American geologist Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) visits astrophysicist Satnam Tsurtani (Jimi Mistry) in India and learns that a new type of neutrino from a solar flare is heating the Earth’s core. Helmsley presents his findings to the White House Chief of Staff Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt), who brings him to see President Thomas Wilson (Danny Glover).
Wilson and other world leaders begin a secret project to save humanity. China and the G8 nations build nine arks in the Himalayas, capable of carrying 100,000 people each. A Buddhist monk named Nima (Osric Chav) and his brother Tensin (Chin Han) join the project. Tickets cost a billion pounds per person, which provides the funds. Valuable art is moved to the arks, but the President’s daughter Laura Wilson (Thandie Newton) is told they are hidden in the Alps.
Science-fiction writer Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) is working as a chauffeur for Russian billionaire Yuri Karpov (Zlato Buric). Jackson’s ex-wife Kate (Amanda Peet) and their children Noah (Liam James) and Lilly (Morgan Lily) live with Kate’s boyfriend, amateur pilot Gordon Silberman (Tom McCarthy). Jackson takes the kids camping in Yellowstone Park, but the army brings them to Adrian, who is studying the area. Then they meet conspiracy theorist Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson), who has a radio show about the end of the world.
Charlie shows Jackson his video about Charles Hapgood’s theory of polar shift and the Mayan calendar, which predicts the destruction of the world in 2012. Jackson rushes to get his family out of California, driving madly before an enormous earthquake. Gordon is talked into flying them out in a plane, and they escape just before the West Coast sinks into the sea. They fly to Yellowstone to get a map from Charlie that shows where the arks are located. Charlie stays behind to describe the eruption of Yellowstone on the radio. They fly to Las Vegas because they need a bigger plane to get to the arks, and they run into Yuri with his twin sons Alec and Oleg (Alexandre and Philippe Haussmann). They fly out as an ash-cloud covers Vegas.
Adrian, Carl, and Laura fly to the arks on Air Force One. The president and vice-president stay in Washington and are killed, as billions die in earthquakes and tsunamis. Carl is now Acting Commander-in-Chief. Jackson’s group reaches China, and their plane runs out of fuel. They drive off in Sasha’s Bentley. The plane slides off a cliff, killing Sasha. Chinese helicopters pick up those who have tickets and abandon everybody else. But Nima, the Buddhist Monk, sneaks them aboard an ark. An accident prevents the engines from starting as a mega tsunami appears. The ark is about to crash into Mount Everest, but Noah and Jackson manage to fix the problem and the boatload is saved.
A year, a month, and 27 days later, the waters recede. The arks approach the Cape of Good Hope. Africa has risen and the Drakensberg Mountains are now the highest in the world. Relationships begin and are rekindled. In an alternate ending on DVD, Adrian learns that his father and his friend have survived on their cruise ship. The ark finds them on a beach.
The film was directed and written by Roland Emmerich, produced by Harald Kloser, Mark Gordon, and Harry J. Franco, written by Emmerich and Kloser. It was a commercial success, though criticized by experts. Emmerich was inspired by Fingerprints of the Gods by Graham Hancock. The marketing was accused of fearmongering. A website where you could register for a lottery number to be on an ark was inundated by pleas from those who thought it was real. Teenagers talked of suicide.
Roger Ebert gave the movie high marks for giving the people exactly what they showed up for. But most reviewers panned it. North Korea jailed people for watching it on the anniversary of First Great Leader Il-Sung Kim’s birth. There were thoughts about destroying the Kaaba in Mecca along with other monuments, but the writers thought it imprudent. The whole Mayan Calendar story was not true. The Mayan Calendar does not end in 2012; it ends in 3770. The Sistine Chapel ceiling cracked between Adam’s and God’s fingers, which is a nice touch. Dumb it may be, but the movie is astonishing. You just have to get through the clunky tear-jerking and another earthquake or tsunami will be along in a few minutes.