At first, I was going to start this review by asking a question: “Why does Roland Emmerich enjoy killing off humanity?” But the more I worked on this critique, I thought of a better question: “Why will audiences worldwide eat this crap up?” It’s not that I do not or cannot enjoy a good disaster movie, or even a not-so-great one, as long as it has something — anything — to keep me engaged. Growing up in the 1970s meant a constant stream of them, from every increasingly goofy entry in the “Airport” franchise and “The Towering Inferno” to B-level crap like “Meteor” or “Damnation Alley.” They were far from being great, but they had actors you could care about, from the truly all-star cast stuck in a burning 138-story skyscraper in the heart of San Francisco (and who is going to build a a 138-story skyscraper in the heart of San Francisco, seriously?) and the mostly all-star casts of “Earthquake” and “Airport ’77” to the partial-stars, has-beens and never-weres of “Hindenburg” and “The Concorde: Airport ’79.”

As much as I connect with John Cusack and Chiwetel Ejiofor as actors, they have never achieved the level of stardom of a Paul Newman or Steve McQueen, or of a Jack Lemmon or a Charlton Heston or a Sean Connery. And to me, that’s where pretty much all disaster movies of the past twenty years have failed. As budgets soar and digital effects get more photo-realistic, the casts have become secondary to the destruction put on screen. Sure, Emmerich helped make Will Smith a worldwide superstar in “Independence Day,” but Big Willie was still thought of as a rapper first and a television star second when that movie was being cast, and you’ll notice he hasn’t been in another Emmerich movie since. In fact, outside of the bump of Mel Gibson in “The Patriot,” the casts of Emmerich’s epics have continued to slip down the Hollywood food chain, from Matthew Broderick to Dennis Quaid to Steven Strait.

When you get down to it, why bother talking about movie stars or good actors when most of the people who are going to see “2012” are going to watch stuff blowing up real good? And why complain about plot or pacing, or lack of either thereof? Look at how they destroy Los Angeles! Again! Why bother to point out that the film barely even uses the Mayan prophecies that is the basis for the entire 2012 craziness? Look what the filmmakers do to those pesky politicians in Washington! Again! Just sit back and enjoy the end of the world! Again!!!!

The end of the world has never been so big or looked so slick. I’m not sure if Southern California can fall a mile into itself, or if a tsunami wave could ride itself over the Himalayas, but it sure does look awesome. And that’s what really matters here. It’s just a shame that viewers have to sit through nearly an hour of exposition and character bonding before getting to the money shots, which, incidentally, have all been given away to you for free over the course of the past year’s wave of publicity. If you’ve seen the main trailer that went up a few months ago, or the five minute Los Angeles Destroys Itself sequence that was blasted out to the world a few weeks ago, you’ve seen the movie. Okay, you haven’t seen Ejiofor or Thandie Newton do their valiant best to make something more out of their paper-thin characters, and you haven’t seen Oliver Platt ask stupid questions after things have been explained to him (and the audience) for nothing more than a cheap laugh, but that’s not why audiences are going to go see “2012.”

Roland Emmerich is cinema’s leader in world destruction. Nobody does it better. But there’s really nothing left on Earth for him to destroy. He’s already decimated us with an alien attack, destroyed major cities several times over, frozen us in an ice age and wiped us out with tidal waves and earthquakes and volcanos. It’d be interesting to see him do a smaller scale film, one that focuses on story and characters, and doesn’t involve spending a hundred million dollars alone on special visual effects. One that reminds us how great a John Cusack can be when he’s not doing it just for the paycheck… oh wait, is that the Vatican being leveled? Cool.

Rating: D