Roland Emmerich's 2012 is jammed with every cliche and trope ever found in a Hollywood disaster movie, while giving the Earth an over-the-top pummeling. It's a reasonably fun flick at times, if you don't think about it...at all.
It seems that once Roland Emmerich was done assembling all the CG components for destroying the world and gathering a full complement of "Hey, it's that guy!" actors, he realized 2012 had no script, and decided to cull characters and situations from every other disaster movie ever made. Despite its massive scale of destruction, 2012 will be familiar to anyone whose seen any movie about an earthquake, volcano, aquatic disaster, or celestial body striking the Earth.
2012 follows the parallel stories of several characters at the end of the world. John Cusack plays the sort of fellow John Cusack always plays, though this time he's also a struggling writer whose only novel sold roughly 400 copies. And Amanda Peet plays his Amanda Peet-esque ex-wife, who is dating a plastic surgeon named Gordon. Gordon is all kinds of perfect, adores Amanda, and is great with her kids, but of course she's only with him because she can't be with John Cusack. Oh, and John and Amanda (or Jackson and Kate Curtis as they've been named for the sake of the film) have perfectly generic children. There's the requisite daughter with a quirk (she's overly fond of hats) and the son who's mad at his father (and insists on calling him by his first name).
As it turns out, years earlier, an Indian scientist discovered that solar flares are causing mutant neutrinos to microwave the Earth's core, which will cause the tectonic plates to shift and the Earth's waters to boil (but somehow doesn't cause us humans to explode). He warns his friend and fellow scientist Adrian Helmsley (a blandly earnest Chiwetel Ejiofor), who in turn warns a Washington bureaucrat that the world is ending. World leaders are informed, contingency plans are made, precious art is stowed away, and important people mysteriously die. But the hoi polloi are left in the dark, and people in California gradually get used to the regular miniquakes and surface cracks that plague their streets.
After a chance encounter with a crackpot conspiracy nut (Woody Harrelson), and hearing rumblings of the aforementioned contingency plan, Jackson realizes just in the nick of time that the world is, in fact, ending. And through a mixture of superhuman feats and incredibly unlikely bouts of luck, puts his family on the path to safety.
Although 2012's main concern is Jackson and his family, the film shifts perspectives and introduces us to a range of characters, all straight from central casting: a stocky Russian billionaire, a trophy wife who loves her purse dog above all, a pair of horrid children who look like they should be touring Willy Wonka's factory, a world-weary and noble President, the beautiful and intelligent First Daughter, a young Tibetan monk, an interracial jazz duo. It's too few characters and too Western-centric to convey an epic scale, but too many for us to particularly care who lives and who dies. Caring is irrelevant anyway; following classic disaster movie tropes will give you a pretty accurate picture of who makes it to the end of the movie.
All in all, it's a very Hollywood view of how the world ends. With the exception of a few token minorities, it's American and European characters we're tracking, American and European high culture people are trying to save, and American and European monuments we're seeing destroyed. Yes, Emmerich didn't get a shot at the Kaaba, but surely there were other non-natural monuments he could have thought to break apart. There's a lot of menfolk making decisions while the women hang out with the children, and a lot of nice speeches about respecting all humanity while Western leaders are calling all the shots. Perhaps Emmerich is being cynical about the end of the world — suggesting that even then, Westerners and Western culture will get all the breaks — but if the non-Western characters fight as hard for their lives, we don't see it on screen.
But, if you can shut down the centers of your brain that demand logic, storytelling, or characters who aren't secretly Superman, 2012 can be an enjoyable experience. We were promised beautiful footage of the world falling apart, and on that point, 2012 delivers. Whole cities break apart, monuments crumple, volcanos shoot up from the Earth, and waves pull supercarriers from their watery homes and crash them into buildings. Save for a few odd seams, the computer-generated effects look incredible and there's something strangely satisfying about watching things break down so completely. And Emmerich recognizes that the apocalypse doesn't just demand disaster porn; it needs moments of absurdity as well. He manages to make room for some offbeat sight gags, some of which are genuinely funny and surprising. 2012 might actually be enjoyed most thoroughly on mute.
Emmerich has announced his plans to follow 2012 with a television series, 2013, which would pick up after the end of the movie. Perhaps now that Emmerich has finished blowing the world to smithereens, we can get back to characters and drama, and the year 2013 can prove more interesting than the year 2012.