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Armchair Armageddon: 2012

John Cusack and Morgan Lilly in 2012.

If Big Jim McBob and Billy Sol Hurok were still reviewing films, I’m sure they would love 2012.

Big Jim and Billy Sol, you may recall, discussed the cinema on “Farm Film Report,” a segment of the still-missed SCTV show. As played by Joe Flaherty and John Candy, their criteria were simple: did things blow up, and how well did they blow up? Their ultimate accolade—well, their only accolade—was, “blow’d up good, blow’d up real good!”

This movie would make them wet their overalls.

2012 is the newest special effects epic from disaster movie maven Roland Emmerich (The Day After Tomorrow, Independence Day), back to doing what he does best after the risible 10,000 B.C. It was inspired by the interpretation of Mayan prophecies that the world will end in 2012 A.D. Or, to put it another way, someone realized that all the people who a decade ago were fretting about Y2K have of late been burning up the blogosphere with this topic and smelled big box office potential.

Of course, there’s more of a scientific basis here than some old prophecies. It’s the neutrinos, you see. As an Indian scientist exclaims with fear in his voice, “They’re causing a physical reaction!” Now, I have no idea what that means (or for that matter what a neutrino even is, other than that they’re in beams of light), but it sure sounds scary.

And when same scientist discovers that these neutrinos are mutating, hell, that’s just double dog scary!

At any rate, it seems that the Earth’s core is getting microwaved, and when it reaches a certain point the surface is going to destabilize. Big time. California sliding into the Pacific is only the first step.

Our hero is Jackson Curtis, an optimistic science-fiction novelist. He is played by John Cusack, who clearly realized that after one too many politically themed films he needed to reconnect with both the moviegoing public and with his bank account. Jackson is divorced and frustrated by the fact that his kids seem to prefer mom’s new boyfriend (played by Thomas McCarthy, director of The Station Agent and The Visitor) to him.

Jackson gets the lowdown on what’s about to happen from an Art Bell-ish radio host (played by Woody Harrelson, who is starting to turn into what Klaus Kinski might have been if he’d had a sense of humor, and I mean that as a compliment). From there it’s two hours of Jackson’s frantic efforts to get his family out of California to China, where there is a possibility of survival.

The script ranges from serviceable to ludicrous, but it hardly matters. Emmerich has apparently finally realized that putting the special effects at the service of the story is getting the equation backward, at least for this kind of a movie.

The first big FX sequence has Jackson and family in a car trying to get out of Pasedena as the earth is literally splitting apart underneath them. For a few minutes I was bothered by how implausible it was—the car is a few feet ahead of the fissure and both are keeping the same pace as the city crumbles behind them.

And that’s when it hit me. A movie like this doesn’t want you to wholly suspend disbelief. Nor do you want to. Do you really want to immerse yourself in a realistic depiction of a violent cataclysm as it destroys everything we know and kills billions of people? Remember Miracle Mile, where we watched some likeable romantic characters trying to get out of Los Angeles before a nuclear weapon hit, only to fail at the end? Major bummer. And how often do you think people rent The Day After or Threads on DVD?

Unlike those films that sought to scare us about the possibility of nuclear Armageddon so that we could avoid it, or The Day After Tomorrow, in which global warming was the agent of disaster, there’s no cautionary element to 2012. It’s simply a thrill machine that wants to show us as much destruction as the boys in the FX department can muster. The characters are here only as a diversion: by giving us someone to root for, Emmerich allows us to enjoy the annihilation of civilization without being distracted by human cost of it.

I’m not saying that this is a valid artistic goal: it’s probably not good for us to be able to separate what we see from how we feel about it. Still, if you like to see stuff getting destroyed, this is the movie for you. Unlike, say, Independence Day, which had about five minutes of great special effects surrounded by 150 minutes of jingoistic clichés, 2012 takes a half an hour to get cranked up before settling into two hours of non-stop destruction (and eventually petering out in some sub-Poseidon Adventure stuff that mostly functions as admittance that the filmmakers had to frontload all the really impressive scenes).

Those of you unwilling to go along for the ride will probably have just as much fun picking apart the shoddy plotting and screaming implausiblities. (For one thing, I don’t think there’s enough water in the world to produce a tsunami big enough to wash over the Himalayas.) And Emmerich and co-scripter Harald Kloser show that “Sanford and Son” was not a show broadcast in their native Germany by giving Danny Glover (as The President) a final line that raises a snicker rather than a lump in the throat.

There’s not a single moment of genuine emotion in all two hours and 40 minutes of 2012, but there sure are a lot of cheap thrills.

Watch the trailer for 2012

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