In 2009, American geologist Adrian Helmsley meets his friend, Dr Santam Tsurutani, in India. Santam has discovered that neutrinos from a massive solar flare are acting as microwave radiation, causing the temperature of the Earth's core to increase rapidly. Adrian informs White House Chief of Staff Carl Anheuser and US President Thomas Wilson that this will trigger a catastrophic chain of natural disasters. At the G8 summit in 2010, other heads of state and heads of government are made aware of the situation. They begin a massive, secret project intended to ensure the survival of humanity. Approximately 400,000 people are chosen to board a series of ships (called Arks, in reference to Noah's Ark) to be constructed in the Himalayas. The majority of tickets aboard these ships are reserved for notable government officials and select people, while additional funding for the project is raised by selling tickets to the private sector at the price of €1 billion per person.
In 2012, Jackson Curtis is a writer in Los Angeles who works part-time as a limousine driver for wealthy Russian businessman Yuri Karpov. Jackson's ex-wife Kate and their children Noah and Lily live with her boyfriend, plastic surgeon and amateur pilot Gordon Silberman. Jackson takes Noah and Lily on a camping trip to Yellowstone National Park, where they meet Charlie Frost, a conspiracy theorist living as a hermit and hosting a radio show from the park. Charlie references a theory that suggests the Mayans predicted the world would come to an end in 2012, and claims he has knowledge and a map of a secret "space ship" project. As evidence for his claims, he notes the suspicious deaths of many scientists who attempted to warn the public before information about the catastrophe was de-classified. The family returns home as cracks develop along the San Andreas Fault in California and earthquakes occur in many places along the west coast. Jackson grows suspicious and rents a plane to rescue his family. He collects his family and Gordon when the Earth's crust displacement begins and they escape Los Angeles as it slides into the Pacific Ocean.
As millions die in cataclysmic earthquakes worldwide (one of which destroys the city of Rio de Janeiro), the group flies to Yellowstone to retrieve Charlie's map. The group narrowly escapes as the Yellowstone Caldera erupts. Charlie, who stayed behind to broadcast the eruption, is killed in the blast. Learning the ships are in China, the group lands in Las Vegas, where they meet Yuri, his sons, girlfriend Tamara, and pilot Sasha. They join the group and secure an Antonov An-225, fleeing Las Vegas as it is destroyed. The group flies to China, passing Honolulu as it is incinerated by molten lava. Also bound for the Arks aboard Air Force One are Anheuser, Adrian, and First Daughter Laura Wilson. President Wilson chooses to remain in Washington D.C. to address the world about the coming disasters. After surviving the collapse of the Washington Monument, he is then killed by a megatsunami that sends the USS John F. Kennedy crashing into the White House. With the Vice President dead and the Speaker of the House missing, Anheuser takes over as acting president. They also learn that the Italian Prime Minister stayed behind in Italy and is soon killed when The Vatican is destroyed.
Arriving in China in a crash-landing that kills Sasha, the group is spotted by helicopters of the Chinese People's Liberation Army. Yuri and his sons, who have tickets, are taken to the ships to be saved, stranding the Curtis family, Gordon, and Tamara, who do not possess tickets. The group is picked up by Nima, a Buddhist monk on the way to the Arks. They sneak into an Ark through its hydraulics chamber with the help of Nima's brother Tenzin, a welder for the project. Meanwhile, Satnam, in his final moments, calls Adrian to inform him that an uncharted tsunami is engulfing India and heading towards the arks before he perishes. Anheuser orders the arks sealed, trapping thousands outside. Adrian convinces the G8 leaders to let the remaining people board. As the ark's boarding gate is lowered and then raised, Yuri falls to his death ensuring his two sons board, and Gordon falls between the gears and is crushed. A large drill then falls and becomes lodged between the gears, preventing the gate from closing and rendering the ship unable to start its engines. The tsunami begins flooding the ark, drowning Tamara and setting it adrift. Jackson and Noah free the drill from the closing mechanism. The crew regains control of the ark, preventing a fatal collision with Mount Everest.
When the floodwater from the tsunamis recedes, satellite data shows that Africa's elevation rose in relation to sea level, and the Drakensberg mountains in KwaZulu Natal are now the highest on the planet. As three arks set sail for the Cape of Good Hope, Jackson reconciles with his family and Adrian starts a relationship with Laura. The movie ends with a view of the Earth from space, showing a drastically modified African continent.
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