The notion of playing God is implicit in the job of a film director, and rarely has the sense of a wrathful, vengeful deity at the helm, albeit a pagan one, been so comprehensively felt as in “2012.” For demolition maestro Roland Emmerich, “Independence Day,” “Godzilla” and “The Day After Tomorrow” were mere appetizers for the lip-smacking smorgasbord of global annihilation laid out here. This simultaneously spectacular and risible concoction looks likely to trigger a worldwide B.O. tsunami for Sony.
Hooking their doomsday scenario on an interpretation of a Mayan calendar that points to an earthly catastrophe in 2012 — specifically on 12-21-12 (what movie will pin its release to that date?) — Emmerich and writing-producing partner Harald Kloser begin by dumping Los Angeles into the sea and follow with the destruction of Las Vegas, Yellowstone National Park, Washington, D.C., the Vatican, India, Tibet and a giant cruise ship.
Anyone who stops to think about it between grabs of popcorn might pick up the hint that Emmerich is taking particularly gleeful aim at the United States (which other director has destroyed the White House in his films not once but now twice?) and Catholicism (he goes out of his way to detail the collapse of St. Peter’s and Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue), while no other religion gets taken to task. But then, that would be taking this eye-popping display of movie pyrotechnics far too seriously. Or not.
Coming up with halfway decent characters with which to populate disaster films has always proved an almost insurmountable problem, but Kloser and Emmerich have brought a measure of wit to the enterprise. Pic’s Everyman is Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), a rumpled author whose most recent unsuccessful novel happens to have been called “Farewell Atlantis,” and who never paid enough attention to sexy ex-wife Kate (Amanda Peet) and their two young kids (Liam James and Morgan Lily). He’s now forced to look on as Kate shacks up with Gordon (Tom McCarthy) while he scrapes by as a limo driver for L.A.-based Russian billionaire Yuri Karpov (the very engaging Zlatko Buric).
As SoCal hopes for the best amid an alarming upswing in tremors and cracked streets, government scientist Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) alerts U.S. President Thomas Wilson (Danny Glover, almost too predictably grave) that increased solar fires (happily, for a change, not man-made global warming) are about to turn the Earth inside out in a way not experienced since the day the dinosaurs died.
While Wilson’s chief of staff, Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt), readies the evacuation of the elite and the president deliberates about how to preside over the planet’s final chapter, Curtis leads his kids on a series of escapes and near-misses worthy of Indiana Jones — in a limo, RV, private plane (flown by nonpilot Gordon), giant Russian cargo jet and, ultimately, the biggest vehicle ever built. The action is preposterous by any standard, but that’s designed as part of the fun; eye-popping indeed are the sights of the streets of Santa Monica rippling like so many ocean waves, molten meteors spewing out of Yellowstone, the sea claiming a ship the size of a football field and a six-engine jet crash landing on a Himalayan glacier.
Unfortunately, it’s not easy scripting the final act of a movie about the end of the world when you don’t really want the final image to be a charred rock. Let it be said that “2012” plummets from reasonably distracting spectacle to sheerest silliness when, in the pointlessly protracted final reels, it tries to maintain interest in the (confusingly staged) jeopardy of a handful of characters when much of the world’s population has already been wiped out or is about to be. Never has Rick’s observation in “Casablanca” been more true, that the problems of a few little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
On any level other than as sheer visual sensation, “2012” is a joke, for the simple reason that it has no point of view; the film offers no philosophical, metaphysical, intellectual and certainly no religious perspective on the cataclysm, just the physical frenzy of it all. But to ask this would be taking the picture far too seriously. Or not.
In Cusack and Ejiofor, “2012” has two actors who convey above-the-norm intelligence for characters in this sort of fare, although even they can’t keep up the pretense as the film degenerates. Most casting choices are agreeably offbeat down through the ranks, with Woody Harrelson supercharging his scenes as a wackjob radio sage who issues on-the-air reports from the front lines of destruction.
Except for some patchy work when St. Peter’s crumbles, the visual effects are pretty sensational, delivering the cutting-edge CGI goods auds want and expect. It will be hard to watch “Earthquake” ever again after this one.