Short Version: If you're looking for some wicked-cool visuals and destruction on a scale that even Emmerich has never put on screen before, then 2012 is for you. Plot and character development? Move along, nothing to see here.
Screen Rant reviews 2012
That picture right there? That's why you go see 2012. Heck, lately that's why you go see any Roland Emmerich film - destruction on a massive scale. The man has taken what Irwin Allen used to do and multiplied it by 100.
2012 actually starts in 2009 - well first it starts out in space, showing us a few different shots of our solar system and the planets lining up all in a row, with the sun at the end of that line. When we get to good old Earth, we're in India where geologist Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor, the assassin from Serenity) is meeting a fellow scientist at the Institute of Astrophysics. They go 11,000 feet down into a copper mine where it seems they figure they may as well do some scientific research as long as they're down there.
Anyway, they have tracked a series of the biggest solar flares in history taking place over the last week, and it seems that they're putting out some different type of neutrino that instead of just passing through the earth is interacting with the core, causing it to heat up to temperatures far exceeding normal. At this point I'm thinking "OK, OK, that's not bad, I can buy that."
Helmsley travels to Washington D.C. where he convinces high ranking Washington muckity-muck Carl Anheuser (a very rotund Oliver Platt) the importance of what he's found. We jump forward to 2010 where the president (Danny Glover - seriously) is addressing European heads of state about the impending end of the world. Another jump to 2011 where it becomes apparant that some sort of stealth operations are taking place to insure the safety of works of art, wealthy and powerful people and presumably other odds and ends.
In the meantime we meet Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), a divorced dad and not very successful author who drives a limo for a living. While his young daughter still has eyes only for daddy, his slightly older son is a much bigger fan of mom's live-in boyfriend (kids live with mom and her boyfriend - nice move, mom). Taking the kids camping to Yellowstone, he runs into a cordoned off military area where significant changes are happening geologically. It's here we meet Woody Harrelson as a quasi-nutjob/free-spirit who seems to know what's going on and fills Jackson in, including the plans for the world's elite to escape the destruction in spaceships. Of course Cusack doesn't believe him and heads on his merry way.
It doesn't take long however for a series of increasingly strong and frequent earthquakes (along with some other things) to convince Jackson that the crazy guy isn't crazy after all, and he grabs the ex-wife, kids and new boyfriend just in the nick of time in the scene we've all watched in trailers and TV commercials.
From here on, all hell breaks out everywhere, and watching it all happen is the whole reason for going to see this movie.
Jackson is determined to save his family, and his journey to find one of these "arks" grows more implausible with every passing scene. Thankfully director Emmerich spreads the destruction out throughout the entire film - so if you're concerned that you'll have already seen the best stuff in the trailer, fear not... that was just a taste. I found it interesting that they showed a number of landmarks being destroyed including the Vatican and the famous statue of Christ on a Brazil mountaintop - but although they showed the Kabaa in one scene he did not portray its destruction. I've heard that he didn't show it destroyed due to fear of retribution.
Anyway, the destruction throughout the film was quite well done - I especially liked the scene at Yellowstone... VERY impressive. And of course the expanded version of the destruction of California was well done (and strangely satisfying... I kid, I kid). The arks were quite cool as well, although the MacGuffin that caused the "suspense" at the end was quite ridiculous.
There's a a fair amount of ridiculousness in 2012, but really, what does one expect going into a film like this? In the end I enjoyed the visual effects and Chiwetel Ejiofor, who I think has a real screen presence about him. Woody Harrelson? Brief appearance but memorable. John Cusack seemed to me like a fish out of water here - like he just really didn't belong. Thandie Newton was little more than eye candy (although she was supposed to be more). Oh, and Danny Glover as the President of the United States? LOL funny - I think the poor guy left any acting ability he may have had down in Venezuela.
Towards the end of the film it really fell apart as Emmerich tried to inject some emotion into the film. A big contributing factor was the cheesy music in the emotional scene - the whole thing felt like it was out of a made for TV movie. It might have actually worked better had he not tried to "make" us FEEL the emotion via the cliche'd music and maybe trusted the actors to make it happen. If only he could figure out a way to make a film that didn't require actual people (you know, other than the ones who need to die for the destruction to mean something).
So if you're looking for much in the way of plot or character development, move along, nothing to see here. But if you're looking for some wicked-cool visuals and destruction on a scale that even Emmerich has never put on screen before, then 2012 may be the movie for you.