt on Dec. 21, 2012, the world will halt with it, "2012" starts in the good old days of 2009, when a few smart folks (all of whom are clearly doomed) notice some weird seismic activity. Some big solar flares here, some strange Earth-warming there. Solar neutrinos are going to wreak havoc with the planet's core. In three years' time, cue the disasters.
We see flashes of large sums of money transacted, one billion in "Euros, not dollars." (Ouch!) Works of art are placed into storage. The years move by quickly as various disparate characters are introduced. There's the Indian scientist who learned of the disaster before anyone. There's the jazz duo on the cruise ship (Blu Mankuma and George Segal, who remembers the last time disaster pictures were in vogue) with a vague connection to the heroes.
And then there's our everyman, Jackson Curtis (John Cusack, who looks like he has just given up), a struggling novelist who takes his kids, who live with their mom (Amanda Peet) and her plastic surgeon husband Gordon Silberman (Tom McCarthy), on a camping trip to Yosemite. There, they encounter Charlie Frost (an appropriately loony Woody Harrelson), a low-wattage DJ who knows the truth.
There's nobody with Will Smith's casual charm in "2012," though two actors seem to be playing Obama parts. Danny Glover holds down the Morgan Freeman role as the insultingly passive President Thomas Wilson, while Chiwetel Ejiofor (a brilliant actor who one hopes got paid in gold bullion) plays the smart, moral and capable Adrian Helmsley, the low-level geologist who puts it all together. There's even a scheming chief of staff (Oliver Platt), a Russian mobster and the president's cute daughter (Thandie Newton). It might be the end times, but clichÃ©s are alive and kicking, and everyone defaults to as melodramatic a tone as their dignity will allow.
"2012" is a movie of screen-grabs, not scenes, of images that would look nifty on your monitor at work (the Buddhist monk facing the tsunami, zoo animals being airlifted by helicopter, any given expression on Cusack's face) but fail to hold any dramatic weight.
There just isn't that much movie CGI can do that videogame graphics can't. And at least those allow the player some agency. Here, the audience just has to sit and watch the end times trudge by for nearly three hours without any sense of larger issues at play.
The closest we get to depth are shots of books (Helmsley reads "The Consolation of Philosophy" by Boethius, Curtis reads "Moby Dick") and works of art (the Sistine Chapel cracks right between the fingers of God and Man — get it?).
Part of the problem is that you can only visualize natural disasters so many different ways. Once you've seen one tsunami/lava flow/monument topple to the ground, you've pretty much seen them all. And there's nothing here we haven't seen before — here, it's just larger and more destructive. Thrill to Cusack outdriving the total destruction of L.A.! See Silberman morph from an amateur pilot with one lesson to a flying ace in a matter of minutes! Look at the White House taken out by an aircraft carrier!! Try to stay awake!!!
One isn't sure quite where Emmerich goes from knocking all of us off. Will he engage the destruction of the solar system next? Or is it time for something on a more human scale, a reboot of "Mothra," perhaps?
Ah, who cares? After sitting through "2012," you'll pray the Mayans were right all along.
Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense disaster sequences and some language. Running time: 2 hours, 38 minutes. Theaters: Alamo Lake Creek, Barton Creek, Cinemark Cedar Park, Cinemark Galleria, Cinemark Round Rock, Cinemark Southpark Meadows, City Lights, Gateway, Highland, Lakeline, Starplex, Tinseltown Pflugerville, Tinseltown South, Westgate.