All previous disaster movies must now be recategorised as “Ruddy Nuisance Movies”, such is the scale of apocalyptic destruction on display in 2012. Director Roland Emmerich has been described by many as the modern master of the disaster movie (and by Screenjabber as a talentless hack – Ed), though it’s unclear if he’s the best at what he does or simply the only one doing it: never has one director been so obsessed with wreaking havoc on our poor planet. Emmerich, in what will henceforth be known as his low budget, arthouse period, also directed Godzilla, Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow; he has the blood of billions of cinematic lives on his hands.
The plot, such as it is, begins with scientists saying things like “Sir I think you need to see this!” and “Cross reference the data!” (If I ever hear anyone in a labcoat saying either of those things, I’m jumping in my Renault Clio and flooring it). Then there’s some talk of sunspots, planetary alignments, plate tectonics and a Mayan prophecy predicting the end of the world in 2012 ... but it doesn’t really matter, all you need to know is that it results in a sort of disaster-combo movie featuring floods, tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes and that fine rain that soaks you through (I may have made one of those up).
In the middle of it all is Cusack (who I swear hasn’t aged in 20 years), playing a failed author/limo driver who learns about the impending apocalypse from a crazed conspiracy theorist (Harrelson in a loopy cameo) and has to rescue his ex-wife, their two children, and his ex-wife’s smug new boyfriend (the cracks in both the family dynamic and the roads are lifted straight from Spielberg’s War of the Worlds). At the same time the US President (played by Glover, trying so hard to muster some presidential dignity he looks like he might burst) is warned of the looming catastrophe by his chief science advisor, Ejiofor. The goverment then sets about building a top-secret fleet of gigantic mega-ships (arks) designed to save the cream of humanity: billionaires, politicians, the Queen (!), and if I have anything to do with it, Cheryl Cole. There’s also a number of subplots involving characters who are essentially calamity-bait: a Russian gangster, the President’s spirited daughter and... a pair of elderly jazz musicians on a cruise.
The plot and dialogue are groan-inducing (though never as traumatically awful as, say, Transformers 2), the characters paper thin, and while some would say it’s churlish to complain about such things in a film like this, they forget that creating characters you genuinely care for and putting them in believable peril is half the battle when it comes to getting audiences involved in the action. As it is, 2012 is thoroughly entertaining without ever being thrilling.As depicted here, the end of the world is never as terrifying or disturbing as you might expect. In fact, it all looks like jolly good fun. Buildings collapse, landmarks are flattened, entire cities slide into the sea, all rendered in stunning detail and on a breathtaking scale thanks to the magnificent special effects. Characters always adhere to Hollywood commandments like: when approaching an impossible jump over a crevasse in your car, thou shalt scream “ohhhh shhiiiiIIIIIITTTTT!!!” before landing safely on the other side. In fact it’s comforting to know that carefully zig-zagging your limo will get you to safety even as California is swallowed up in the San Andreas fault. There’s also a strange repetition to the action as Emmerich tries to top himself: limo jumps crevasse; camper van jumps crevasse; single engine plane dodges collapsing building; cargo plane dodges collapsing building... by the time one of the gigantic mega-ships is trying to dodge Mount Everest (don’t ask) the law of dimishing returns has kicked in and you will have stopped caring. You may, however, be laughing.
Another way that Emmerich dials down the horror is to have his characters react with a kind of stoic dignity once they know they’re doomed. He affords them a few moments to watch whatever screen-filling digital calamity is approaching, and perhaps utter some last words or make peace with a loved one. At precisely the moment I would be screaming “ohhhh shhiiiiIIIIIITTTTT!!!” while curled up in the fetal position, one character stares down a rapidly approaching tsunami and whispers to his dead wife “Dorothy, I’m coming home”... before promptly being FLATTENED BY AN AIRCRAFT CARRIER. That’s right, an aircraft carrier: Emmerich doesn’t mess about. It’s that kind of film.
In the end, 2012 is both dreadful and great fun in equal measure. Go in with the right mindset, perhaps after a couple of drinks, and there’s really no way you won’t have a good time. By the time Emmerich expects you to care about the fate of a dog tightrope-walking along a cable to get on board the mega-boat while millions of Chinese people presumably die off-screen, or by the time our heroes emerge from a downed cargo plane and look up to see elephants and giraffes being airlifted overhead, or by the time you hear the soft-rock song that plays over the end credits (Chorus: “I aint givin’ up on love!”), you may even think it’s the comedy of the year.