Like all great goofy-stupid pieces of entertainment, there is a point in 2012 at which you’ll either give up or give in. And it’s not when John Cusack outdrives (in a limo) the planet’s tectonic plates once they start doing the wave. Nor is it when he copilots a puddle-jumper around crumbling metropolitan California buildings.
No, it’s when Cusack — dangling by his hands over the gaping, magma-hot maw of the planet’s core — pulls himself up Indiana Jones-style and catches up to a departing plane … before the bowels of the earth can swallow up the entire runway.
2012 works at a level of both mocking the disaster movie while mastering it in the most mammoth manner $200 million can buy. That is, of course, Roland Emmerich for you — who put the world under siege in Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and now 2012, aka 1,095 Days From Now.
Pushing the 165-minute mark for something like this seems unholy, but Emmerich makes it move and it really only feels its length when piling on a bevy of ticking-clock catastrophes in the final reel.
Emmerich springboards from the 2012 phenomenon — the belief that a cataclysmic apocalypse will occur around Dec. 21, 2012, said to be the end date of the 5,125-year-long Mayan calendar. And even if we have three years to prepare — as Emmerich and co-writer / composer Harald Kloser hypothesize it — that won’t be enough.
In 2009, massive solar flares are microwaving the Earth, causing the temperature of its core to rapidly increase. Eventually, this will cause worldwide displacement of the Earth’s crust and, in the Ghostbusters parlance, that would be very, very bad.
Globetrotting American geologist Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) breaks the news to President Thomas Wilson (Danny Glover) and his chief of staff, Anheuser (Oliver Platt), who put into play a secretive plan to perpetuate humankind.
Flash to 2012, when deadbeat dad and struggling author Jackson Curtis (Cusack) is on vacation with his son and daughter at Yellowstone. While there, Jackson befriends Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson), a deranged pickle-chomping DJ who purports that the world is going to end soon and that there’s a government conspiracy to save the privileged.
Because there’s nothing like the end of days to prove your parenting prowess, Jackson hightails it out of California with his kids, estranged wife Kate (Amanda Peet) and Kate’s plastic-surgeon boyfriend Gordon (the inimitably put-upon Tom McCarthy) before the state sinks into the ocean. As the destruction spreads westward toward Washington, D.C., Helmsley and Anheuser must drastically reconfigure their timeline to save all they can.
One great aspect about 2012 is that Ejiofor and Platt play their roles like variations on Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington in Crimson Tide. The noble scientist is neither 100-percent right nor is the blustery bureaucrat 100-percent wrong.
That these two will have to meet somewhere in the middle is a far cry from the naysaying Dick Cheney stand-in of The Day After Tomorrow, adds to the chaos churning through the story and lends as much political and ethical weight as is allowed amid impressively digital destruction.
Meanwhile, Jackson and family meet up with a global cast of characters en route to China — reportedly the launching pad for what will be mankind’s last stand for preservation.
Yes, Gordon and a patient lamenting her breast implants choose to talk about this topic while trundling across frozen tundra. But it’s refreshing to see that, during this trek, Gordon isn’t a pig, cheat or ninny fatally unwilling to help at times of trouble.
2012 is all cheese on wry, but it’s smart within its means as well. Not just anybody could convey the conflicting emotions Cusack and Peet do when framed in closeup as they attempt to comfort their kids. There are Ellis Island connotations to its When Worlds Collide-aping finale. And if it’s not poetic, consider it haiku-ish: the notion that our possessions at a moment of global reckoning become historical documents.
All of this builds to a palpable popcorn lesson about parental and personal responsibility in the thick of tragedy. There’s a reason why one character gulps so much water in the final moments — as a legitimate attempt at absolution.
Yes, 2012’s thickheaded final couplet has to do with wetting the bed. And there are exchanges of howling dialogue that even James Cameron wouldn’t try (“I feel like there’s something pulling us apart” before a searing fissure separates a couple). But Emmerich is a patient, thorough destroyer of worlds in 2012 — something to which it’s worth surrendering.