2012 (PG-13)

John Cusack and Lily Morgan (left), in Columbia Pictures' 2012.

The first time the sun destroyed the Earth in a Hollywood movie this year came at the end of Knowing, when our planet went up in smoke in a matter of minutes. The sun is at it again in 2012, although we are not going down so quickly this time.

There are times when 2012 feels as if it is not going to end until 2012 — or at least until director Roland Emmerich, (Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow), who has an insatiable appetite for destruction and blowing up historical monuments, has come up with yet another new way of obliterating the White House. (“I’ve got it! Let’s have the USS John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier plow into it! Trust me, guys, this’ll work!”).

2012 is a movie designed to make Irwin Allen seem like a girly-man — a movie designed to make every other disaster picture ever made seem as if it had been shot on cardboard sets on a budget of $10. This is Earthquake, The Poseidon Adventure, Volcano and all those Airport movies rolled into one insane, eye-popping spectacle, and the film certainly delivers everything it promises. You have never seen special effects like these.

You have also never seen so many movie characters running around shouting “That’s impossible!” “My . . . God!” “What is happening?” and “Are you absolutely sure about this?” — which is probably exactly what you’d hear if the Earth’s core began melting, the ground started caving in, placid lakes suddenly sprouted giant volcanoes and Bill O’Reilly went Democrat.

And to their credit, Emmerich and co-writer Harald Kloser (no doubt the cinema’s first film-composer-turned-screenwriter) have made some 2012 protagonists much more engaging than the characters who normally populate this kind of fare. There is Jackson (John Cusack), a failed writer and failed husband trying to maintain a bond with ex-wife Kate (Amanda Peet) and their two young children. Tom McCarthy, the accomplished director of The Station Agent and The Visitor, does more than most actors would with the role of Kate’s new boyfriend, who happens to have taken a few flying lessons in his spare time (never has a hobby become handier).

The boomy-voiced Zlatko Buric is terrific as a Russian billionaire who, like many of the world’s wealthiest people, knew about the impending apocalypse and has made expensive preparations to survive. And Chiwetel Ejiofor, as the government scientist who first warns the president (Danny Glover) about what’s about to go down, brings an air of dignity and class the movie really does not deserve.

But enough about all this boring acting nonsense. 2012 ain’t Shakespeare, and Emmerich is only interested in people in terms of how they look falling from buildings or being squashed by toppling statues. There are seven or eight big setpieces, but none beats the destruction of Los Angeles by a 10.5 earthquake, with Jackson barreling down the streets in a limo with his family, the city raining down on their heads.

The sequence is stunning — you can’t wait for the DVD, so you can break it down frame-by-frame — and there are several other scenes almost as good in which characters stare in horrified awe at a giant wall of lava, a tidal wave or Oliver Platt’s overacting as the president’s chief of staff, one of those characters who is always inexplicably angry and short-tempered for no apparent reason.

2012, which runs almost three hours, would have been better (and a lot shorter) if Emmerich hadn’t come up with a creaky third act in which he figures out a way to ensure that mankind won’t be completely wiped out.

The last 40 minutes test your patience — and intelligence — in a way the rest of this big, dumb, crazy movie never does: The film starts taking itself too seriously. I liked 2012 better when people were running around shouting “The Mayans saw this coming!” which, come to think of it, also happened in Knowing. Who says there are no original ideas left in Hollywood?

Cast: John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Tom McCarthy, Zlatko Buric, Thandie Newton, Danny Glover, Woody Harrelson, George Segal.

Director: Roland Emmerich.

Screenwriters: Harald Kloser, Roland Emmerich.

Producers: Harald Kloser, Mark Gordon, Larry Franco.

A Sony Pictures release. Running time: 159 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.





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