In Theaters: 2012

Movieline Score: 8

If and when the world ends, please let it be as fun, loud, optimistic and excessive an apocalypse as the one Roland Emmerich puts forth in 2012. The $200 million, 158-minute spectacle is the state of the art in global woe, less oppressive than Emmerich's climate-change call to action in The Day After Tomorrow and infinitely more sincere than the tongue-in-cheek devastation of Independence Day. Thus having arrived at a certain blockbuster zen, Emmerich has distilled his life's work to one message and one message only: If we're all f*cked, then we might as well be entertained.

Enter John Cusack, the type of everyman who's always perished first on the periphery of Emmerich's elaborate wastelands. Here, his Jackson Curtis -- failed novelist, estranged father and husband, all-around underachiever -- turns an annoying knack for procrastination into a virtue that works pretty well in the action-movie context of outrunning ash clouds and gaping fault lines. It also plays right into Emmerich and co-writer Harold Kloser's mildly touching redemption narrative. When Jackson takes his young son and daughter on an aborted trip to the soon-to-be-volcanic Yellowstone National Park, he intercepts the boy's text message to his stepfather: "Camping sux!" Jackson is crushed: "Adults get hurt feelings, too," he says, a heartbreaking blip in the grand scheme of things that nevertheless suggests that Jackson himself might be the biggest disaster in the whole movie.

But at least he's got his motivation. And so do Emmerich and Kloser, interplaying his altruism with that of scientist Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who has spent the better part of three years forecasting the planet-alignment crisis that will heat and eventually dissolve the Earth's crust. Of course it's ridiculous, and you've got to hand it to Ejiofor for finding a persuasive, dynamic moralist in his tireless scholar of doom. In any case, to hate on anything that happens next is to refute the very spirit of Hollywood, the capital of irrational ambition; from the Asia-swallowing tsunami to Hemsley's cold-blooded bureaucratic foil (played by Oliver Platt) to even the scope of its product placement, everything in 2012 is purposely and gloriously outsized.

As such, if Emmerich wasn't planning a referendum on the wreckage of modern culture, he may as well claim credit for one. He's made a doozy. No one is safe -- not the Russian oligarchs, not the plastic surgeons, not the trophy wives. Third-world outsourcees are used and discarded. Only the dreamers -- led by Woody Harrelson's paranoiac mountain-man soothsayer and, of course, Cusack's tortured artist -- have a shot at either survival or a peaceful demise. Jackson ex-wife Kate (Amanda Peet) hovers in the earnest balance, willing to sacrifice her life for her children yet determined to chase the complacent comforts of middle-class existence. 2012 defies her (and you) to make a choice; just because it strands her in a Chinese mountain range to do it doesn't invalidate the message. It just makes it appropriately picturesque and high-stakes for a multiplex audience that already can't believe what it's seeing. What's the problem?

If 2012 falters, it does so in its running time. It could lose a subplot or two (George Segal and Thandie Newton, I'm talking to you), and just because you can devastate Las Vegas doesn't mean you need to. (Though, to be fair, once Emmerich gets his moral hammer swinging, there's really no point in slowing it down.) At least his denouement is nicely compact, with a final exchange that is at once absurd and as beautifully succinct a reassurance as the famous "Nobody's perfect!" that ends Some Like it Hot. This is next-level nutjobbery by a filmmaker at his peak. He can end my world any time.