There was a time when 2012 could have gotten by solely on its eye-popping depictions of global destruction; for better or worse, though, that time has passed.
We get it—with a couple hundred million dollars and a team of wildly talented digital artists, filmmakers can realize any scenario a screenwriter can dream up. Dazzling special effects aren't enough anymore, and they don't have to be. Hell, an entire planet ate itself in J.J. Abrams' Star Trek, and the filmmakers still took the trouble to deliver one of the best adventure films of the decade. 2012 makes no such effort. Spectacle abounds, but Roland Emmerich's latest end-of-days flick is mostly just dumb and boring. He can be forgiven for the dumb part; do we really expect movies like this to be anything else? But to be boring is to commit the cardinal sin of junk cinema, and 2012 is so dull that no amount of window dressing can save it from being the large-scale disaster that it is.
You surely know the plot by now. Supposedly, according to the Mayan calendar, the world is slated to come to an impressive end on Dec. 21, 2012. Geologist Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) makes the shocking discovery that it's not just a bunch of hooey. Those Mayans were apparently onto something, because there are these particles called neutrinos that are causing the Earth's gooey center to overheat, which will lead to worldwide tectonic mayhem. The apocalyptic shit is scheduled to hit the fan on the exact date of the winter solstice in 2012. (December 21! Creepy, huh?) Thanks to a copper mine in India that monitors such things, world leaders get enough of a heads up to arrange some serious CYA activity for the human species; enormous arks are being built in the Himalayas, and 400,000 of the world's best-connected citizens are going to ride out the end of the world on them. By the time the movie's over (a sadistic two hours and 40 minutes after it starts), California will have slid into the Pacific, the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy will have smashed into the White House (dramatic irony!), and the South Pole will have relocated itself to Wisconsin. None of this will have any effect on cellphone reception, though, so it's not all bad.
Here's the real question, and the meat of the movie: Can science-fiction writer Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) use his boss's limo to get his estranged family onto one of the arks before they seal them up? It's actually a pretty fun set-up, and things get off to a fair start. There's plenty of goofy B-movie technobabble to set the mood ("It looks like the neutrinos coming from the sun are mutating into a new kind of particle!"), and you can't ask for a more likable cast. But even actors like Cusack and Ejiofor can't breathe any semblance of life into the film's bland characters, and that's the real problem. We don't care about the millions who die, and until the film's final moments we don't really give a damn about the few who survive, either. The disaster sequences really are amazing, and Emmerich knows his way around an action scene. The much-lauded limo escape from a crumbling Los Angeles is memorable, as are some of the film's scenes of iconic devastation. When it's all said and done, though, it's just a special effects reel—and a painfully long one at that.
Maybe the secret to appreciating 2012 lies in the scale on which we judge it. Certainly not action films in general, since it's one of the worst ones to come along lately. What if we narrow our sights a bit, and just compare it to other disaster movies? Still no good. While it's a genre rife with notorious groaners (The Poseidon Adventure, Volcano), it still manages to crank out some pretty entertaining stuff (The Poseidon Adventure, Volcano). Let's shrink the playing field even more, then, and just measure it against Roland Emmerich disaster films. Shockingly, it still falls short. Emmerich has proven that he can rise above his unique brand of directile dysfunction to make some pretty fun stuff, including at least one minor sci-fi classic (Stargate).
Maybe part of the problem is, with the televised aftermath of very real and very devastating tsunamis, earthquakes, mudslides, and floods, disaster movies just don't count as escapism anymore. Mostly, though, 2012 just suffers from an overwhelming inability to engage the audience in any of its visually impressive proceedings. Even the guy who made 10,000 B.C. should be held to much higher standards than this.