Review: '2012' Is the Laughable 'Love Actually' Of Disaster Movies

Sometimes you see a movie so bloated and silly (and so unaware of its own bloated silliness) that you don’t even know where to begin. This is the problem that anyone attempting to review Roland Emmerich’s nearly three-hour feel-good apocalyptic action thriller “2012” has to deal with.

The premise is simple, and one that Emmerich has recycled time and time again: a low level scientist (Chiwetel Ejiofor, struggling desperately to maintain his dignity) discovers a cataclysmic scientific anomaly, one that could threaten the entire planet if someone doesn’t listen to him. Thankfully, someone does — a slick, skeptical politician (Oliver Platt). Soon the two of them, along with the President (Danny Glover, who sounds more than ever like Admiral Akbar), begin a clandestine, worldwide initiative to save the human race. In a bizarre subplot, the President’s daughter (Thandie Newton) leads a campaign to save the world’s most precious works of art. However, this subplot is far too strange and interesting and is dropped almost immediately.

Emmerich’s love of a fractured, multi-character framework borrowed from the 1970’s disaster movies means we’ve also got some “everyday” people to care about. This weight mainly falls on the shoulders of John Cusack, playing an author-cum-limo-driver who is separated from his wife (Amanda Peet) and working for a greasy Russian fat cat (Zlatko Buric). Additionally, Woody Harrelson plays an over-the-top underground radio personality consumed by conspiracy theories about the end of the world as related to the ancient Mayan prediction of global annihilation in 2012. Since this is a Hollywood movie, he’s a paranoid schizophrenic who is – wait for it – actually right! There’s also George Segal as a cruise ship lounge singer and a bunch of Tibetan monks.

Once the “plot” of “2012” kicks in, around the 50 minute mark, the movie is pretty much split into thirds. One third is John Cusack and his clan, racing away from calamity, always narrowly avoiding collapsing buildings, geysers of lava, and gaping cracks in the earth’s crust. Cusack and Co. are trying desperately to get to some giant ships called “Arks” that are spiriting away the world’s most powerful and rich. Another third is people tearfully saying goodbye to their loved ones over the phone. Seriously. There are at least a half dozen of these scenes and they’re all completely awful. The last third is Oliver Platt and Chiwetel Ejiofor arguing over the fate of the workers who worked on the giant arks. This is the movie’s most histrionic section and the source of some of its most guffaw-inducing dialogue, much of which is unfortunately spoken by Ejiofor.

And this brings us to the unintentional fun of “2012” — laughing at it. At the screening we attended (the lone screening for Manhattan area critics), at least 30 minutes of the movie was drowned out by howls and uproarious clapping, in response to the generally whacked-out, WTF-ness of the movie. Devoid of this joyfully knowing scenario, it’s imaginable that the movie just drags on and on, ponderously awash in its own frightful, apocalyptic seriousness. (The movie lacks the gallows humor of “Mars Attacks” or the earnest patriotism of “Independence Day” and brief attempts at either, including a sequence where a fluffy dog plank walks its way onto one of the arks, fall flat.)

But, all that said, it’s not entirely terrible. There are a few moments where the oversized, computer-generated wonderment actually impresses, although these moments are undermined by the fact that the sequences have all the emotional connection of watching a friend play a really tricked-out videogame. Instead of taking the Michael Bay approach of quick, bite-sized cuts rapidly assembled in the editing room, Emmerich lets his camera glide along with the characters for extended periods of time in long, unbroken takes. It’s not exactly Hitchcock, but it goes a long way to establish, at the very least, the geographic placement of everything.

Still, these moments are few and far between and long stretches of the movie just drone on and on with no end in sight (no matter how quickly the countdown-to-destruction clock is ticking). This is like the “Love Actually” of disaster movies, with bits and pieces from other, better disaster movies reassembled, lovingly, and cranked all the way up to 11. There are worse ways you could spend your Friday night at the multiplex, but this thing is a largely artless and seemingly endless succession of worldwide destruction (without much in the way of stakes) and beyond-banal personal interaction. It’s not the end of the world. But it’s close. [D] — Drew Taylor