The first word of the end of the world comes from India. In 2009, sweating and fretting, Dr. Satnam Tsurutani (Jimi Mistry) calls his friend Adrian (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who drops everything and rushes right over from the United States. Startled by the data rolling over Satnam’s basement monitors—along with the buckets of ice cooling hardworking assistants’ hot feet—Adrian then rushes right back to DC, where he bum-rushes a fancy-dress fundraiser to get spread the news to White House Chief of Staff Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt). Declaring himself the “deputy geologist” at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Adrian gets in, breathless, and hands over a pile of papers. One glance, and Carl is ready to rush as well, meaning that he takes Adrian right on over to meet President Wilson (Danny Glover).
All this rushing about leads to a couple of years later, that is, the titular 2012, when the earth’s plates actually shift, unleashing a whole lot of hell and high water. When the world ends, international leaders stop their infighting (Russians and Europeans and Americans, anyway—no sign of the Iranians here), scientists bow their heads and commiserate, and the principal stunts are performed by a sci-fi author and limo driver, Jackson (John Cusack). The film’s central white guy, he needs to win back his family, that is, his estranged wife Kate (Amanda Peet) and their movie-adorable kids Noah (Liam James) and Lilly (Morgan Lily), a stock emotional arc intiated by the global meltdown.
Still, for the movie’s first few minutes, 2012 is decidedly—for lack of a better term—“diverse.” That’s not to say the set-up is unusual. Indeed, end-of-the-world/disaster movies, especially those devised by Roland Emmerich, tend to employ multiculti casts, even beyond the recently recurring black male president. These folks represent assorted classes and nations and sexual orientations (i.e., Harvey Fierstein), usually symbolic and sometimes symptomatic. True, many of these characters end up dead, not unexpectedly, given their dire circumstances, but for brief moments they are gloriously crucial to saving everyone else’s future.
Just so, Adrian is crucial. He’s also a fan of Jackson’s idealistic fiction, in which the protagonists apparently make noble rather than craven choices. This fandom allows for an egregiously silly but vaguely entertaining encounter between the two in Yellowstone Park—Jackson is camping with his kids, bizarrely oblivious to alarming climate changes, and Adrian rushes in to check on those changes. The men head off on their more or less separate courses, Jackson intensely focused on saving his family (including Kate’s new plastic surgeon boyfriend Gordon [Tom McCarthy]) and Adrian on predicting just when the earth’s crust will shift and chaos will commence. His trajectory includes the president’s daughter Laura (Thandie Newton), an art expert who chooses which pieces will be preserved at world’s end), as Emmerich’s version of worldwide disaster serves yet again as the occasion for romance (and a rescued dog).
That Adrian’s predictions are not completely accurate leads to some last minute tension—clocks counting down and recalibrating, elaborate crosscutting between locations (Satnam and Adrian communicate across continents, monuments fall in Rio, DC, and London, and fake monuments fall in Vegas )—all leading to a secret site in the Chinese tundra. Here the world’s leaders will board a set of newly assembled high-tech arcs, along with selected giraffes and elephants. Financing includes private sources, namely, superrich ticketholders like Jackson’s blustery employer, Yuri (Zlatko Haussman), who pays a billion euros to ensure he will be on an arc, along with his curly-headed twin boys.
The coincidence of Yuri being on the list of people who are informed the arcs’ imminent launching means that Jackson gets wind of it. And this leads to his display of some extraordinary driving skills, as he ferries his family-plus-Gordon through the suddenly slipping-and-sliding streets of Los Angeles. It’s a ludicrous sequence but lots of fun, as buildings collapse, bridges buckle, and Randy’s iconic donut nearly collides with their careening limo. They make it to an airport, Gordon knows how to fly a plane, and the rest of the film consists of one crazy ride after another—though none is so amusing as that early ricochet through LA.
As the action becomes less fabulous and more repetitive over the film’s 150 minutes, the philosophical debate ratchets up. For, just as the arcs are set to launch, Adrian makes trouble by arguing it’s unfair that only rich folks will be saved. It just so happens that as he and Carl argue over whether to open the gates to a throng of frantic poor people (including the Chinese workers who have made the arcs), Jackson and his crew have joined up with a Tibetan monk, Nima (Osric Chau), and his family. Their route to this moment is incessantly silly and incoherent (with plenty of tangents, including George Segal as a rueful jazz musician on a cruise ship), but when at last Jackson, Nima, and his brother Tenzin (Chin Han) are faced with moral decisions, they make right ones while government rep Carl (barking orders and taking command like a latter day Alexander Haig) repeatedly behaves badly.
It’s not a little disappointing that these decisions are set aboard an imperiled arc, and so reduced to a series of hazards lifted pretty much directly from The Poseidon Adventure. Water rises, people panic. The vignettes that pass for characterization come fast and furious: Jackson reconnects with his young son. Nima’s lama (Henry O) is so serene in his mountaintop monastery that he literally naps. And Adrian makes the righteous populist argument, tinged with an oddly nuanced fatalism. “I believe nature will choose for itself, from itself,” he calmly advises Laura. While she has a wholly understandable moment of misunderstanding (“We don’t stand a chance”), Adrian has faith in his fellows. “The moment we stop fighting for each other,” he says, “is the moment we lose our humanity.” (Cut to a fuming Carl, the film’s primary example of such loss.) Adrian keeps fighting, mainly by citing Jackson’s novel. Jackson insists that it’s just by chance that he’s reading the book. And you don’t believe that for a second.