In what exact sense he may have meant that remains ambiguous, but Emmerich now stands as our premier Hollywood Disastermeister, nuking and zapping historical landmarks in Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, Godzilla, and other works of taste and forbearance. He has long since surpassed the previous title-holder, producer Irwin Allen (The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno), to become the Cecil B. DeMille of his generation, purveying jaw-dropping sensation yoked to cheap sentiment and appallingly (or is that appealingly?) flimsy characterizations.
Allen, after all, only turned an ocean liner upside down. In 2012, Emmerich flips our entire planet on its head. The result is a state-of-the-art multiplex three-ring circus whose special effects stagger the senses and play like a video game, whose human drama aims for the cosmic and lands waist-deep in the Big Silly. Call it “Apocalypse Really Soon,’’ or, better yet, “Airport 2012.’’
What’s the rumpus? Not the end-times foretold by the Mayan calendar, but those darn solar neutrinos, streaming from the sun and heating up the Earth’s core to a point where the crust has broken free and the continental plates start doing a merry dance. A few teacups get chipped: California slides into the sea and Yellowstone Park blows straight up into the sky. And that’s just the opening act.
Emmerich and his co-writer Harald Kloser get the “science’’ of the movie out of the way fairly quickly, starting their tale in 2009 as US government geologist Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) journeys to India to get a first-hand peek at the planetary core from the bottom of a copper mine. It may look like a giant Jacuzzi to you, but you’re not a scientist in a Hollywood movie.
Helmsley races back to Washington to warn President Wilson (kindly Danny Glover) and cabinet secretary Carl Anheuser [Bush?] (meanypants Oliver Platt) while 2012 races to introduce us to the rest of the movie’s overcrowded passenger list. A disaster movie needs an Everyman, so we have John Cusack as Jackson Curtis, a divorced dad and author of failed sci-fi novels that everyone in the film seems to have read.
Camping with his kids (Liam James and Morgan Lily) in Yellowstone brings Jackson in contact with both the geologist’s team and a conspiracy theorist (Woody Harrelson, mining his tabloid crackpot persona for all it’s worth) who explains everything and has a map for it. This cues the main action of 2012: Jackson, his estranged wife Kate (Amanda Peet), her plastic-surgeon boyfriend (actor-director Tom McCarthy, who must be wondering what on earth he stepped in), and the kids skedaddling from one literal hot spot to another as the ground caves in just behind them.
Much of the movie takes place in the air (the boyfriend’s an amateur pilot) as our plucky survivors barrel between tilting buildings and beneath collapsing freeways. The carnage in 2012 is distant and PG-13; Emmerich keeps us back from individual human suffering because that’s just not box-office. Civilization here is a high-end ant farm, and its death is the occasion for wonder, pity, and popcorn. We do zoom in on a few individual tragedies, most of which befall the ethnic and the old. The sinful, too: the pop moralism of 2012 isn’t far from that of the “Left Behind’’ series or any classic Hollywood western.
Glimpsed in the chaos of 2012 are some welcome hambones: Harrelson, as mentioned; the wattle-shaking Platt; George Segal as a cruise-ship entertainer who really should have called home earlier (one of the film’s many inadvertent laughs); Zlatko Buric as a corrupt Russian industrialist whose voice seems to emanate from a vodka-soaked crypt beneath the Kremlin; Beatrice Rosen as the industrialist’s goodhearted bimbo mistress, not quite as smart as her lapdog; the dog itself, who gets a hilarious scene toward the end and who in fact may be the Shelley Winters of this particular enterprise.
Did we mention the airborne giraffes? Or the Tibetan Buddhists who join our heroes mostly to provide new age spiritual validation and a climactic thumbs-up? Or Thandie Newton as the President’s daughter, making goo-goo eyes at Ejiofor and struggling with the potted dialogue, which at times seems to have been poorly translated from the German? When Jackson and Kate stop in the middle of a cataclysmic deluge to discuss why their marriage failed, the melodramatic double-vision of 2012 turns actively ridiculous. Forget the Mayans - Humphrey Bogart had it right: The problems of two people really don’t amount to a hill of beans in this movie’s crazy world.
Anyway, admit it, we’re here to see the Sistine Chapel come crashing down on thousands of screaming digital extras, or the Washington Monument totter and fall, or Caesar’s Palace tip into a fiery pit of magma (repent, ye weekend gamblers!). The attraction of disaster movies - which by definition have to get bigger and bigger if we’re still to feel them - is that they allow us to imagine our own extinction from the cheap seats, jolting us with spectacle, reframing our perspective, sending us home safe and sound.
In the wake of 9/11 (whose iconography this movie toys with in the form of collapsing skyscrapers and ash-covered faces), the need for entertainment apocalypse seems weirdly keener. 2012 is only a movie, and reassuringly so: It’s one huge, overlong, cornball Armageddon - a work of shlock and awe. In one scene Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is seen on TV declaring that “Da vurst iss ofah,’’ but he couldn’t be more wrong. Roland Emmerich is just getting started.
If 2012 falters, it does so in its running time. It could lose a subplot or two. But at least Emmerich's denouement is nicely compact, with a final exchange that is at once absurd and as beautifully succinct a reassurance as the famous “Nobody’s perfect!” that ends Some Like it Hot. This is next-level nutjobbery by a filmmaker at his peak. He can end our world any time.