It's twelve minutes before the title card comes up in Roland Emmerich's latest epic, as we begin in 2009, in India. Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is told some worrying news. Due to greatly increased solar activity, neutrinos have began to interact with the matter of the Earth's core, heating it up like microwaves. (Huh? Oh okay then. Oh, and by the way, temperatures don't have velocity.) Could the ancient Mayan prophecies be coming true, and the world is about to end in the year 2012?
Emmerich has subjected the world to alien invasion in Independence Day and extreme climate change in The Day After Tomorrow. 2012 could be called the third of his Apocalypse Trilogy. This is out-and-out cataclysm porn, and Emmerich doesn't stint on his money shots. We get earthquakes, supervolcanic eruptions and gigantic tsunami, plus the trademark wholesale destruction of world landmarks, which this time include Rio's statue of Christ and the Washington Monument. It's also shamelessly manipulative – just check out the dog.
The narrative pieces itself together via a series of brief scenes set in various parts of the world, though conveniently most people speak English. The storyline mostly centres around SF writer (that's San Francisco and science fiction both) Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) and his attempts to get himself, his estranged wife (Amanda Peet) and their two children to safety.
All of this is achieved through plentiful use of CGI. It's good CGI, only occasionally looking obviously animated, but as ever it doesn't have quite the impact it should, as you always know that this is the work of a gang of spods with high-end computers. That said, this is a film you need to see – if you see it at all – on a screen bigger than you, as it probably won't have the same effect on a TV set. And when Yellowstone Park goes up, it's undeniably impressive, and you wonder if the unnerving mushroom-cloud overtones are deliberate. (Let's not nitpick that everyone involved in that scene would have been permanently deafened.)
The cast is impressive, if inevitably overqualified for their roles. Danny Glover is dignified as the US president and Woody Harrelson has an entertaining turn as a conspiracy theorist who turns out to be right for once. Technically you can't fault the film. Dean Semler's camerawork – a mixture of Super 35 and HD – is handsome. Directing a film like this is more an exercise in marshalling vast logistics, but you can't deny that Emmerich has an aptitude for it.
But as ever, bloat sets in and at two and a half hours, the film is half an hour too long. The last hour, which is mostly devoted to efforts to save some of the population in ark-like ships (and yes, some animals get airlifted in two by two) does start to drag.
And you have to wonder if we will be watching this in three years' time.