No, it’s not good. Don’t be silly. It cost $260 million—none of which seems to have been spent on the screenplay—and it’s either dumber than your proverbial box of rocks, or it’s the savviest put-on imaginable. I’d kind of like to believe the latter, but the collected works of director/co-writer Roland Emmerich argue against that. This is the guy who gave us Independence Day (1996), Godzilla (1998), The Day After Tomorrow (2006) and 10,000 B.C. (2008). In other words, Emmerich is a filmmaker with a seemingly endless taste for property destruction and a mind that doesn’t boggle at the idea of people being able to outrun the cold (Day After Tomorrow) or woolly mammoths being used to build the pyramids (10,000 B.C.). ‘Nuff said.
Although it’s grounded in the dubious belief that the Mayan calendar predicts that the world will end on December 21, 2012, the film is only fleetingly concerned with the concept. Oh, sure, there’s conspiracy-freak broadcaster Charlie Frost (played with wild-eyed evangelical fervor by Woody Harrelson), who prattles on about the Mayan prediction (and somehow equates it with the fundamentalist Christian notion of “the Rapture”), but it’s nothing more than Emmerich’s springboard to Death and Destruction. This is probably just as well. Let’s face it; if you go to this movie of your own volition, you’re there for the End of the World in Panavision with window-rattling Dolby-ized surround sound. Everything else is relatively superfluous.
Complaints that the movie is assembled from clichés and cardboard characters miss the point—or have a roseate-tinged view of the disaster-movie genre. Truth to tell, the silly familial drama involving John Cusack, ex-wife Amanda Peet, her new boyfriend (Tom McCarthy, Duplicity), and the obligatory pair of precious tykes (Liam James and Morgan Lily) is no better or worse than most. Certainly, the characters are less trying than Tom Cruise and his dysfunctional family in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005).
The serious humanitarian scientist played by Chiwetel Ejiofor benefits by being played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Similarly, casting Oliver Platt as the unscrupulous politician, Danny Glover as the high-minded president and Thandie Newton as the president’s equally high-minded daughter help. It takes a pro of Glover’s caliber to find himself being crushed by a falling aircraft carrier and not burst out laughing. (Since this takes place in the near future, are we to assume that Glover is really Obama? I know being president ages a man, but this is a bit much.)
These roles serve Emmerich’s purpose—perhaps better than they need to—which is clearly to create the ultimate disaster movie. After all, when everything is said and done, 2012 is nothing but a rehash of Rudolph Mate’s When World’s Collide (1951) with better effects, better matte paintings and 75 minutes extra running time. That last is the worst part about the movie. Emmerich’s desire to cram as many hairbreadth escapes and eternities of suspense as possible into one movie ultimately feels more like an eternity plain and simple.
Big, dumb, lumbering and overlong as it is, 2012 still scores extra points for at least managing to present its overkill action scenes in a coherent manner. No, I didn’t really believe these scenes. They’re preposterous—often to the point of laugh-out-loud funny (for example, driving a Bentley out of a crashing plane on a glacier). And no matter how well done the effects are, they still look like effects. But at no point does Emmerich succumb to the current trend for a barrage of rapid cutting as an excuse for having no clue how to stage an action scene. I’ll give him credit for that—that and blowing stuff up really neat. So what if he wants me to believe that the South Pole ends up being in Wisconsin? At least Holsteins are the right colors to pass for penguins. Rated PG-13 for intense disaster sequences and some language.