Even if most of the Earth were to be destroyed by a natural cataclysm predicted long ago by the ancient Mayans (or Hopis, or even the I Ching — take your pick), director Roland Emmerich would surely survive, if only to crawl back and polish off what little was left.
Going in to Emmerich’s [movie id="381911"]“2012,”[/movie] I was prepared to set my brain on spin-cycle and just roll with it — who doesn’t enjoy a good CGI soak now and then? And there is in fact some snazzy digitalia on display here: a monster tsunami crashing over the Himalayas; a spectacular White House takedown (yet again); and some monster-wave ship-twirling that’s truly, uh, titanic. An L.A. freeway buckles and falls, Las Vegas craps out, and the coast of California rears up and slides right into the ocean. All that, plus lots of collapsing high-rise real estate, fireball storms and geysers of boiling black magma.
But there’s an awful lot of this stuff; and since the movie is more than two and a half hours long — and since we are a nation of very jaded FX gluttons by now — surely there are some who’ll find much of it grindingly monotonous. We should probably be grateful to Emmerich for not larding the picture with the endless eco-blather that burdened his last disaster special, “The Day After Tomorrow”; but this one is sprinkled with little We Are All One sermonettes that are almost as irritating.
Disaster movies always have a high baloney count, so there’s no point in nit-picking the premise that launches “2012″: As a scientific possibility, the Ancient Mayan Prophecy here ranks one notch above Y2K. So let’s just accept what’s happening, which is … what? Something about planetary alignments, raging “sun eruptions,” things like that. As one agitated science guy says: “For the first time ever, the neutrinos are causing a physical reaction!” (To which another script victim later replies: “We’re all gonna die!“)
But let’s meet the characters, and pretend we actually care about them.
Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) is a small-time sci-fi writer in exile from his wife Kate (Amanda Peet) and their winsome kids. Kate is now cohabiting with a nice-guy plastic surgeon named Gordon (Tom McCarthy), who knows how to fly a plane — well, a little bit — which’ll soon come in handy. Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a top government geologist and number-one (perhaps only) fan of Jackson’s book, “Farewell, Atlantis.” Adrian also has eyes for Laura Wilson (Thandie Newton), who’s some sort of art expert and also the daughter of the President of the United States (Danny Glover). Yuri Karpov (Zlatco Buric) is a rich Russian thug whose mistress, Tamara (Beatrice Rosen), is the proud owner of a pair of newly-purchased breasts that were installed, it turns out, by nice-guy Gordon.
Then, off in the woods on his own, there’s Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson), a doomsday loon who broadcasts his ravings from a little radio setup in his battered trailer. (Charlie’s on hand to fill us in on that Ancient Mayan Prophecy thing.) There are also a number of excitable scientists in places like India and Canada, and a wizened old lady in subtitle land who says things like, “We are all children of the Earth.” (Great, just when Mom’s pitching a fit.)
Oh, and Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt). He’s a White House weasel who, as Zero Hour approaches, is overseeing a secret escape plan for the world’s top politicians and their billionaire friends. (We hope they’ve all booked lodgings in Hell.) And who was it that came up with the cutting-edge technology to effect this big getaway? You’ll never guess. In any case, the gargantuan conveyances that’ve been devised, when we finally see them, look as if they drifted in out of a Carnival Cruise Lines commercial.
While the snickering fat cats get ready to split, the unticketed masses are deep in prayer. The director’s heart is probably not with them, though — not after he’s blown away a Buddhist monastery, the Sistine Chapel and the giant Jesus statue overlooking Rio de Janeiro. (Not that Emmerich holds nothing sacred. In an online interview, he’s quoted as saying that he’d wanted to wipe out a sacred Islamic shrine, too, but then thought … maybe not: “You can [let] Christian symbols fall apart, but if you would do this with an Arab symbol, you would have … a fatwa. So I kind of left it out.”)
Emmerich’s best movie to date was 1996′s “Independence Day.” The reasons for this are instructive. “ID4,” as you may recall it being called, had a highly personable top-rank star, Will Smith. The “2012″ actors are all fine, but they lack A-list presence. “ID4″ was witty (this one’s pretty mirthless) and its effects were stylishly deployed (this one just piles them on). “2012″ may be a must-see movie this weekend, but you might not feel that way after the dust clears.
Don’t miss Kurt Loder’s review of “Pirate Radio,” also new in theaters this week.
Check out everything we’ve got on “2012.”
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