Nothing like a dandy evening's apocalypse to take the edge off recession, unemployment and Afghanistan. With 2012, Roland "Day After Tomorrow" Emmerich serves up World's End 4.0, with cataclysmic effects showcasing what volcanoes, tidal waves and earthquakes will do once that fabled Mayan calendar runs out on Dec. 21, 2012.
Ignore the fact that the Mayans ended their world centuries earlier, the "If the Mayans were so smart, how come their civilization ended?" argument. And try not to dwell on the general hopelessness this movie engenders. It's Apocalypse Three Years From Now as simple spectacle — with humor and humanity tucked into a downbeat Roland Emmerich Presents: Disaster Movie's Greatest Hits.
There's the volcanic inferno of Dante's Peak and Volcano, the earthquakes of Earthquake and the cruise ship staring down a giant wave (and losing) of The Poseidon Adventure.
Seismic events all over the planet concern a government geologist (Chiwitel Ejiofor). "Earth crust displacement" is coming. The continents will shift and the world "as we know it" will end. The president (Danny Glover) mobilizes the G-8 nations to act. Years of secret labor ensue, with nobody knowing about it but a select few. Well, and nutty conspiracy buff Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson, well cast). He spills the beans online and on his pirate radio station. But sometime science writer now limo driver Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) isn't buying.
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A trip with his kids to Yellowstone, "the world's largest (potential) super volcano," changes Jackson's mind. As Charlie's predictions, based on end-days prophecies from Mayan and other ancient cultures, start to come true, Jackson goes on a mad dash to rescue his estranged wife (Amanda Peet) and kids from soon-to-be-sea-floor Los Angeles. He wants to take them where Charlie has theorized "the government" might be up to something, a safe haven.
"When they tell you not to panic," Jackson screams, once he has seen the light, "that's when you run!"
Emmerich packs his script with too many characters to keep track of easily. Aged musicians on the cruise ship (George Segal and Blu Mankuma), scattered scientists, a Russian billionaire (Zlatko Buric), a novice Buddhist monk, the White House team (Thandie Newton is the president's art-expert daughter, Oliver Platt is a cold-hearted chief of staff), all face the end their own way. Moments of pathos pop up in the usual places — noble sacrifice, people waiting too long to mend fences with doomed relatives, a small dog in jeopardy.
What's missing here is someone to root against — the monster in Emmerich's Godzilla, White House denial of global warming in Day After Tomorrow, the aliens of Independence Day. Are we to applaud when skyscrapers topple and ships capsize, with tiny digital faceless bodies plummeting into the void? You make the disaster this real and it's not entertaining or chilling. Like Deep Impact, another movie with a black president presiding over the end of time, it's more depressing than entertaining.
The actors, however, played this as if their next paycheck depended on it. Cusack & Co. sell the cataclysm unfolding in the rearview mirror of an RV, through the windows of a small plane or, in the case of Charlie Frost, that glint in his eyes as Yellowstone erupts — the wonder and fear and utter satisfaction of a crackpot who can say, with smug conviction, "Told ya so!"