Crowd-pleasing global annihilation is the goal of "2012," and darned if they don't accomplish it.
A big, loud, blow-you-out-of-your-seat blockbuster of the kind usually released in midsummer, it features all the stock cataclysms and characters of bygone doomsday epics. Once again we meet those familiar figures, the idealistic scientist, the pigheaded politician, the sympathetic and steadfast family man, and the obligatory cute females who exist to be imperiled and add love interest.
This time, however, they're a bit more interesting than the usual disaster people doing the usual disaster things. "2012" is a have-it-both-ways hip/square doomsday movie. It serves up slaphappy sight gags in the midst of pulse-racing action crises, handling the threat of human extinction with just the right combination of facetiousness and sincerity.
While films like "Armageddon" offer the cop-out finale of disaster averted, it's clear from the get-go that "2012" follows the clearance sale motto: "Everything Must Go."
Our guide through the end of days is Chiwetel Ejiofor, a rock-steady geologist who connects the dots between several unsettling geophysical anomalies. It seems that the sun has unleashed a swarm of killer neutrinos that cooked our planet's core like a microwaved potato. One thing leads to another and soon tectonic plates will be breaking like dishes after a Greek wedding.
Weekend dad John Cusack takes his little kids camping in Yellowstone, where he encounters Woody Harrelson, a gonzo radio personality specializing in crackpot theories. A seize-the-day and seize-the-beer kind of guy, Harrelson contends that Earth is doomed, just as the Mayans foresaw, and the world's governments are involved in history's biggest coverup. Before he can prove his theory, the Earth's crust starts to buckle. The only adult survivors of Los Angeles are a plastic surgeon, a failed writer and a divorcee, which seems like a pretty accurate population sample.
Films of this sort are plotted shish kebab style: disaster, change of scenery, new disaster. But on the level of spectacle, "2012" is top-notch. The demolition of L.A. is imagined with diabolical delight, with visual zingers equal to "Twister's" beloved flying cow. Skyscrapers come down, their shattered windows shimmering like glitter. Tibetans find a good reason to take up surfing.
As he did in "Independence Day" and "The Day After Tomorrow," director Roland Emmerich memorably destroys the White House. The capital, and ineffectual president Danny Glover, are wiped out by the USS John F. Kennedy boogie-boarding in on a killer tidal wave. As a subscriber to the theory that science fiction films reflect society's worries, I read this as a longing for a national purpose, and national heroes, for a more innocent version of America. Of course, maybe it's just a cool special effect.
Each twist or turn leads to yet another chase or confrontation, and the film has great fun with stock disaster scenarios. Frantically trying to out-speed an earthquake, Cusack finds himself stuck behind North America's slowest driver. It's obligatory for a global disaster movie to trash the Eiffel Tower, and they make a throwaway joke of it here. There's even a subplot shout-out to "The Poseidon Adventure." If you're willing to let go of outmoded values like "plausibility" and "narrative," you'll find plenty to love in "2012."
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186