Film Review: '2012' merges disaster genre's greatest hits

From the movie '2012.'

Photo by Columbia Pictures

From the movie "2012."

The bad news: The world as we know it has come to an end.

The good news: Mommy's new boyfriend was squashed in the gears of a giant high-tech ark, so Daddy's back in the picture!

Novelist John Cusack (left) and hermit radio prophet Woody Harrelson join forces to survive global cataclysm in  '2012.'

Novelist John Cusack (left) and hermit radio prophet Woody Harrelson join forces to survive global cataclysm in "2012."

Never before has a date in history been so significant to so many cultures, so many religions, scientists, and governments. "2012" is an epic adventure ...

Rating: PG-13 for intense disaster sequences and some language

Length: 158 minutes

Released: November 13, 2009 Nationwide

Cast: John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Thandie Newton, Woody Harrelson, Danny Glover

Director: Roland Emmerich

Writer: Roland Emmerich, Harald Kloser

More info and showtimes »

In typical disaster-movie fashion, "2012" presents these events as being of more or less equal significance. Such Hollywood accounting (another example: one John Cusack trumps 3 billion nonentitities) may offend the literal-minded, but others will accept the equation as part of the preposterous fun of this campy if overlong exercise in gleeful world-smashing spectacle from post-Irwin Allen master of disaster Roland Emmerich, the director who previously blew up the White House in "Independence Day," stomped Manhattan in "Godzilla" and turned Earth into an ice cube in "The Day After Tomorrow."

This is the type of movie in which a huge ark, loaded with humanity "to ensure the continuity of the species," doesn't just crash into random noncelebrity obstructions as it floats on a newly formed ocean but into Air Force One and Mount Everest, in immediate succession. (The Eiffel Tower must have been on its lunch break.)

But Emmerich wants us to know he's aware of his movie's silliness: In "2012," the apocalypse starts, with a wink, in Hollywood, as the long-predicted slide of California into the ocean precipitates not just the death of civilization but also the craziest limo ride in movie history, with Cusack -- in what may be the year's most ridiculous but exhilarating effects sequence -- putting the pedal to the metal to outrun an earthquake.

Inspired by popular pseudoscientific claims that the Mayan calendar predicts the world will end on Dec. 12, 2012, the film is a sort of disaster-genre greatest hits collection, gathering the tidal waves from "The Perfect Storm" and "The Poseidon Adventure," the temblors from "Earthquake," the volcanoes from "Volcano" and "Dante's Peak," the fireballs from "Armageddon," and other special-effects traumas into that paradoxical form of entertainment that allows viewers to escape their real-life woes by imagining something far, far worse.

Calculated to appeal to both Al Gore and Rush Limbaugh fans, the script by Emmerich and Harald Kloser dramatizes the perils of global warming yet lets mankind off the hook by blaming "the biggest solar eruptions in human history" for cooking the Earth from the inside out, like a microwave oven.

"The neutrinos coming from the sun have mutated into a new kind of nuclear particle," warns a geologist, and yes, I admit it, I'm a sucker for such gibberish.

Before you can say "and with Woody Harrelson as a long-haired hermit radio prophet," the Earth's crust has "destablized," a cruise ship containing George Segal has capsized, Wisconsin has shifted to the South Pole (!) and our nation has lost its manhood, as Emmerich cheekily suggests with a shot of the collapse of the Washington Monument.

Oscar Wilde famously said of a Charles Dickens tearjerker: "One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing." Similarly, it's hard to imagine audiences won't hoot when the president of the United States (Danny Glover) casts his eyes heavenward and addresses his dead wife as a gargantuan tsunami sweeps over the White House: "Dorothy, I'm coming home."

For all its godless global cataclysm (the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio crumbles, and the Sistine Chapel fissures at the connecting index fingers of God and man), "2012" reassures viewers that it's a small world after all, thanks to a series of unlikely, fateful coincidences.

For example, a White House scientist played by Chiwetel Ejiofor (this movie's most significant accomplishment may be to introduce this wonderful actor to a wide audience) is not just a fan of Jackson Curtis (Cusack), the "optimist" author of inspirational doomsday novels, he actually meets the man while investigating a dried-up lake in Yellowstone National Park. Curtis is there camping with his two young children, while his ex-wife (Amanda Peet) spends time with her new beau (Tom McCarthy).

Later, the men will meet again when the family almost miraculously makes it from Southern California to China via two airplanes and a monk's pickup truck. Ejiofor's scientist also is the first to object to a secret government plan in which billionaires are able to buy passage on the ark, no matter how inessential they are to humankind's gene pool.

Near the end of the film, we learn that much of southern African escaped flooding; but as arks loaded with officials and rich people from the U.S. and Europe head toward the Cape of Good Hope, I couldn't help but imagine the Africans thinking: Here we go again.

-- John Beifuss: 529-2394

© 2009 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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