As if we didn't already have enough to worry about, now we have to brace ourselves for 2012, the year the Mayan calendar reaches the end of its 13th cycle – i.e., doomsday. Or something like that. I'm only going by the press notes for "2012," which reveal that numerologists, astrologers, and geologists (which geologists exactly?) are likewise freaked out about the impending date, which makes Y2K look like a stroll in the park.
By preparing us for the coming cataclysm, the filmmakers of "2012" have performed a public service and should be given, if not the Nobel Peace Prize, then by all means an Oscar. The fact that "2012" is an epic clinker is irrelevant. Who has time for art, or even entertainment, when Earth's tectonic plates are about to be fired by neutrinos? Or something like that. It's time to save the world – or at the very least, Hollywood, which has lately been racking up less than boffo grosses. Who better to fix things than the folks who perpetrated "Independence Day," "The Day After Tomorrow," and "Godzilla"?
Director Roland Emmerich and his co-writer Harald Kloser – I use the term "writer" here very loosely – have teamed with an arsenal of computer geeks and destructionists to give us a Valu-Pack of disaster scenarios: earthquakes, tsunamis, falling high-rises, buckling freeways, careening airplanes, cute puppies in peril, volcanos at Yellowstone National Park, trapped giraffes – am I making this sound like more fun than it is? Sitting through this movie is like being pressed flat by a trash compactor. Every cliché, every bad idea, every thudding line of dialogue, is redolent of other earlier epic clinkers. There's a certain cozy familiarity in all this but paychecks aside, you wonder how the filmmakers could summon the energy for such an enterprise. There's even a suggestion of a sequel at the end. Maybe the world isn't going to end in 2012 after all.
The plotline has something to do with the fact that solar fires are about to microwave the planet's core, a fact known only to the top Washington brass who have been covertly planning an impending Noah's ark-like evacuation of the best and brightest aboard a jumbo vehicle parked in remote China that's about the size of Duluth. This covert operation business seems a bit silly, since everywhere from Las Vegas to the Vatican is already splitting open, but let that pass.
I'll say this much for "2012": It features one good blowout early on, when L.A. – that favorite target of destructo scenarios – comes apart. It also has better aerial sequences than "Amelia," although this is like saying that "The Polar Express" is better than "Disney's A Christmas Carol." John Cusack, one of many fine actors reduced to rubble here, plays an underappreciated novelist, Jackson Curtis, who remains a doting divorced dad to his two hyperadorable children. By day Jackson is the chauffeur for a bulbous Russian billionaire (Zlatko Buric), a plot device cooked up, no doubt, because a black stretch limo looks better than an ordinary clunker while vaulting tectonic fissures. Jackson's heroic counterpart – once things start, literally, cracking – is the president's chief science adviser Adrian Helmsley, played by Chiwetel Eljiofor in a continual deadpan huff. He looks as if he wishes he was acting in "Airplane!" instead. I wish he was, too.
Danny Glover, at his most sotto voce, plays the president. Since "2012," according to those trusty press notes, was written during the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, it's worth noting that the role was originally written for a woman – until the Iowa primaries. Oliver Platt plays the president's chief of staff and doesn't remind me of anybody except Oliver Platt, a mixed blessing. His character has the surname Anheuser – a not-so-subliminal plug for Budweiser?
In general, though, given the shamelessness of the venture, the filmmakers are remarkably restrained when it comes to product placements, perhaps because no corporation in its right mind would want to see its company logo buried in an avalanche. (I could be wrong about this.) But wireless phone companies missed a golden opportunity here. No matter how high the devastation, no one in this film ever fails to place a call. My favorite moment: In the midst of a biblical-size storm, an astrophysicist in East India buzzes Adrian in a D.C. bunker and gets right though.
It occurred to me that Emmerich and Co. might be playing this whole thing for laughs. It probably occurred to them, too. Just to be on the safe side, they periodically lampoon their own handiwork. This way, if people start giggling in the wrong places, the filmmakers can always claim they were the right places. I'm pretty sure that most of the time that I was laughing, it was during the wrong places. Except maybe when that cute puppy teeters over a precipice on its wobbly way to the mother ship. That wasn't meant to be serious. Was it? Grade: C- (Rated PG-13 for intense disaster sequences and some language.)