It goes without saying that people do not watch Godzilla movies for their human protagonists’ exhibition of bravery in the face of certain peril but rather to enjoy said peril. They also don’t go to disaster movies asking to be browbeaten by a hack director with an obscene amount of money and an incredible special-effects crew. With 2012, Roland Emmerich provides the next entry in the “Apocalyptically Disastrous” subgenre of mega-blockbuster cinema, following up Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen with an equally soulless depiction of life at the end of the world.
Emmerich’s characters stand apart from Bay’s in that they beat their chests a lot longer, exhibiting through hollow, over-the-top melodramatics why people shouldn’t give up so easily on the innate goodness of the human spirit, especially in the face of certain death. In that sense, 2012 could be about any disaster, rendering moot the half-baked proclamations of the Mayan calendar that are so central to the film. Even if the reasons why the world was ending mattered, it still wouldn’t mean much for the real-world viewer apart from being a dramatization to fuel the latest Y2K-style madness: The Mayan calendar’s important dates are known to have been changed at a whim by egomaniacal rulers who wanted to celebrate themselves at the time of their choosing, much like how scientists use the coincidence of the solar flares and the end of the Mayan calendar to sell speculative books today. There is no science in Emmerich’s science fiction, just sheer, dumb, Pollyanna-like pluck with none of Bay’s knack for brain-dead bluster.
2012 breaks down into your basic disaster-movie stock plot: A small family torn asunder by divorce and led by unsuccessful sci-fi writer Jackson Curtis (John Cusack as yet another prodigal patriarch) is reunited as the world crumbles on December 21, 2012, the last day of the Mayan calendar. Jackson only manages to save his family after listening to the “crazy but also surprisingly with-it” man on the street (Woody Harrelson), who here resembles an Alex Jones-type broadcasting his crank messages about fallen “truth-tellers,” God, and government cover-ups from his trailer in the woods. Meanwhile, in Washington, good-hearted and outspoken scientist Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is discovering the nasty truth about that conspiracy, one that involves a plan to restart the world with several “arks” full of the rich and the worthy. It’s up to Helmsley and Curtis to set a good example for the shrieking unwashed masses and, in turn, do everything in their power to prevent the audience from having any fun watching the world die screaming.
Of these two erstwhile heroes, Helmsley is the bigger dullard. He doesn’t have the familial concerns Curtis does to excuse his goody two-shoes behavior. Instead, he’s trying to save as many people as possible because he knows it’s right. Poor Ejiofor ardently blusters through his lines with such passion and vigor that it’s a shame that those lines are utter gibberish. Though the character is a man of science, he doesn’t spend much time using the data he gathered early in the film to convince the world’s leaders that the planet is ending. He’s forced to use Curtis’s book as a work of exemplary moral fiber to convince them to save a few extra plebeians, as if bad science fiction could cure the global community’s apathy.