With John Cusack, Amanda Peet and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Rated PG-13 for intense disaster sequences and some language. 158 minutes.
As a movie, 2012 is exceedingly silly, featuring hilarious and unbelievable coincidences and more last-minute rescues than an old time serial. People going to “2012” as a movie will be disappointed. On the other hand, people going to it as an amusement park ride will have a tremendous time, for that’s what this is: a special effects extravaganza about the end of the world where you have a ringside seat.
As you may have read, the Mayan calendar predicts that the world will end on December 21, 2012. In a few quick scenes filled with important-sounding scientific mumbo jumbo, we learn that the Earth’s core is overheating. This is going to have disastrous effects for those of us living on the planet’s surface. Scientist Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) brings this to the attention of top presidential aide Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt) and suddenly finds himself planning to save a remnant of humanity before it’s too late.
The film quickly skips from the present to 2012, where things are heating up… literally. A crazed radio broadcaster (Woody Harrelson) tries to warn people, but the only one taking him seriously is divorced science fiction writer Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), who figures out something odd is going on while camping with his kids at Yellowstone National Park. When they’re picked up by the Army for trespassing in a restricted area, Helmsley recognizes Curtis as the author of one of his favorite books. It is the first of many absurdities we have to pretend to swallow whole.
For much of the running time Curtis is trying to get his ex-wife (Amanda Peet) and his kids to the “arks” the government is building, even as the roads start crumbling away just feet behind his car. This is repeated later as a runway disintegrates just behind their plane as they’re taking off. Director Roland Emmerich doesn’t expect you to take this seriously. He wants you to enjoy the thrill ride.
The special effects are incredible. We watch Pasadena collapse block-by-block, and even though part of your brain knows it’s all done by computer, it’s still edge-of-your-seat excitement. More problematic is that were these thrills real, millions upon millions of people would be dead. We’re invited to ignore all of that except for the few individual characters for whom we supposed to care: like the noble President (Danny Glover) or an aging saloon musician (George Segal). Everyone else is just part of the faceless mob being crushed by collapsing infrastructure or washed away by gigantic tidal waves. Few of these actors are likely to look at their roles here as career highs (although Harrelson is a hoot), but we go along with it because they’re going along with it.
Of course, you’ll be identifying with the survivors rather than the victims. When the end comes, you’ll be on one of the arks, right? “2012” is a fun ride, so long as you don’t think about how silly it all is.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.