2012 is like watching a Special Olympics weightlifting event. The young man grunting and flexing under the lights is showing off. His feats of strength are impressive. There is awe in the eyes of those who witness his skills, his talents. But in the end, regardless of how cut he is, how much he can bench and how awesome it is to see him do it, you're just watching a powerfully strong person with below average intelligence pick up heavy things and drop them. And that's all you're doing.
Hitchcock would be proud.
That's not to say there can't be any enjoyment in that, and not just of the mean-spirited variety, either. Word is that this movie cost about 250-million dollars. There are maybe two or three moments total where it doesn't look like it. And if you're coming solely to watch a moron hoist the left coast and smash it down into the ocean, you're going to leave pleased. But there is a story here, and it takes up a significant amount of the nearly three-hour runtime and, unfortunately, that same moron is in charge of that, too. To wit:
John Cusack is Jackson Curtis, a barely-published author estranged from his wife (Amanda Peet) who lives with his children (both annoying moppets) and their prospective stepdad (Tom McCarty). Cusack is taking his annoying kids on a lame camping trip, where they happen upon the Army monitoring the crust of the Earth thanks to Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) an earnest, naive scientist who has discovered that the sun is jizzing neutrinos into the core of the Eart. This of course, will cause the core to overheat, giving the Earth really bad skin, like geological psoriasis crossed with volcanic pizzaface. Just like the Mayans always said it would happen.
After the Army releases him and his kids, Cusack bumps into Woody Harrelson, looking like a homeless wood nymph and living in an RV, subsisting off Pabst and pickles. That sentence, by the way, accurately describes probably the most three-dimensional character in the entire movie. Anyway, Harrelson has been keeping tabs on the government's secret plan to build humanity saving superboats called "Arks," because the government has really shitty writers and planners. Cusack sponges a couple PBR's off Harrelson, writes him off as a crazy wood nymph with shitty taste in beer and drives his kids home just in time for LA to fall into the ocean as Bill Hicks smiles and lights another Marlboro 100 in Hell.
From this point forward, Cusack outraces an earthquake, drives through a collapsing building, jumps a limo AND an RV over giant cracks on the ground, outruns the ash cloud from the eruption of Yellowstone National Park on foot, drives a Bentley out of a crashing airliner onto a glacier and manages to hold his breath for roughly eight minutes underwater. Because he's been cast to be "cool" and appeal to "the kids," he does it all with the same bored, lazy, uninspired look on his face, even when he's screaming for his life.
The characters aren't even characters, they're single personality traits dressed up in human suits. When it's most convenient, they transform into convenient stepping stones for the plot. Like when Peet's plastic surgeon boyfriend happens to know how to fly a plane. Or when Cusack, mankind's least published author, also happens to also be the human being best equipped to navigate raining automobiles, failing skyscrapers and, most impressively, Los Angeles traffic in a fucking limo.
Everyone else in the movie can be summed up entirely by two-word descriptions. Danny Glover is: BLACK PRESIDENT. George Segal is: OLD DAD. Oliver Platt is: ASSHOLE BUREAUCRAT. Beatrice Rosen is: HOT WHORE. One of Cusack's kids still wets herself at age seven, an endearing character quirk until we realize that it's her defining characteristic. In fact, as the camera pulls back through the clouds to bring us the end credits, we get: "No more pull-ups!" she proudly tells a smiling Cusack. I forgot this was a plot point until she capped off the survival of humanity by reminding us of mankind's real victory: bladder control. And you're going to need a mastery of that skill if you hope to make it through all two-hours and 40-minutes of 2012
Kind of a big deal.
Emmerich doesn't try to avoid the classic disaster movie cliches. Nor does he try to put a creative spin on them. He simply grabs every single one of those cliches, and I mean every single disaster movie cliche you've ever seen, from Irwin Allen to his own Independence Day, and he wallows in them shamelessly. I don't mean that in the haughty literary way. I mean to use the word in the way mangy dogs understand it as they flop on their back--feet in the air, tongues lolling--and wallow in the freshly flattened carcass of some large rodent that found itself under a semi's wheels. That is how Emmerich wallows in 2012, twisting his hips, eyes glassy and wild, red rocket gleaming in the beautiful, pointlessly destructive asshole we know as the sun.
For more from Fatboy, check out his review of The Invention of Lying and The 5 Most Unintentionally Racist Movies About Racism.