(CNN) -- A little knowledge stretches a long, long way in the latest blockbuster from disaster-prone director Roland Emmerich ("Godzilla," "The Day After Tomorrow").
Actually "blockbuster" isn't the half of it. Emmerich busts blocks for breakfast. Highways, cities, states, countries and continents -- nothing and nowhere is safe when this man is on the rampage.
But that's nothing. You should see what damage he does to the laws of physics.
Taking his cue from the ancient Mayan calendar -- which ends a major cycle in 2012 -- and from Charles Hapgood's unfashionable theories of earth crustal displacement (basically, that Antarctica shifted position significantly over the course of several centuries), Emmerich plunges us into an entertainingly cockeyed geological cataclysm.
Solar flares cook up the earth's molten core, which in turn cracks up the tectonic plates we all call home. The forecast is for volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis, and a life raft will buy you what's left of the United States.
Chiwitel Ejiofor is the scientist who brings this to the urgent attention of the White House back in the good old days of 2009. By 2010 the president (Danny Glover) has let the other G-8 leaders in on the secret, and plans are under way for an emergency evacuation of the best and the brightest -- or, at least, the executive elite and anyone wealthy enough to reserve a seat at a billion euros a pop.
The rest of us are allowed the luxury of ignorance.
Novelist-limo driver Jack Curtis (John Cusack) first realizes something smells fishy on a family camping trip to Yellowstone with the kids he now shares with his ex (Amanda Peet) and her new husband, Gordon (Thomas McCarthy). Swaths of the park have been cordoned off by armed guards, while a local wacko (Woody Harrelson) pontificates over the airwaves about the imminent apocalypse.
They get back to Los Angeles just in time for a hair-raising race against streets that crack, splinter and fall away right beneath their feet. Escaping in a light plane, they witness Santa Monica slide into the ocean. Skyscrapers topple. A train arcs through the air -- why, we don't know, but it looks kinda cool, in the cut-and-paste way of so many digital effects.
Are we impressed? We better be, because the next hour is dedicated to minor variations on this CG theme: Jack makes a pit stop in Yellowstone to borrow a top-secret map to the government escape hatch from Woody, and makes a mad dash for it before Old Faithful blows her top. Then it's on to Vegas, where they hitch a ride on a cargo plane with a Ukrainian tycoon (Zlatko Buric) as the desert reclaims the Strip.
In the movie's most outrageous plot twist, a geological shift that even the most excitable scientist would measure over millennia takes place within 24 hours.
An avowed acolyte of Steven Spielberg, Emmerich helps himself to bits and pieces from "Jaws," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "War of the Worlds" (with a gratuitous lift from "The Poseidon Adventure" thrown in for extra ballast), but the tempo is pure Indiana Jones, a breathless succession of ever more improbable cliffhangers. Did you see "2012?" Share your review
Poppier than Spielberg, who is much more of a classicist, Emmerich shoots for the zeitgeist with no concern for posterity. (Maybe he genuinely believes there won't be any.) It's amusing to tick off the movie's topical asides, whether it's to Governor Schwarzenegger (in 2012?), radio reactionaries, hotshot Indian scientists, or the Chinese building dams in Tibet.
We're used to seeing African-American presidents on screen, but an Oval Office scene where the president dismisses the token white aide (the excellent Oliver Platt) to confer with two black colleagues? That's a first.
Too bad "2012" gets bogged down in its own hyperinflation. Satiric elements are drowned out by sentimentality and speechifying in a long, draggy third act. (It's a sign of desperation, surely, that Emmerich resorts to video for the climax.)
Well before the end of the 158-minute running time, this viewer was praying that the end really was nigh.
"2012" is rated PG-13 and runs 158 minutes. For Entertainment Weekly's review, click here.