When a movie sends Los Angeles sliding into the Pacific, blows up Yellowstone and moves the magnetic south pole to Wisconsin, what hope does a movie critic have to stop it?
No, one must accept Roland Emmerich's "2012" for what it is: a big, loud, end-is-nigh disaster movie, made by a director who already has two acts of cinematic global destruction under his belt -- "Independence Day" and "The Day After Tomorrow" -- and is eager to top himself.
Emmerich does outdo his old record for creatively wrecking landmarks, wiping out Los Angeles, sending Las Vegas into a chasm, toppling the Washington Monument and the White House, and destroying religious landmarks such as the Vatican, Rio's Christ the Redeemer statue and a Tibetan monastery. (Notably, one religious icon not destroyed onscreen is Mecca's Kaaba, though Emmerich reportedly considered such a shot before opting to avoid a fatwa.)
But while Emmerich and screenwriting partner Harald Kloser (their previous joint effort was, yikes, "10,000 B.C.") work hard to find new and different ways to flatten the world, they also saddle us with characters who are already flat.
After a prologue in which White House geologist Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) gives the president (Danny Glover) a dire warning about the planet's future, the movie introduces us to struggling author and divorced dad Jackson Curtis (John Cusack). Curtis takes his kids, Noah (Liam James) and Lily (Morgan Lily), camping in Yellowstone, only to find his favorite lake evaporated, a secret government base in its place (where Helmsley is working, in one of the script's many forced connections), and a crazed conspiracy theorist (Woody Harrelson) talking about the Mayan calendar and warnings of the end of days.
Back in L.A., Curtis' ex-wife, Kate (Amanda Peet), and her new boyfriend, Gordon (Tom McCarthy), are caught in an earthquake -- shown by a slowly approaching crack in the ground, as if Bugs Bunny had missed that left turn at Albuquerque. Curtis and the kids return home, and all five drive across the disintegrating city and jump into a single-engine plane just as the ground falls from beneath it.
Forget about outrunning fireballs. Apparently, outrunning instantly created canyons and massive ash clouds is the new trend.
Other subplots involve Helmsley and his White House boss (Oliver Platt) debating whether to tell the public about the impending disaster, Helmsley's musician dad (Blu Mankuma) working a cruise ship with his longtime partner (George Segal), and the president's daughter (Thandie Newton) questioning what world leaders are doing to save some small part of humanity.
The problem with "2012" -- besides trafficking in such age-old clichés as seeing billions of people die while a small dog heroically survives -- is that the end of the world doesn't serve a purpose, other than Emmerich's fetish for broken world icons. At least the alien invaders in "Independence Day" and the global climate-change message of "The Day After Tomorrow" offered rallying points for the human race.
In "2012," there's nothing to root against, no recipient to rage against the dying of the light. There's only the spectacle of the world crumbling and the dreary aftermath of cleaning up what's left.
Director Roland Emmerich tries to destroy the world bigger than he has before, but the results are dispiriting.
Where » Theaters everywhere.
When » Opens Friday.
Rating » PG-13 for intense disaster sequences and some language.
Running time » 160 minutes.