2012: End-of-World Disaster Porn

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John Cusack and Lily Morgan in end-of-world thriller 2012

The ancient Mayans predicted that a world cataclysm would occur on the winter solstice in 2012, and so have enough conspiracy theorists to spur a swelling industry of doomsday books and TV shows. In the new thriller 2012, those lunar or just lunatic prophesies come true. "It's kind of galling," says a previously skeptical White House pooh-bah (Oliver Platt), "when you realize that the nutbags with the cardboard signs were right all along."

The nutbag with the $250 million budget is director and co-writer Roland Emmerich, who for all his deficiencies as a teller of stories and wrangler of actors can never be accused of thinking small. In Independence Day he had Martians attack Earth; in The Day After Tomorrow, global warming triggers an instant ice age. He is both the king of disaster porn and a sentimental élitist: his movies kill off billions of humans so that one family can get back together. Emmerich tinkers with Darwin's law so that it's the survival of the top-billed.

Chugging laboriously on several parallel tracks, the movie starts with noted scientist Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) trying to get news of the bleak 2012 scenario to higher-ups, including President Thomas Wilson (Danny Glover, the first African-American actor to play a U.S. Commander in Chief since Barack Obama assumed the post). Several billionaires are asked to contribute their fortunes to some mysterious endeavor that will save the world, or possibly just themselves. Meanwhile, on a peak in Yelllowstone Park, a crazy radio prophet (Woody Harrelson) is warning of an imminent Armageddon. And failed novelist Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) is reunited with his ex-wife (Amanda Peet) and two kids while they barely avoid the catastrophes befalling virtually everyone else on the planet. You'll quickly glean that Jackson's job is to be an ordinary guy who evolves into an end-of-days Messiah. (Can it be a coincidence that both the actor and his character have the initials J.C.?)

2012 — and by the way, how is the title to be pronounced? Two thousand twelve (like A Space Odyssey)? Twenty-twelve? Two-zero-one-two? — is a dead-serious hoot. In some scenes, when folks are spouting dewy end-of-days sentiments as if they're contending for the Couldn't Be More Noble prize, you'll need to stitch your lips together to keep from laughing out loud. The movie dawdles when straining to make the cardboard characters become flesh and blood. Why bother? That's not what we're here for; we want to see what the end of the world looks like, in case we're not around for the real thing.

So when a California governor in the Schwarzenegger mold goes on TV to proclaim, "The worst is over," we'd be disappointed if the whole state didn't immediately collapse in a crazy quilt of fault lines. In a disaster movie of the 2012 stripe, lines of complacent dialogue are like song cues in a musical: heralds of gigantic production numbers. The only difference is that instead of dancing chorines, 2012 offers orgies of destruction, some of which blithely recall 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

If you can tamp down the "How dare they?" impulse, you'll find the movie's only scintillating scenes: the Curtis family's escape in a van through L.A. streets that cave in two seconds after Jackson careers over them, and a ride in a small plane that somehow flies between two downtown skyscrapers at the moment they collapse toward each other. Each boast effects work that is technically sophisticated, dramatically cheesy and kinetically irresistible. (These two thrillathon sequences can be found on Ain't It Cool News.) For all the logorrhea of the dialogue scenes, the movie can be brutally brisk when it wants to. Note how it dispenses with the complete works of Dan Brown in a few blunt strokes: the Mona Lisa is stolen from the Louvre, Vatican City is destroyed, Washington's masonry crumbles.

The closing credits announce that the movie was inspired in part by the book Footprints of the Gods, a pseudoscience tome that cites Charles Hapgood's 1958 theory of Earth Crust Displacement. (If you care, go to Wikipedia.) But the true inspirers of 2012 are the disaster movies — nearly all the disaster movies — that preceded it. There's the giant wall of water from The Poseidon Adventure, the apocalyptic ark from Evan Almighty, the panoramas of devastation and dad-and-son bonding from Spielberg's War of the Worlds and the notion of prominent people getting a ticket out of the disaster from both Dr. Strangelove and the 1951 film When Worlds Collide. That early sci-fi movie provides many of 2012's plot tropes, including the rioting of those meant to be left behind, the death of the richest, meanest man on earth and the ultimate salvation of cute kids and a pet pooch.

No, I didn't spill too much of the plot beans. Any sentient viewer will be able to predict every lumpy twist of this ludicrous, fitfully enjoyable movie. As for the original Mayan prediction, I have my suspicions that it's bogus, but I'm reluctant to blow off the whole idea. Get back to me on Dec. 22, 2012.