⇒ See also: “So what’s up with this 2012 date?

2012 opens Thursday throughout the Triangle

If you squint during 2012, you can see the story as a series of panels in a graphic novel or comic book, with broadly drawn, and acted, characters saying punchy, boldface things like, “If you want to give your boarding passes to a couple of Chinese workers, BE MY GUEST,” or “Hey, what happened to the landing gear?” “WE LEFT IT BACK AT THE EIFFEL TOWER!”

Yes, we’ve been besieged by the latest exercise in cinematic self-immolation from Roland Emmerich, the genius behind 10,000 BC, The Day After Tomorrow and Independence Day. Once again, he deploys the finest F/X talents money can buy to create a laughably, intentionally overblown disaster epic, complete with canned characters and by-the-numbers plotting. There’s $200 million up on that screen, folks, and about midway through 2012‘s 158 excruciating minutes, I found myself wishing the screen itself would explode and put me out of my misery.

John Cusack plays failed novelist and nice guy Jackson Curtis, who, at the film’s outset, is also the sort who will oversleep on the morning he’s to pick up his kids from his ex-wife (Amanda Peet) and take them camping at Yellowstone. Because the world has failed to take notice of the electrifying wisdom contained in Curtis’ books (for example, that when people stop fighting for each other, they cease to be human), he’s been reduced to driving a limo for a Russian oligarch (Zlatko Buric, giving the film’s lustiest performance), his blond trophy girlfriend (Beatrice Rosen) and his fathead twin boys. Meanwhile, in Washington D.C., astrophysicist and nice guy Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is in the middle of frantic preparations for an impending global catastrophe that the heads of state are keeping secret. Thanks to his industry, wisdom and foresight, he’s become a senior advisor to U.S. President Thomas Wilson (a saintly Danny Glover) and a foil to chief of staff Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt), who voices the competing Machiavellian/ Malthusian philosophy that the film’s nice guys will ultimately discredit.

What is the catastrophe at hand? Well, thousands of years ago, the Mayans of Mesoamerica kept a calendar that had an end date that, adjusted for the modern calendar, translates as 2012. Coincidentally or not, on Dec. 21, 2012, the planets in the solar system purportedly will align, storm activity on the sun will increase and neutrinos will penetrate the earth’s core, reducing it and weakening the subterranean crust. This will lead to seismic activity of unsurvivable proportions. Well, it would be unsurvivable but for the cool-headed humanity of Helmsley, whose courage occasions frequent cutaways to the admiring gaze of Thandie Newtonwho plays the president’s beautiful and idealistic daughterand the cool-headed, human-race-saving pluck of Cusack’s Curtis. Do you want to guess whether he wins back his family, too?

The question isn’t one of suspending disbelief. This movie requires that you annihilate your disbeliefand take leave of your senses, as well. Cusack and members of his family make getaways on airplanes that take off from collapsing runways and fly through mazes of collapsing buildings, and in cars that race pell-mell through crumbling cities, scooting under pancaking parking garages and going airborne over gaping crevasses. Throughout, the telephones and satellite technology that enable globalism miraculously keep working, serving up perfect situation-room maps and CNN feeds. Office buildings still have electricity as the land around them buckles and sways, going dark only when the ocean rumbles over them. It must be said, however, that this is a movie that can either thrill or repel, and indeed, there’s no denying that there’s an audience out there for gee-whiz CGI sensory obliteration.

Did I mention that this film is 158 minutes long?

Billions die amid 2012‘s carpet bombing of digital effects, but the film averts its gaze from a single chicken being slaughtered by a wise old Chinese grandma. A Russian gangster’s moll dies, but her yippy little dog is saved. Never has the line attributed to Joseph Stalin been more true: “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” The destruction throughout 2012 is pornographic but unaffecting. When you see the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy floating up the rising Potomac and crushing the White House, you don’t feel a thing beyond a certain regard for the skill of the animators who spent months making this appalling scene look “real.”

But to some of us, this won’t look remotely “real.” We’ve already seen “real” in this decade: We saw it on a bright blue Tuesday morning in 2001, and we saw it again in late August 2005. We saw people fall out of buildings and we saw a city drown. Still, I won’t wag a finger about it being “too soon” or “inappropriate” to represent catastrophe for the sake of entertainment: There’s no question that humans love to gawk at disasters, and that we have a hard-wired taste for the apocalypse, whether expressed in conventional religious belief, New Age hooey like Mayan calendars, the inconvenient truths of environmentalist Cassandras and surprise best-selling books like The World Without Us. But this movie is crap, $200 million of it. Take a lesson from the film’s purported philosophy and spend time with your loved ones rather than waste a minute of your life on 2012.