Monday, March 1, 2010

To be released tomorrow on DVD: "2012"

Grade: C-plus

Nobody makes doomsday movies with happy endings like Roland Emmerich.

However hard it is to imagine, Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow are merely serene overtures to the bombastic opera that is 2012. This film that imagines the end of the world not as a whimper but as an implosion is a preposterously diverting, instantly forgettable, big screen video game.

I won't bore you with the film's scientific explanation of the global meltdown. But in layman's terms, the Earth's molten core overheats and expands, causing the planet's crust to crack and shrink. The result: Off-the-charts seismic shock waves and tsunamis that raise the sea level to the peak of Mount Everest.

As there is no way to stop the cataclysm, which was predicted in 2009 by the astrophysicist Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and unsuccessful sci-fi novelist Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), the plot is about preparing for The End. Will anyone exist after the geothermal Judgment Day? And if they do, will it be the survival of the fleetest or the richest?

Jackson, estranged from his wife Kate (Amanda Peet), just happens to take his kids to Yellowstone National Park for a camping trip when he sees a familiar lake has dried up and the geothermal activity is more active. There he encounters crackpot shock jock Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson), who alerts his listeners to the End of Days. Charlie claims to have intelligence that the super rich have booked passage on a high-tech Ark that is humanity's only hope. At Yellowstone, Jackson coincidentally encounters Helmsley, one of the three people to read his sci-fi fable about maintaining human cooperation and democracy during a global cataclysm.

Back in Washington, the president (Danny Glover) joins other world leaders in preparing for the end of the old world and the beginning of the new. In a movie like this, plot is just an excuse to jump from one scenic place to the next, watching as they fall into the sea and chasm. (What this movie has to do with a Mayan prophecy of the Earth's destruction is anybody's guess.)

The hope is that the heroes can avoid the toppling buildings, bucking roads and molten rivers, which for the most part they do. As Jackson drives the kids, ex-wife and her new beau (Tom McCarthy) through a crumbling Los Angeles, I found myself reaching for a phantom video game controller to help Our Heroes and Heroine defy certain death.

In this disasterthon that runs two and a half hours, Emmericah, whose movies specialize in the computer-generated destruction of the world's most beloved landmarks, levels the Rockies, the Andes and the Himalayas. Devastation strikes sinners and saints. Los Angeles and Las Vegas are Sodom and Gomorrah, and the first cities to tumble in the shock waves. Next to go are the holy sites: St. Peter's in Rome and the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio. To call 2012 an orgy of disaster is an understatement. It is a saturnalia of disaster reaching from Earth to Pluto and back, a compendium of every disaster movie put together. Given Emmerich's formula of Titanic plus Earthquake plus The Poseidon Adventure, there's a whole lotta shaking and quaking goin' on.

There are some grace notes in his film, like the world leaders who choose to remain with their people rather than covertly use the equivalent of a golden escape hatch. Give Emmerich credit for casting his pictures across the age spectrum so that people of all ages are emotionally involved. But essentially 2012 is a wild ride that says, never mind that eight billion people die, so long as eight movie stars -- and a dog -- live.

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