Disaster movies are supposed to deliver disaster. There’s supposed to be death, destruction and chaos, with our heroes hanging off cliffs then scrambling back to safety at the last possible moment before something explodes.
These films are the equivalent of theme park rides. They are seldom art. And they usually go the quickest route needed for emotional investment. After all, who has time to build characters? There are buildings to blow up!
Head into “2012” with all that in mind and you’ll be better off. Expecting anything more is just a waste of energy. But you’ll need to settle in for the two-anda-half-hour journey (which is really too long. This isn’t “Ghandi”).
It certainly is epic, though. And the computer-generated special effects are breathtaking and thrilling, with volcanoes, earthquakes and tidal waves happening on that famed date set by the Mayan calendar, which ends on 12-21-12.
The overall spectacle isn’t surprising, given that this is directed by Roland Emmerich, who knows a thing or two about blowing stuff up after “Independence Day” and “The Day After Tomorrow” (“2012” is really just a combination of the two, with “Poseidon Adventure” and “Earthquake” thrown in for good measure).
What is surprising is that the film turns dour in its second act (guess the world ending isn’t exactly a party), and logic begins to crumble like a toppling skyscraper.
The story starts out forebodingly enough, with a government geologist (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in 2009 discovering that the Earth’s crust is shifting, spelling the world’s demise “as we know it.”
He tells the chief of staff (Oliver Platt), who tells the president (Danny Glover — how come when the world ends, there is always a black president?), and he tells leaders of other nations. International secret missions begin.
Fast forward several years to 2012. We now follow an unsuccessful science novel writer and weekend dad, Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), who takes his kids to Yellowstone Park, where he promptly has them ignore a “no trespassing” sign, climb a fence, then get captured by the Army, which slaps them on their wrists and sends them on their way.
Then they meet a kooky conspiracy buff (Woody Harrelson), who broadcasts a radio show from his RV and later tells Jackson that the government is planning a secret escape plan when the world ends. Jackson politely dismisses him and gets back to his kids.
But then an earthquake hits Los Angeles, where Jackson’s exwife (Amanda Peet) is shopping with her boyfriend. Shaken up, she asks Jackson to return the kids home.
After that, chaos ensues around the world, with Jackson’s clan trying to fly to safety through crumbling downtown L.A., a Russian billionaire who has already bought his tickets aboard the mysterious escape ship, an optimistic young Buddhist monk and his family, and the president’s White House staff, which includes his daughter (Thandie Newton).
The multiple storylines are easily navigated, and the actors playing them do their best to add depth and heart to the tale.
But then people just keep dying — and that’s kind of a bummer. We know this is the end of the world and all, but come on. A sense of hopelessness begins to creep in. And that wasn’t on the menu.
Thankfully there are the prerequisite emotionally uplifting monologues near the finale, which get everything back on track. That isn’t being facetious, either: They actually are welcome relief, which might explain how off-course “2012” almost gets.
In the end — of the movie, not the human race — we only want what we’re promised. A fun ride. We may want to see the world slide into the ocean, but we don’t want to ponder its ramifications. In that regard, “2012” teeters on its intentions. It’s not weighty enough to be contemplative.
But the special effects are spectacular — and that alone makes it a guilty pleasure.