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Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn’t impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there’s I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward and a good time.

Cultural infamy: Even people who normally avoid summer blockbusters seemed to be drawn to Roland Emmerich’s end-times smash-bang like moths to a big, stupid flame. It’s hardly the first time Emmerich (Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow) threatened to destroy the world, but this time, it looked as if he was going to follow through.

Curiosity factor: I’m a slave to peer pressure, as well as (apparently) a closet masochist. The terrible notices, even from people who went in with expectations at rock bottom, piqued my interest. At home, where I don’t have to worry about wasting an evening out or the price of a ticket, seemed like a safe place to experiment, knowing that safety was only a pause button away. Plus, it had been almost a decade since my last trip to Emmerich-ville, with 2000’s The Patriot, and I couldn’t help wondering what he’d done with the place.

The viewing experience: When it comes to a movie like 2012, expectations are key. If you go in looking for fleshed-out characters and a coherent plot, you’re in for a rough ride, and you must also enjoy dousing paper cuts in lemon juice. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a brainless way to pass 158 minutes—well, there are still better ways to do it. But there were moments between the space-filling dramatic interludes and portentous interludes where enjoyment fully took hold, and I was actually favorably impressed.

Hoo boy, does 2012 take a while to get there, though. First comes a lengthy pre-credit sequence that attempts to build suspense through a series of oblique vignettes. First, geologist Chiwetel Ejiofor visits a colleague in an abandoned Indian copper mine, who spills some jive about mutating neutrinos and the rising temperature of the Earth’s core, then opens what looks like a giant rice cooker to see the subterranean waters coming to a boil. Next, Ejiofor busts into a fancy Washington benefit, thrusting a report into the hands of oily chief of staff Oliver Platt, who reads a few lines, then whisks Ejiofor off to meet president Danny Glover, who has definitely gotten too old for this shit. (Chris Rock’s joke about how African-Americans only get to be president when the world is going to hell springs to mind.) So far, so good—not exactly pulse-pounding stuff, but a solid run through the formula.

But then we cut to Thandie Newton, speaking surprisingly decent French, as a curator overseeing the installation of a decoy Mona Lisa at the Louvre, and an anonymous Arab potentate in a luxe hotel room buying something for a billion Euros, which are like dollars, except real. Somewhere in there, the Indian scientist from the first scene tells his son that they’re going to be going on “a big ship.” These cryptic bibs and bobs are meant to lodge in our heads and pay off later in the movie, but they’re too mostly too vague to register; for all we know, that Arab could be buying land for a shopping mall.

On to our main character, Jackson Curtis, a failed science-fiction novelist named for 50 Cent and played by John Cusack, who seems to have an ongoing bet with his agent as to which movie can miscast him most thoroughly. Here, he’s a divorcé and father of two who’s just overslept for a date to pick up his kids from ex-wife Amanda Peet and take them to Yellowstone. Her new boyfriend, cosmetic surgeon Tom McCarthy, seems to be everything Cusack isn’t: successful, steady, and easily pushed around. Overly dedicated artist vs. glib career man: Wonder how that’s going to shake out? (Peet’s character, by the way, doesn’t seem to have a profession, but then she doesn’t need one, on account of she’s a woman.)

Cusack and moppets take off for Yellowstone in the limousine he drives to make ends meet, but their favorite campsite has been turned into a restricted zone crawling with military hardware, watched over by Ejiofor’s scientist—who, as it turns out, is one of a few hundred people who actually read Cusack’s book. (In a world where billions of people are about to perish, there’s plenty of room for strained coincidence.) Cusack and co. head back to Los Angeles, but not before a meeting with nutbar doomsayer Woody Harrelson, who’s preparing to narrate the end of the world via pirate radio station from his perch atop Yellowstone’s mountains. Harrelson invites Cusack to “download my blog,” which spews out rapid-fire pseudoscience about “earth-crust displacement theory” while a Flash-animated Harrelson makes pop-eyed faces.

So far, the Earth has resolutely failed to get blowed up, but that changes when Cusack is abruptly called home after an unforeseen microquake splits the supermarket where Peet and McCarthy are out buying pull-ups for her bedwetting 7-year-old daughter. Just before a split down the center of aisle seven widens into a forbidding chasm, McCarthy remarks, “I feel like something is pulling us apart,” which is about as witty as it’s going to get.

After several hours of listening to Harrelson’s broadcast on the drive home—this is the future, where low-power radio stations can send signals out for hundreds of miles, or something—Cusack is a full-blown convert, but his ex is a tad skeptical when he starts spouting gibberish, at least until a massive quake starts tearing their house apart.

At long last, here comes the good stuff. Cusack’s limo, now bearing wife, kids, and new boyfriend, hurtles down a sunny suburban street as it bucks and crumbles behind them, sending houses, cars, and people tumbling to certain doom. Hunks of asphalt abruptly jut up, ramp-like, in front of them, sending the limo hurtling through space as the world falls apart around it. True, the car careens and swerves like a videogame icon, a massless cloud of pixels in a computer-generated catastrophe. But Emmerich actually renders its journey through space comprehensible, which is more than can be said of the blithering montage of Transformers, or even The Dark Knight. When Cusack yells, “We have to get to the other side of the freeway,” you know where the freeway is, and you can track their progress toward and past it. It’s all BS, but at least viewers actually know what’s going on.

Fast-forward a bit: Cusack and co. make it to the airport, where they bump into the Russian oligarch (Pusher’s Zlatko Buric) whose twin brats Cusack sometimes ferries around, and whose girlfriend (Beatrice Rosen) has had her body reshaped by Peet’s beau. It’s hard to imagine why the stable of writers felt the need to stack so many coincidences on top of each other, except perhaps to obviate the need for introductions and to give the demographically calculated mélange of characters a vague sense of belonging together.

After a trip back to Yellowstone to pick up the map that will lead them to the big ships, the gang makes a pit stop in Las Vegas to pick up a massive Soviet cargo plane. When one of Cusack’s kids breathlessly remarks on its size, Buric savors every camp-laden syllable of his response: “It’s RRRusssian,” he drawls, superfluously adding, “Eh?” Vegas crumbles, the plane narrowly escapes, and it’s off to China, where the ships that will take everyone into space (or somewhere) await. Hawaii, where they intended to refuel the plane, turns out to be a river of molten rock, which rather puts a crimp in things, but luckily, the Earth’s crust chooses just that moment to shift, putting China right beneath them. Thanks, mutant neutrinos!

While this is going on, president Danny Glover opts to stay behind in Washington and address the nation in the few moments before it’s swallowed up whole, leaving Platt to step into the power vacuum and Ejiofor to lodge impotent protest. Luckily, Newton, the daughter of the soon-to-be-late president, is along for the ride, because there’s no time like the last few hours of life as we know it to get in a little flirtation. (Just as long as everyone winds up with their race-appropriate partner.)

Meanwhile, back on what’s left of the surface of the Earth, Cusack and his band hitch a ride from a Chinese family, whose son, a Tibetan monk, has absconded from his monastery to sneak his family aboard one of the ships. As with most modern disaster movies, there’s a nominal attempt to diversify the cast, although it’s driven more by potential foreign box-office than any desire for inclusiveness. The movie opens in India, its climax is in China, and politicians from Japan and Germany play a significant role, but there’s only a passing mention of South America—a high-angle shot of Rio de Janeiro’s famous hilltop statue Christ The Redeemer falling to pieces—and nary a mention of the African subcontinent until the very last reel. 

Cusack and etc. sneak onto one of the ships, whose destination turns out to be the ocean floor rather than deep space. (Psyche!) There’s a bunch of business involving open hatches, jammed gears, and flooding compartments, during which McCarthy gets mashed into pulp, after which Cusack says, “Sweet! More room for me!” Or maybe that was me. At any rate, the gears are unjammed, the hatch is closed, the north face of Everest narrowly avoided (really), and humanity saved. Plus Cusack’s daughter has stopped wetting the bed, which when you come down to it, is what really matters.

How much of the experience wasn’t a total waste of time? Pretty much all the moments when things are blowing up or catching on fire, but there aren’t many of them. Not all of the action scenes pay off—the climax in particular is somewhat anti—but Emmerich’s elementary command of spatial relations actually puts him head and shoulders above most of Hollywood’s action directors. It ain’t Scorsese, but it ain’t G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra, either. Let’s call it a draw and say 50 percent.