On my way to work today, I saw a sign outlining a long-term construction project at the Tarrytown Metro-North train station. They’re tearing out both train platforms, putting in new elevators, and restoring the station building itself to its former glory. The job is projected to be completed in the fall of 2012. I probably smirked a little bit. “Why bother?” was my thought.

It occurred to me that my vanishingly tiny little joke summarized pretty cleanly the appeal of 2012, a disaster movie that posits not just the annihilation of civilization as we know it, but the dramatic transformation of Planet Earth, its continents shifted and poles reversed in a cataclysm precipitated by solar neutrinos superheating the earth’s core in much the same way your microwave might nuke some nacho cheese sauce. Awesome and terrible spectacles — Yellowstone National Park erupts in a gigantic fireball! The USS John F. Kennedy slams into the White House! California falls into the ocean! — are interspersed with a conventional Hollywood adventure story that could be best described as unambitious.

For instance, at one point our party of adventurers (spoiler!) crash-lands a jumbo jet in snowy mountains somewhere in China. Half of them are rescued within minutes by a random military helicopter flotilla and another half are picked up almost immediately thereafter by hitching a ride with a passing flatbed pickup. You can almost imagine a screenwriter somewhere lingering over his keyboard and three fingers of whiskey and cackling, “This shit writes itself.” But to complain about the glib shiftlessness of the storyline is to miss the popular appeal of the film. The new breed of disaster movie (its ascendancy arguably began with the success of Emmerich’s first big-budget summertime explodo-fest, the borderline-incompetent Independence Day) isn’t about conveying the fear and abject terror of events that result in the deaths of billions of people, but about allowing an audience of privileged observers to essentially laugh in the face of death for 100-and-some odd minutes. 2012 is the expensive, large-scale version of the same spectacle presented by downmarket counterparts like the Final Destination and Saw franchises or, in a less specific way, more middle-brow confections like the Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park movies. They’re thrill rides calibrated to purvey vicarious terror, with punch lines.

Emmerich dismisses and deflates criticism early on, having a mouthpiece character extol the virtues of optimism and faith in the essential kindness and generosity of the human race despite the smirks and catcalls of the naysayers. He misses an opportunity by failing to have anybody pontificate on the merit of banality, which is the real problem afflicting the thin, connective tissue stretched in between the film’s luxe depictions of mass destruction. The script here is an assemblage of clichés — broken family, crusading scientist, wise president, smug rich guys — deployed in order to guide the doddering story on its way from disaster to mounting disaster. John Cusack is a limo driver and failed novelist struggling to maintain a connection with his ungrateful kids, including the son who calls him “Jackson” and prefers his new plastic-surgeon dad. Chiwetel Ejiofor is the geologist who’s first alarmed by evidence that The End Is Near, bending the ear of Oliver Platt, a slimy but effective politico who helps hatch a plan to save some vestige of the human race. And Woody Harrelson is a nutjob (or is he?) railing over the pirate-radio airwaves about the approaching Armageddon. It’s all pleasant enough, but without a shred of real human feeling or much aspiration to the same. When these characters dutifully get on the phone to say goodbye to their distant loved ones — or, failing that, simply to stare at the dead receiver and mutter, “I was too late!” — it’s clear they’re just going through the disaster-movie motions.

So, too, the visual-effects guys. I’m not trying to say that the mass destruction depicted on screen is shoddily executed, or looks anything less than ridiculously expensive. Whether they’re toppling the Vatican, collapsing Christ the Redeemer, or merely dunking the Santa Monica pier, the various VFX teams step up and make it happen. (One of these days someone clever is going to figure out how to localize a spectacle like this in different territories, leveraging the same digital gruntwork and R&D as a backdrop but creating, say, a Bollywood musical version with local talent for the Indian subcontinent.) And there is, no doubt, an awesome grandeur to some of the imagery. It’s occasionally enough to give a viewer pause despite the jokey nature of the film as a whole, which suggests that you’d have to be batshit insane to take anything on this particular movie screen seriously for even a moment. But there’s a flippant perfection to these shots, their 100-mile visibility and their split-second Looney Tunes timing, that makes their hyperrealism scan as amusement-part unreality if not outright self-parody.

I found myself wondering about a film that could take itself seriously enough to convey more than just one shimmering, mega-definition iota of the supremely horrific event that the end of the world must be. For some reason I kept fixing on the doomsday-ish United 93, the first half of which is just about the most white-knuckle experience in contemporary film. Then again, maybe we’d better leave the disaster movies to the hacks who still have the stomach to mount big-budget infinite-body-count cartoons in the face of real-world calamity. If someone with the talent and vision of Paul Greengrass were somehow possessed to take over the kind of outsized disaster movie that appeals to a cheerful maniac like Emmerich, the harrowing results might just be too much for a human audience to bear.

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