On the wrong kind of roll

2012 asks big questions but answers them with an explosion of cliches

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You have to blame the rolling boulder scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. For that one iconic sequence, where Harrison Ford's archaeologist hero runs just inches ahead of certain rolling death, has since been adapted and repeated ad nauseam until it has become the creative death knell for the modern movie blockbuster. If you see it once, you know the filmmakers have run out of ideas.

In the apocalyptic disaster movie 2012 it is used relentlessly, and with inevitably diminishing returns. In fact, four of the film's five major action sequences - the aesthetic corner stones that hold the entire project together - are lazy retreads of the "race ahead of rolling death" cliché. In one, John Cusack's disillusioned chauffeur, Jackson Curtis, races his limousine against a devastating earthquake that will essentially slide all of Los Angeles into the ocean, but for now is content to thrust great chunks of asphalt up into the air, just inches away from the limousine's speeding back bumper. Soon after that, as the Earth's crust begins to melt and the end of the planet seems assured, Curtis nonetheless manages to sneak his family aboard a tiny twin-engine plane and execute a breakneck take-off in which the entire runway collapses, yes, just inches behind the plane's speeding wheels. Later still, the same plane, with family still on board, will have to escape a rapidly approaching pyroclastic cloud of volcanic ash which thunders through the sky just, yes again, inches behind the plane's tail. And so on.

This uninspired automaton's approach to action directing is echoed throughout the movie by the filmmaker Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow), a man who clearly hasn't learnt from the visual inventiveness of the recent Bourne movies. Instead Emmerich and the screenwriter Harald Kloser take the most literal of premises - the world is going to end in 2012, this time because the Mayans predicted it - and throw an alleged $260 million (Dh962m) of Hollywood production values at it, and hope for the best.

The effects fest that results is occasionally inventive (the first earthquake is remarkable for sheer detail), but eventually, and over the course of nearly three hours, it all becomes familiar and, ultimately, tedious. The character work is equally axiomatic. Here, echoing the high-watermark disaster movies of the 1970s - The Towering Inferno, Airport - Emmerich sprinkles his film with a plethora of seemingly diverse characters (though all will be intimately connected with the White House plan to save a handful of humans from assured planetary destruction), and gives them each a crudely defined emotional arc. Here Cusack's Curtis is the central everyman hero. He learns of the wider narrative from chance encounters with both a zany conspiracy theorist (Woody Harrelson) and a White House scientific advisor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) - they inform him that solar activity has sparked a chain reaction in the earth's core which is overheating the planet and collapsing the crust, like skin on custard.

Curtis, naturally, has a personal crisis to resolve by the film's closing credits. He is divorced from his wife, Kate (Amanda Peet), who is now dating a successful, if effete, plastic surgeon called Gordon (Tom McCarthy), while he is also resented by his children Noah (Liam James) and Lilly (Morgan Lily). By the movie's third act Curtis will be reborn as a hero. A strangely sadistic tone permeates the showpiece effects sequences. During the destruction of LA, especially, two giant skyscrapers fall slowly to the ground, and as Curtis's tiny plane passes in between them we see slow-motion views of white-collar office workers clinging to their desks, falling from ledges and plunging to their deaths. Here the echoes of 9/11 aren't just felt, but explicitly recreated for our viewing pleasure. And yet it seems that the filmmakers are not aware of any moral implications that this act might have. Nor are they curious about the emotional logic or moral consequences of depicting the death of six billion people. Instead, everything here is reduced to the set-piece wow, to the technical gee whizz and, ultimately, to the seen-it-all-before yawn.