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.
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.