The most common retort one gets when talking negatively of a film clearly intended to be consumed with a tub of popcorn and a brain switch in the off position is "Why can't you just enjoy the movie?" And I get that. I am the kind of viewer who can absolutely just sit back and let sights and sounds wash over them. But what some fail to understand is that even with the brain turned off, even with disbelief firmly suspended, some movies stink so ferociously that the stench wafts off of the screen, snapping even the most resistant critic to full alertness like a slap in the face by a glove spiked with smelling salts.
2012 is not immune to analysis simply because it is an openly absurd movie. Sure, it's about the end of the world taking place three years from now. Sure, it features some astounding special effects. Sure, it is in every way, shape, and form a popcorn tub movie. And sure, you know from the trailer alone whether or not you're game for yet another disaster porn movie from The Day After Tomorrow and Independence Day director Roland Emmerich. But what the willing don't inherently know, and this is the most crucial piece of information one can be equipped with before hand, is that 2012 is 158 minutes long.
Granted, one would expect the end of the world to take more than 90 minutes, but the biggest failing of 2012 is that it barely has enough story to span half an hour, yet alone two more beyond that. Sign up for all the California-sinking, supervolcano-erupting mayhem you want, but what you're signing up for comes packaged with banal, one-dimensional characters who are only ever allowed to spew groan-inducing dialogue like so many fireballs from a, well, supervolcano. And considering the spectacle is unfortunately a fraction of the length, the audience is given more than enough time to wonder how so much mediocrity came to be from such talented people.
Which is a shame, because 2012 opens well enough. Our proxy to the film's special logic is a scientist named Adrian (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who has come to learn that a new batch of sun flares are causing neutrinos to microwave the core of our planet, which will eventually cause the Earth's crust to crumble like a cookie, turning our pale blue dot into an uninhabitable jumble of sinking rocks and soaring tsunamis. He's an empathetic enough character thanks unquestionably to Ejiofor, an actor who can bring any amount of cardboard to life, and through him we get our first hint that 2012 might not be a typical disaster movie when the scientist barges into a black-tie gala to tell a Presidential science adviser that the planet is about to be turned into a bowl of cookies and cream.
Surprisingly the adviser goes against the formula grain and believes the doomsayer for a change, setting up a meeting directly with the President (Danny Glover). Meanwhile, our proxy to the other side of the story is the presumably heroic failed dad and failed author Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), whom Emmerich has decided, unwisely, to saddle with the responsibility of being the comic relief. The problem isn't with Cusack, who has proven himself a great comedic actor, rather with Emmerich assuming that by hiring someone who has been in brilliant comedies he has hired someone with enough Midas touch to turn his written crap into gold. Sadly, that is not the case. Cusack shows none of the enthusiasm he's historically thrown into his roles, which renders our obvious hero character nothing beyond being the guy who keeps narrowly escaping every collapsing road, falling building, and erupting volcano whether he's in a limousine, a prop plane, or a Winnebago.
Despite Cusack's character being the must underwhelming one in the entire production, the first 50 odd minutes of the film are perfectly satisfying. The audience gets to meet and greet with a wide array of ancillary characters in orbit of Ejiofor and Cusack's storylines while also being treated to two outstanding, extended escape-the-apocalypse sequences that are thrilling enough to have you convinced 2012 may not be so bad after all. But then the tension winds down and we get to meet and greet even more ancillary characters, which serves not to provide the extended emotional attachment Emmerich is clearly shooting for. Rather the time spent with them does nothing to propel the core storyline while simultaneously diluting what minimal attachment the audience had with Cusack and his immediate family.
About midway through, 2012 has not only lost its characters but its spectacle trump card to boot. Nothing from that point on comes close enough to even touch toes with the film's first two effects extravaganzas, condemning the remaining hour plus of the film to meandering storylines with wholly predictable resolutions; which is a situation the co-writer/director does not have the skill set to make even remotely interesting. And this is coming from someone who owns and regularly enjoys watching The Day After Tomorrow and The Core, two of the most brainless popcorn disaster movies in existence. Yet even I could not tolerate the droll shenanigans on display.
This is one of those instances I hate in which everyone who saw the trailer for 2012 thought they knew exactly what the movie had in store. Those who thought it looked like CGI garbage are going to cynically cry "Told ya' so!", while those who thought it looked like an unapologetic blast are going to optimistically think "It can't be all bad..." And it isn't all bad, but what little good 2012 has is buried under a pile of cinematic rubble early on, out of sight, and given the length, eventually out of mind, never to be glimpsed again.