Some movie plots are ripped from the headlines. Writer/director Roland Emmerich ("10,000 B.C.," "The Day After Tomorrow") takes his from the headlines of the late, lamented Weekly World News. My all-time favorite was the one informing us that indiscriminate tuna fishermen were netting and killing mermaids. You don't get information like that from Oklahoma Gazette.
Surely you know by now that legend tells us the Mayan calendar, from which we in the 21st century derive so much of our daily knowledge, runs out of time on Dec. 21, 2012, meaning that on that date, the World as We Know It will end. Thanks for flying Planet Earth Airlines, and we hope you enjoy your stay in Cloud Cuckooland.
This movie takes that concept as its premise and then spends 158 minutes showing us what it will look like and how various individuals will react. To borrow a phrase from Tweety, "Tings faw down and go BOOM!"
John Cusack ("Igor") is Jackson Curtis, a published but nevertheless failed writer who puts pieces of information together to figure out that the earth's crust is shifting, and when the shift hits the fan, the West Coast goes the way of Atlantis, soon to be followed by everything else, including that time-share you got talked into and haven't had a chance to use yet. You think you have problems? The world is supposed to end on Dec. 21, and my birthday is Dec. 22. I am gonna be so pissed.
The film's template is Emmerich's 1996 home run, "Independence Day." Substitute solar flares for aliens, and you've got it. One of the things I like about this picture is that it is on the side of science. Sure, it may be mostly junk science for all I know, but the scientists know their stuff, and nary a one of them is crazy. In fact, it is the humanist scientist, nicely played by Chiwetel Ejiofor ("Redbelt"), who pleads for saving as many human lives as possible, even if it means discomforting the world's richest who have purchased room on a series of arks.
But the plot is pure Intro to Disaster Movies. We're presented with a large cast of characters, many of whom will stick around just long enough to push some of our emotional buttons and then will get crushed, drowned, incinerated or in some manner dispatched before we move on to others. That's the way these pictures work: A small group represents all of humanity, most of which won't make it to the morning after.
The primary attraction here is the CGI effects, and they may be the best ever in a popular film, at least until "Avatar" opens next month. This is not cheap Halloween eye candy, but the real rich chocolate stuff from Switzerland.
The rest of the cast includes Oliver Platt as the villainous government flack, Amanda Peet as Jackson's ex-wife, Tom McCarthy as her current, Danny Glover as the president, Thandie Newton as his daughter, and Woody Harrelson as an Art Bell-ish, AM-radio conspiracy theorist.
What "2012" lacks in originality, it more than makes up for in razzle-dazzle. Buy a large popcorn " you're gonna need it.