As far as the new disaster film "2012" is concerned, the world will end with both a bang and a whimper, the bang of undeniably impressive special effects and the whimper of inept writing and characterization. You pays your money, you takes your chances.
In fact, it's hard to say what leaves the more lasting impression, how realistically director Roland Emmerich has destroyed Los Angeles (it's the third try, after "Independence Day" and "The Day After Tomorrow," practice apparently making perfect) or how difficult a time the actors have bringing any life to the script by Emmerich and Harald Kloser.
Nothing, not even a season of Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon, will give you more respect for how difficult it is to be an actor than watching top talent like John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Amanda Peet and Oliver Platt struggling to treat the film's ungodly language and situations with perfect seriousness.
The deeper truth, of course, is that it doesn't really matter and everyone with a hand in "2012" knows as much. Audiences with a hankering for the apocalypse shrug off the ridiculous and sit tight for the special effects. In this case, they are worth the wait.
Overseen by visual effects supervisors Volker Engle and Marc Weigert, "2012's" pyrotechnics are the best money, a lot of money, can buy. Just to give you a taste of how elaborate it all got, more than 1,000 people at 15 effects companies worked on this, using 500,000 tons of steel to construct platforms that realistically shook and building a blue screen that was more than 600 feet long and 40 feet high.
Though this equal-opportunity endeavor ends up destroying a hefty chunk of the world -- St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, the Christ the Redeemer in Rio and the Washington Monument in D.C. -- it is its first shot at Armageddon, the leveling of Los Angeles, that makes the biggest impression. It is absolutely terrifying earthquakes, 10.5s according to the press notes, that do Our Town in, in a big way. Streets buckle, freeways collapse, houses and office towers disintegrate before our eyes, houses on the coast slide into the Pacific. This city has been taken down before, but never like this.
While a putative Maya prophecy that the world would end on Dec. 21, 2012 plays a major part in "2012's" publicity, the film itself is too busy destroying things to pay that forecast much mind.
Instead, we're breathlessly informed that huge solar flares are creating nefarious rogue neutrinos that are heating the Earth's core like a hot tub in the Hollywood Hills. This comes to the attention first of a charismatic scientist (Ejiofor), followed by the White House chief of staff (Platt), the president himself (Danny Glover), even the fetching first daughter (Thandie Newton).
Unlike science fiction of an earlier generation, the government immediately recognizes the crisis, and the drama of "2012," such as it is, revolves around how a remnant of the Earth's population will be saved and who will be among the chosen. (If you guessed a bloated Russian plutocrat played by Zlatko Buric could buy his way in, go to the head of the class).
The main audience surrogate turns out to be idealistic science fiction writer Jackson Curtis (Cusack). His marriage to wife Kate (Peet) may be kaput, his kids may be bonding with Kate's new boyfriend Gordon (Tom McCarthy), but Jackson still finds time to take his son and daughter from L.A. to Yellowstone. There he meets over-the-top idiot savant Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson), who knows all and tells all about impending doom.
As that pesky core heats up and destabilizes the Earth's crust like nobody's business, we see all kinds of destruction, from oceans of fire to towering tsunamis, not to mention plot contrivances that beggar description.
Given that the film lasts a drawn-out 2 hours and 38 minutes, judicious cuts would have been in order, but any film that thinks "you've got to see this" is the height of sophisticated dialogue is not in the mood to be judicious. Not in the mood at all.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense disaster sequences and some language
Running time: 2 hours, 38 minutes
Playing: In general release