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Apocalypse Soon: '2012' Scores Hollow Victory for Uncle Sam

John Cusack is a reliably interesting actor, and if his movies are not always up to the standards of his best – among them, Say Anything… (1989) and High Fidelity (2000) – they are at least watchable. That he has chosen to star in Roland Emmerich’s latest disaster fantasy, the laughably overwrought 2012, does no damage to his credibility, and reaffirms his talent for bringing heft to an otherwise weightless exercise.

Emmerich, you might recall, trashed some of the world’s most recognizable landmarks, including the White House, in 1996’s Independence Day, and later threatened the Northern Hemisphere with a second Ice Age in 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow. He continues his assault here, smashing the Sistine Chapel, Rio de Janeiro’s statue of Christ the Redeemer and Yellowstone National Park, while once again razing the President’s roof.

There is cultural symbolism in the movie’s choice of targets, albeit of the most obvious kind: When the apocalypse strikes, as it does so colorfully in 2012, it will affect us all – disaster does not discriminate. In this case, Emmerich invokes the popular myth of the Mayan calendar, whose “end date” has long been misinterpreted as evidence of man’s imminent doom. Better evidence might be movies like 2012.

Emmerich, who co-wrote the movie with longtime collaborator Harald Kloser, has treated us to all manner of natural catastrophe in the past, but this latest is a doozy. The sun’s neutrinos, it seems, have caused nuclear reactions beneath the earth’s surface and whole cities are tumbling into the sea. Explosions abound, followed by tidal waves. But the world can breathe easy, sort of – America is on the case.

Give the director, born in Germany, credit for knowing where his bread is buttered. As in Independence Day and Day After Tomorrow, the heroes here are mostly true-blue Yanks, from our President (Danny Glover), who oozes nobility, to the geologist (Chiwetel Ejiofor, of Redbelt) who begs fellow survivors not to lose their humanity. Ejiofor is a terrific actor, but his material here, ranging from the weepy to the self-righteous, is beneath him.

In Emmerich’s defense, he has assembled an excellent cast, including Thandie Newton (Crash) and Thomas McCarthy (HBO’s The Wire), to complement the visual effects, which are vivid if not terribly innovative. (He’s shown us these tricks before, after all.) Watching Los Angeles disintegrate is thrilling, and not just for Celtics fans. But the spectacle begins losing its luster as Emmerich keeps recycling destruction. By the time he deep-sixes a Tibetan monk's hilltop sanctuary, we’ve seen more than our share of large buildings reduced to rubble.

I suppose it’s missing the point to note that the patriotism on display in 2012 is embarrassingly shallow and unconvincing, as are Emmerich’s dutiful genuflections to the value of faith. (Billions pray, only a few thousand are saved, but hey, as Oliver Platt’s presidential adviser cleverly observes, life isn’t fair.) This is not a movie of ideas, but of visceral thrills, and on that level it is modestly successful.

But back to Cusack. As a onetime novelist reduced to playing chauffeur to the obnoxiously rich, struggling to impress his kids and win back his estranged ex (Amanda Peet), he is the movie’s emotional rock, and he plays the role with a mix of sardonic wit and manic enthusiasm. He is Emmerich’s best asset, and it’s clear he’s having fun, which is really the only thing to do when you’re the face of a movie like this one.