In 2012, explosions on the sun send out neutrinos that essentially microwave the Earth’s core and make the crust crack and shift and the oceans rise and sweep over the continents killing hundreds of billions of people (and animals) and make John Cusack wonder if his two kids like his ex-wife Amanda Peet’s boyfriend so much that there'll be no place for him in their lives anymore. As in all Emmerich movies — Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow — the spectacle of cities and humans being annihilated alternates with Love Boat–like scenes in which disparate characters — old, very young, black, white, Indian, the president — struggle to muster the courage to express their, you know, feelings.
Yes, I know, people do have turbulent feelings, and the theme of retaining one’s humanity in the midst of chaos is a noble and classic one. (Steven Spielberg got the balance mostly right in his hugely underrated War of the Worlds remake.) There is a lot of lofty talk here about whether humanity is worth saving if the means of saving some people are inhuman. (On balance, I’d say “Probably, yeah.”) But the German Emmerich and his Austrian co-writer Harald Kloser don’t write dialogue that’s merely wooden. They write dialogue that’s Ed Wooden. They have anti-ears. There’s something creepy about the metronomic regularity of their shifts in focus. Call me a cockeyed humanist, but even as I hooted at the screen, I hated them for scenes like the one in which an old George Segal (who knows the end is coming) phones his estranged son in Japan and gets his adorable little half-Japanese granddaughter on the line. She tells her surprised dad it’s his father calling — and at that very second a tidal wave crashes through the window and carries them all away. And Segal hears the dial tone and stares sadly into the receiver If only he’d called five minutes earlier.
The FX are impressively awe-inspiring, even better than in The Day After Tomorrow — although, as in that film, Emmerich peaks too early. His banal storytelling can be rather comforting. There’s a good scene where scientist Chiwetel Ejifor (excellent!) busts into a black-tie event and pulls dubious Cabinet secretary Oliver Platt (good in a quasi-villainous part) away from socializing and thrusts a report into his hand. Platt’s expression slowly changes from impatient to solemn; he says, "Let’s go," and Chiwetel says, "Where?" and Platt says, "To see the president." I love scenes like that in disaster movies. They make me feel important just being in the room. I also loved the scene in which Cusack and his family and others are barreling along the runway of the Las Vegas airport in a small plane and the guys in the tower (inexplicably still up there as the city is crumbling) are screaming over the radio that they’re not allowed to take off, they're forbidden to take off. “Abort! Abooorrrtttyaaahhhhhh!” They’ve just been buried by a mountain, you see.
The disaster genre is inherently junky, and not every end-of-civilization picture has to be as exhaustingly grim as the coming The Road. But 2012 rides in on and reinforces an especially idiotic wave of evangelical doomsday predictions with supposed roots in the Mayan calendar, and it’s too trivial to live. Bogie told Bergman that compared to a World War, the problems of two little people don’t amount to a hill of beans. He was partly wrong: The momentousness of his and Bergman’s romance keeps us watching to this day. 2012, though: That’s hills of beans as far as the eye can see.