After you've seen 2012, listen to our earth-obliterating Spoiler Special discussion:
The physicist Robert Oppenheimer, upon witnessing the first test explosion of the atomic bomb he helped develop, famously thought of these words from the Bhagavad-Gita: "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." Gazing upon the far more massive destruction he wreaks on our planet in his end-of-the-world blockbuster, 2012, director Roland Emmerich must feel an analogous awe. But my guess is he'd express this feeling more pithily. "Rad," perhaps. Sixty-five years into the Atomic Age, the end of the world has become the stuff of mass entertainment and collective fantasy, to be enacted and re-enacted on an ever grander scale (perhaps to keep pace with the real-life political and environmental evils that keep giving movies a run for their money).
Emmerich has been Hollywood's foremost eschatologist for over a decade now: In Independence Day, he blew up both the Empire State Building and the White House (or had space aliens do it for him). In The Day After Tomorrow, global warming causes a counterintuitive Ice Age, burying the Statue of Liberty in ice up to her nose. But compared with the world-monument destruction in 2012, these look like trivial mishaps. If a flood-borne aircraft carrier threatens to crush the White House (and its occupant, President Danny Glover) in 2012, you'd best believe it's going to be the USS John F. Kennedy. That's not just any mountain about to get slammed by a tsunami: It's Everest! The chaos is strictly blue-chip in this movie. Emmerich has refined his technique as he ages, pruning away everything that's inessential to his art. No need for occult mumbo-jumbo about the ancient Mayan calendar, which, according to a popular misreading, predicted the world would end in 2012. A quick shot of the ziggurat at Chichen Itza and a 10-second voice-over about mutating neutrinos and solar flares will do the trick. Emmerich doesn't need no stinking Mayans or hostile space aliens. He can submerge the majority of the Earth's landmass all by himself.
Of course, the end of the world would be no fun without people to barely survive it, so Emmerich has assembled a large cast of characters as cannon fodder (or magma-geyser, tidal-wave, and falling-into-deep-crevasse fodder). Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Adrian Helmsley, the president's chief science adviser, who, because of an inside tip from a geologist pal in India, has an early scoop on the coming calamity. He busts into a black-tie event to press an urgent white paper about the situation on Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt), the president's unctuous chief of staff. In your run-of-the-mill disaster movie, the powers that be would spend the first act doubting the word of the sensitive scientist hero, but Emmerich has no time for that; the Washington Monument isn't going to topple itself. So a cabal of world leaders gets right on the case, building a top-secret fleet of superships (or arks) in which to preserve the remnants of humanity.
In a soon-abandoned stab at social critique, Emmerich and his co-writer Harald Kloser (who also composed the score) make it clear that the ships' occupants will be drawn from the ruling classes—government bigwigs, Saudi billionaires, and Prada-bag-clutching Eurotrash—while the vast hordes of humanity will be left to drown. But one ordinary Joe, a divorced novelist named Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), gets wind of the plan after meeting a conspiracy-theory-spouting hippie (Woody Harrelson) on a trip to Yellowstone. After witnessing enough weirdness at the national park to take the crackpot seriously, Cusack heads back home to convince his ex-wife Kate (Amanda Peet) and her smug new boyfriend Gordon (Tom McCarthy) to leave town with Jackson and Kate's two children. Which they do—though Gordon's fledgling pilot skills are rigorously tested when the runway suddenly turns into a yawning abyss.
The first 20 minutes of world-ending action, as the Curtises make their way from Los Angeles to where the rescue ships are docked in the Himalayas, threaten to get redundant: How many times can a limo jump over a crater, or a single-engine plane shear the top floor off of a high-rise? But somewhere around the one-hour mark, the movie finds its voice—giddy, operatic, deranged—and becomes pure pleasure to watch. There's always a subplot bubbling on a back burner that Emmerich can cut away to—I was particularly fond of the one involving George Segal and Blu Mankuma as grizzled jazz musicians stranded on a cruise ship. There are also Tibetan monks, Russian gangsters and their Prince Charles Spaniel-toting bimbo girlfriends, and the president's foxy daughter played by Thandie Newton, who's helping preserve the world's art treasures for posterity. (Periodically, as characters are discussing escape strategies in the foreground, you'll see Michelangelo's David going by on a hand truck in the distance. Or, in a shot that's at once comic and sublime, a menagerie of zoo animals suspended from helicopters, en route to the Himalayan meetup point.)
As far as I'm concerned, with 2012, Roland Emmerich has sealed the deal. He's the Paul Verhoeven of disaster movies, a deliberately camp artist who's figured out both what our moviegoing hindbrain wants from the disaster-movie experience and how to give it to us uncut by mystical portent or ecological finger-wagging. 2012 isn't a bad movie that, out of sheer boredom, you might snicker at once or twice; it's a two-and-a-half hour laugh riot that plays on our expectations of the genre by anticipating and exceeding them. Like Alexander the Great, Emmerich may now be sitting down and weeping that there are no more worlds to conquer. But there's no need to restrict his destructive genius to one poor beleaguered planet, especially now that they've discovered water on the moon.
Slate V: The critics on 2012, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Pirate Radio