Every frame of film Roland Emmerich has ever shot has been leading to 2012. This film, which sees the destruction of almost every major landmass on the Earth and easily 99% of humanity, is the culmination of his entire career, the completion of a lifetime’s journey. 

2012 is Roland Emmerich’s masterpiece.

It’s also completely, totally insane. Gleeful in both its destruction and its stupidity, the film revels in the implausible and lays on the cheese in huge, gooey chunks. Filled with characters that strive to be two dimensional and physics designed to make you laugh, 2012 is a movie that obliterates subtlety along with the world. For some people – the people who attempt to engage the movie as something other than a giant, expensive joke – this will all be too much. They can’t bathe in the majesty of the ridiculous, and Roland Emmerich is certainly the king of the ridiculous.

Just as the Mayans predicted, the Earth is doomed in 2012; the cause is a mutation of neutrinos from the sun, which are microwaving the Earth’s core and making the crust unstable. As the core heats up the Earth’s crust just starts sliding around, causing earthquakes, gaping chasms, massive tsunamis, super volcanoes and general disaster and mayhem. The governments of the world get word of the impending cataclysm a couple of years early and they begin a massive, secret plan to save a portion of humanity in giant arks. 

Meanwhile John Cusack is a struggling writer whose book sold less than 500 copies; he pays the rent by driving around a Russian oligarch. He’s divorced from Amanda Peet and she has taken his two children and moved in with surprisingly good guy Tom McCarthy (yes, the guy who directed The Station Agent and The Visitor). On a camping trip to Yellowstone with his kids, Cusack learns about the end of the world from radio show host and nutjob Woody Harrelson (who is really relishing the chance to go broader than Oprah’s ass) as well as the existence of the arks. As the shit starts going down – way early, and before the government gets the evacuation properly in place – Cusack takes his family on a desperate race to China to be among those who survive the apocalypse.

What does that desperate race entail? Running, driving and flying away from things. In The Day After Tomorrow Emmerich seemingly did the ultimate implausible ‘people outracing something they could never outrace’ scene by having characters outrace the cold. He tops that early on in 2012, having Cusack outrace an earthquake (he actually watches it advance upon him in the rearview mirror of his limo) and then blows that out of the water by creating what I believe is the biggest ‘man running away from an explosion’ scene when he has Cusack running from a supervolcano – the biggest volcano in the history of the Earth, which spreads toxic ash across all of America in seven hours! – that is so explosive it creates a triple stacked mushroom cloud

This, however, is Emmerich’s downfall. It seems that the director (and his co-writer, Harald Kloser) can’t really come up with many action beats that don’t involve an object outracing a disaster. There are three scenes involving airplanes trying to take off before they’re obliterated by some kind of disaster, and that’s probably one too many. On the plus side, Emmerich is a true master of that sort of action sequence, which may be why he keeps returning to it again and again in the film. When he tries to work some variety into the action scenes – like a third act sequence involving people trying not to drown – he can’t quite make it work, so maybe it’s better that he just keeps having characters outrunning, outdriving and outflying debris, flames, buildings, gravity and logic.

Walking in to 2012 I was deeply concerned that I would see a handful of money shots and spend most of the film’s rather lengthy running time with Cusack as he tries to win his family back. I was wrong. It takes a while to get to the mayhem – Emmerich needs to set up a huge number of characters, most of whom exist to either die or to help out Cusack and then die – but once the end of the world starts, it never lets up. Even though 2012 fits in huge amounts of ludicrous ‘plot,’ much of it dealing with the governmental response to the crisis, Emmerich never lets things slow down too much. He even makes the talking scenes feel as implausible and silly as the shots of California sinking into the Pacific Ocean, a sign of a director who truly knows his stuff.

The effects in 2012 are often stunning. Nothing’s quite photoreal, and much of the physics of the film’s disaster sequences are dodgy at best, but it all feels right, in the way that a giant monster stomping through a cardboard city feels right. And it’s all thrilling, in the way that Emmerich figured out in Independence Day – seeing the landmarks of Vegas fall into a flaming hole in the ground, seeing St. Peter’s destroyed (and destroying a crowd of people in the process) is a blast. It was a blast watching Los Angeles get completely obliterated while sitting in a theater in Los Angeles. And the movie seems to rarely be trying to make the destruction anything but fun; while Independence Day sometimes felt like it wanted you to feel the weight of the destruction, 2012 is Emmerich just having fun with it, laughing at every exploding building and dying bystander. 

Maybe that’s why the film works so well. We’re in the middle of a disaster right now (check out the doc Collapse if you want to see a truly terrifying image of society coming to an end), and seeing not only a bigger, meaner disaster than the one we’re dealing with but seeing people beat it is fun. It’s laughing in the face of our own current troubles, of spitting in death’s eye. 

Nah, probably not. The film works because it’s so ridiculous and because it has so little regard for decency or proper narrative convention. Perfectly decent characters get deaths they don’t deserve while awful people get heroic demises they don’t earn. A whole segment of the film seems to exist only to top Wolfgang Peterson’s Poseidon (some kind of Teutonic rivalry?). The movie’s ‘hopeful’ ending spoke to me only of future genocide and the return of colonialism. And once again, being non-American in a Roland Emmerich film means you either die or exist solely to pop up in the third act and help the white American heroes. 

And the actors? They’re there. Emmerich has the good sense to populate most of his cast with affable, decent actors. While they’re given not a single convincing line to speak people like John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor, George Segal, Stephen McHattie and Oliver Platt are eminently watchable. Plus, they seem to be having a pretty good time, although nobody’s having half the fun that Woody Harrelson does. It’s sort of funny to think that films like this, with casts just a notch above this one, were once seen as prestige pictures.

I almost wish that 2012 had been even more preposterous. I wanted to see space arks taking off from Earth and having to dodge the entire exploding Australian landmass. I wouldn’t have minded seeing a couple more cities being devastated, and I could have definitely dealt with a couple more characters biting the dust. In fact the very, very long 2012 almost feels too short. This should have been a six hour miniseries, a disaster porn version of The Winds of War. Too much in a Roland Emmerich movie is never enough. Well, except for where third acts are concerned – Emmerich has a hard time topping the destruction that came earlier in the film and the waterlogged finale feels drippy.

There will be those who read this review and immediately find their brains hurting that I can bash a film like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen while embracing 2012. The simple reality is that I would have been happy to embrace Transformers 2 had it simply been as well made as 2012. The film’s action sequences are clear and understandable, and while the very geography of the Earth is changing in scenes the geography of the action remains consistent and coherent. Emmerich also hires actors who can bring a modicum of respect to what they’re doing, and he’s able to pace all the talky scenes perfectly so that 2012 never lulls too much. He also understands something that Michael Bay doesn’t: 2012 doesn’t need much comic relief because the whole film, while played utterly straight-faced, is essentially comic relief in and of itself. 

2012 is well made spectacle. It’s finely crafted trash. It’s in on the joke, and it’s laughing along with you.

7.5 out of 10