Pop Culture

The end not soon enough for ‘2012’

Cataclysmic disaster and apocalyptic doom, as foretold by Hollywood, have a way of bringing together broken families, revealing the unseen heroism of deadbeat dads and neatly disposing of their rivals.

This, too, is the micro-level drama of “2012,” the latest nihilistic disaster flick to revel in the destruction of the planet. John Cusack plays the castoff father (Jackson Curtis), a failed novelist getting by as a limo driver. We greet him as he rolls out of bed, spilling his copy of “Moby Dick” as he rushes out the door, disheveled and late for a camping trip with his kids.

His ex-wife, Kate (Amanda Peet), has shacked up with a plastic surgeon named Gordon Silberman (Tom McCarthy) who drives a Porsche, an obvious clue that we’re not meant to like him.

When the apocalypse comes, Gordon, for a time, proves quite useful as an amateur pilot. But it’s no spoiler to say Gordon is not long for this world — after all, he stands in the way of Jackson’s redemption.

The Curtis family may be our ground-level protagonists in “2012,” but the ground is shifting. Due to explosions on the sun, neutrinos (that old action movie villain) are heating up the earth’s core and will soon destabilize the planet’s crust, birthing volcanoes and shifting tectonics.

Hip to this development is government scientist Adrian Helmsley, played by the exceptional Chiwetel Ejiofor, whose gravity — best seen in 2002’s “Dirty Pretty Things” — elevates “2012.” He alerts the president’s chief of staff, Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt), who quickly brings Helmsley to the president (Danny Glover, apparently filling in for Morgan Freeman).

The government secretly establishes what Anheuser calls “the most important timetable in the history of mankind” — a schedule for the most important and most wealthy to be evacuated in confidential arks.

Curtis catches wind of the conspiracy theories of a loony radio DJ (Woody Harrelson, perfectly cast to type). Thus, he and his family are just moments ahead of the collapse of Los Angeles. A number of close scrapes follow, as Curtis narrowly steers them through volcanic explosions, earthquakes and, at one point, a subway that somehow soars above their airplane.

California falls into the ocean and much of the world follows suit.

The director of “2012,” Roland Emmerich, has destroyed the world before. His films include “The Day After Tomorrow,” “Independence Day” and “Godzilla.” He seems to enjoy nothing more than seeing the most famous monuments toppled. The White House, vaporized in “Independence Day,” here meets its end by not only a tidal wave, but a tidal wave bearing an aircraft carrier.

The origins of the current rash of doomsday movies isn’t hard to decipher: Science has determined the earth won’t exist in its present state forever and global warming may well expedite things. “2012” has no overt reference to environmental issues, but there’s a smack of familiarity when the scientists in the movie realize the planet’s destruction is coming faster than they predicted.

But “2012” is less interested in plausible truth than it is in blockbuster box-office. Publicity for the film has stoked interest in Dec. 21, 2012 as doomsday, a prediction often attributed to the Mayans, who foresaw the date as the end of a cycle, not of the planet.

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    End of the world as we know it

    Modern-day doomsday prophets can see their predictions reflected in the movies. Weather, nuclear war, comets and super-smart apes have all tried to kill off humanity.

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    It's the end of the world as we know it

    The end of the world has been often recreated in movies and on TV. Often it's a danger from space that ruins our planet. In 2011's "Battle: Los Angeles," heavily armored aliens attack Earth, but America's military fights back.

    Columbia Pictures / Columbia Pictures
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    Don't cross me

    2011's "Priest" is based on a Korean comic. In it, humans and vampires war for control, and Paul Bettany plays a warrior priest who must rescue his niece.

    Screen Gem / Screen Gem
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    It's all in the 'Book'

    In 2010's "Book of Eli," a nuclear apocalypse has devastated Earth, and Denzel Washington plays Eli, a nomad who carries a rare copy of the Bible with him on his journey.

    Warner Bros / Warner Bros
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    Where did everybody go?

    Hayden Christensen stars in 2010's "Vanishing on 7th Street," playing a TV anchor who seeks answers after a mysterious global blackout results in most people on earth vanishing, and shadows coming to life.

    Magnet Release / Magnet Release
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    Zombies, always a good world-ender

    Zombie master George A. Romero returns with 2010's "Survival of the Dead," following the fight against the living dead as waged by a group of National Guards. Most of the action involves two feuding Irish families who are holding a small island off the coast of Delaware. One family is keeping their undead loved ones alive, hoping to find a cure, while the others want to kill the zombies.

    Magnet Release / Magnet Release
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    Crazy for you

    2010's "The Crazies" was a remake of George A. Romero's 1973 original. A small town's water supply is accidentally infected with a virus that turns the humans who drink it into infected killers.

    Overture Films / Overture Films
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    When angels fall to earth

    Dennis Quaid stars in 2009's "Legion," in which the Archangel Michael falls to Earth, cuts off his wings, and leads a small group of humans in an apocalyptic battle.

    Screen Gems / Screen Gems
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    Prawn of the dead

    In the 2009 sleeper hit "District 9," aliens who come to Earth don't conquer us, but are instead treated as refugees, derisively dubbed "prawns," and stuffed in refugee camps. As you can imagine, they don't much like that, and violence eventually erupts.

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    Vamping

    In 2009's "Daybreakers," Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe exist in a 2019 world where a plague has turned most of the planet's human population into vampires. A vampiric corporation sets out to capture and farm the remaining humans while researching a blood substitute.

    Lionsgate / Lionsgate
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    The final countdown?

    "2012," released in 2009, revolves around cataclysmic events that strike the Earth just as the Mayan calendar is coming to a close. Over the decades, many have prophesied that the world will end when the ancient calendar ceases on Dec. 21, 2012.

    Columbia Pictures / Columbia Pictures
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    The long walk

    Cormac McCarthy's bleak novel "The Road" became a 2009 movie. Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee star as a father and son who face starving stragglers and marauding packs of cannibals after a nuclear explosion destroys America.

    Dimension Films / Dimension Films
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    Heads up!

    In 2008's "Cloverfield," a group of young people at a going-away party must flee for their lives when a seemingly unstoppable monster rampages through New York. Even the Statue of Liberty doesn't escape unscathed.

    Paramount Pictures / Paramount Pictures
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    Man and his dog

    In 2007's "I Am Legend," Will Smith plays Robert Neville, one of the last survivors of a viral pandemic that turned most people into flesh-eating mutants. The story is based on a Richard Matheson novel, and this is its third film adaptation.

    Warner Bros. Pictures / Warner Bros. Pictures
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    Save the children

    In 2006's "Children of Men," humanity faces extinction after two decades of global infertility, a common theme in apocalyptic literature. Clive Owen plays a disillusioned bureaucrat who must somehow protect a pregnant African refugee (Claire-Hope Ashley).

    Universal Pictures / Universal Pictures
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    Going to 'War'

    H.G. Wells wrote the alien-invasion classic "The War of the Worlds" in 1898, but more than a century later, it's still chilling audiences. Perhaps the most famous adaptation was Orson Welles' radio drama, which terrified many listeners into thinking it was real when the show aired in 1938. In 2005, Paramount released the latest movie version, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning.

    Paramount Pictures / Paramount Pictures
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    When the weather turns bad

    The weather is the villain in 2004's "The Day After Tomorrow," which depicts the catastrophic effects of both global warming and global cooling. Football-sized hail hammers Tokyo and tornadoes destroy Los Angeles International Airport as the world falls into a new Ice Age.

    20th Century Fox / 20th Century Fox
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    All quiet on the London front

    When a bicycle courier named Jim awakens from his coma in a London hospital, he finds the world around him completely changed. "28 Days Later" tells of a virus that turns its victims into violent killing machines. Jim teams up with the few survivors he is able to find and tries to find safety and a cure. Three alternate endings offered on the DVD release gave viewers plenty to talk about.

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    Journey to the center of the earth

    In a novel twist on apocalyptic fiction, 2003's "The Core" delves into what would happen to our world if the Earth's inner core suddenly stopped rotating.With the planet's magnetic field rapidly deteriorating, our atmosphere literally starts to come apart at the seams with catastrophic consequences. To resolve the crisis, a team of scientists must find their way to the planet's center and set things right.

    Paramount / Paramount
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    Collision course

    How is it that Hollywood often makes two films on strikingly similar concepts at the same time? In 1998, two movies dealt with the problem of a space object heading directly for Earth. "Armageddon" was generally considered the better film, and featured Bruce Willis as the tough driller who must make the ultimate sacrifice to save the world.

    Touchstone Pictures / Touchstone Pictures
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    Collision course, take two

    "Deep Impact" follows a similar plot to that of "Armageddon," with a comet plotting Earth's destruction as opposed to "Armageddon's" asteroid.

    Paramount Pictures / Paramount Pictures
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    And the rockets' red glare

    When aliens try to take over the world in 1996's "Independence Day," they learn the humans won't go down without a fight, especially not on July 4. Bill Pullman plays a war hero president whose military expertise comes in handy.

    20th Century Fox / 20th Century Fox
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    No monkeying around

    Life is bleak in the 2035 setting of "12 Monkeys," released in 1995. Humankind subsists in a desolate netherworld following the eradication of 99 percent of the Earth's population and a holocaust that makes the planet's surface uninhabitable. A convict played by Bruce Willis volunteers to attempt to travel back in time to try and rebuild the future.

    Universal Pictures / Universal Pictures
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    He'll be back

    In Arnold Schwarzenegger's most famous film, 1984's "The Terminator," the future California governor plays a cyborg assassin. The seemingly unstoppable machine is sent back in time to try and kill Sarah Connor, who will eventually give birth to John Connor, who leads the human resistance against the killing machines. The film spawned multiple sequels and a short-lived television series.

    Orion Pictures / Orion Pictures
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    After the mushroom cloud

    Many young viewers were traumatized by the 1983 TV movie "The Day After," which focuses on the residents of Lawrence, Kan., and Kansas City, Mo., after a nuclear attack.

    ABC / ABC
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    A world gone 'Mad'

    In the "Mad Max" franchise, Mel Gibson stars as a policeman in a world gone mad, where fuel is scarce and law and order has broken down completely. Gibson, little known at the time of the first film's 1979 release, became a major star thanks to this role.

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    Who can you trust?

    1978's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" is a remake of the 1956 film of the same name. In both films and the original Jack Finney novel, a small group of humans discover that people are being replaced by alien replicas grown from plantlike pods.

    United Artists / United Artists
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    Unlikely survivors

    Michael Crichton, who would go on to even greater fame with "Jurassic Park," also wrote "The Andromeda Strain," which became a 1971 movie. Scientists must frantically investigate a fatal illness of extraterrestrial origin in a town where only one infant and one elderly man seem to be immune.

    Universal Pictures / Universal Pictures
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    You eat yet?

    The title of 1973's "Soylent Green" has become a punchline in the years since its release. Charlton Heston starred as a New York detective in a world where most of humanity survives on mass-produced rations that turn out to have a secret, and grotesque, ingredient.

    Everett Collection / Everett Collection
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    There is no law but Ape Law!

    "Soylent Green" star Charlton Heston also starred in 1968's "Planet of the Apes," playing an astronaut who crash-lands on an unknown planet and discovers that apes are in charge and humans are enslaved. The Statue of Liberty makes a cameo appearance in one of filmdom's most classic, and oft-parodied, endings.

    Everett Collection / Everett Collection
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    Searching for home

    In 1959's "On the Beach," World War III has broken out and only Australia, far away from the fallout, is somewhat habitable. Aussie survivors know they will soon be contaminated with radioactivity, and try to follow a mysterious wireless signal in the hopes that somewhere, an uncontaminated world still exists.

    United Artists / United Artists

As the destruction of “2012” spirals around the globe, one can’t help a quaking feeling watching the mayhem — especially in a theater cackling at its absurd cheesiness. Should we entertain ourselves in images of the Sistine Chapel collapsing on praying priests? Do we think so little of the world we’ve made that we can’t resist the impulse to wreck it, ooh-ing and ahh-ing at the flames?

After the deaths of billions, interest in the fates of the Curtis family (who are eventually joined by a Russian family trying to make it to one of the arks) becomes laughable. Their narrow, sometimes belabored escapes carry less and less emotion — the audience knows they, themselves, are among the imagined dead.

There is, for some reason, much made of Curtis’ book, “Farewell Atlantis,” which is held up as a classic for the post-apocalypitic generation. (We will spare you an excerpt.) Helmsley and the president’s daughter (an underused Thandie Newton) also make a rousing stand for a handful of stranded passengers even once most of the planet is destroyed.

The most grounded thing here is the acting — Cusack, Ejiofor, Platt, McCarthy and Harrelson are all better than the material. This is just another doomsday film, with new digital effects and stock scenes patched together from “Jaws,” “The Poseidon Adventure” and “Armageddon.”

And a long one at that. For too much of the 2 1/2-hour “2012,” the end is not near.

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