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NOTE: This spoiler was sent in by Marianya.
Space shot of a solar flare erupting on the sun.
In 2009 American Scientist Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), travels to a copper mine in India run by his friend Satnam (Jimi Mistry). Satnam has just discovered that the Earth's core temperature is rising at an accelerated rate.
Helmsley travels 20 hours non-stop to make it to a fundraiser gathering at Washington DC to tell the Chief of Staff Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt) about the discovery... who tells him that Helmsley will now report directly to him and in turn takes him directly to the president, Thomas Wilson (Danny Glover).
In 2010 President Wilson, informs other heads of state during the G8 summit about the impending disaster that has been verified by their brightest minds. Meanwhile someone is being informed that a ticket for a seat on the boat would be one billion euros. In China, many people are moved to another location so that the area could be used to manufacture what they are being told as a "dam" for the impending floods. One Chinese worker (Tenzin - Chin Han) tells his family - his brother a monk (Osric Chau), and his grandparents - that he will send them money.
In 2011 we see the Mona Lisa being placed into safekeeping and a replica in its place.
In 2012 the story begins with protagonist, writer and limo driver Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) rushing out to pick up his kids (Lily - Morgan Lily, Noah - Liam James) for a trip to Yellowstone National Park. There they cross a restricted area and their path being followed by Charlie (Woody Harrelson). As they walk across what used to be a lake but is now a hot spot, they are intercepted by military personnel and they meet Dr Helmsley - who as it turns out read Jackson's book. Later they are dropped off at the encampment while Dr Helmsley receives word that the original timeline was off, the impending disaster is to strike sooner.
At the encampment Jackson tries to find out more information about the restricted area and is instead distracted by Charlie. There he finds out information about a probable impending disaster and that those who tried to communicate the information to the masses were mysteriously killed, including a professor that helped Jackson with his research on his book (he was killed just two months prior), as well as the curator of the Louvre (who died in a car crash earlier that day). Charlie then tells Jackson of a map that was given to him that would lead to a location of supposed spaceships that were being built as a way to save mankind from the disaster.
The next day, Jackson's ex-wife Kate (Amanda Peet), is in the supermarket with her new boyfriend (Thomas McCarthy), the plastic surgeon Gordon... when a crack erupts through the middle of the supermarket, splitting it in two. Kate immediately calls Jackson home with the kids, cutting the camping trip short.Elsewhere in Las Vegas, Yuri Karpov (Zlatko Buric) - ex boxer and now billionaire/businessman - gives some words of encouragement to his boxer before a fight. However, during the match Yuri receives a message about the necessity of boarding the ship and leaves the match, distracting his boxer in the ring.
Jackson makes it home with the kids, and receives a phone call from Yuri to pick up his twin boys and to take them to the private plane. As Jackson drops the kids off, one of the boys taunts Jackson that they have tickets to a ship to live and that he will die, further arousing Jackson's suspicions about the impending doom. Jackson notices another crack erupting beneath and immediately rents out a small plane and heads back to his ex-wife's home to pick up his family and leave California.
Kate, on the phone with Jackson (as he is on his way to pick them up) insists that everything is fine, until the house begins to quake and Jackson arrives to pick up his ex-wife, her boyfriend and the kids to head back to the airport. After a car rush through the impending earthquake disaster around them, they arrive at the airport only to find the pilot injured and immediately Gordon is called upon to fly the plane. As Gordon flies the plane out of Los Angeles, all on board watch in horror as the city disappears into the Pacific Ocean.
Running low on fuel they stop at Yellowstone National Park, and Jackson decides to find Charlie to pick up the map that would tell them where these "spaceships" are. Finding the trailer, Jackson and his daughter Lily could not find the man anywhere, only to realize he is standing at the top of the mountains to witness the approaching doom. Driving to Charlie, Jackson gains information of where the map is located and immediately drives back to the airstrip as the Yellowstone Caldera erupts, killing Charlie.
Meanwhile, in Vatican City, the Italian Prime Minister, his family and many others are in prayer as St Peter's Basilica is destroyed by an earthquake killing the pope and many others in prayer.
In flight, Jackson and his family realizes that they need a bigger plane to make it to China - where the ships are located - and stop in Las Vegas only to run into Yuri, his sons, girlfriend Tamara (Beatrice Rosen) and the pilot trying to take off. Eventually the pilot, Sasha (Johann Urb), with Gordon as copilot fly the Antonov An-225 out of McCarran International Airport as Las Vegas is destroyed around them.
In the meantime, Dr Helmsley makes a call to his father - who we found in the beginning of the film boarding a luxury cruise line with his bandmate - and tells him of the impending disaster and the two have a heart to heart talk. The father implores his bandmate that life's too short to carry grudges and that he should talk to his son. As the bandmate calls his son, he talks to his granddaughter instead and when the phone was transferred to his son, earthquakes erupt through the home disconnecting the call.
Dr Helmsley and Carl Anheuser hunt down the President at a chapel only for the president to dismiss all except Helmsley. There he informs Helmsley of his decision to stay behind because, "one young scientist is worth more than twenty old politicians". Dr Helmsley boards Air Force One and informs all present that the President decided to stay behind... and with information that the Vice President has also passed and the Speaker of the House untrackable, Carl Anheuser assumes control as Commander in Chief and orders Air Force One to head to China. Later First Daughter Laura Wilson (Thandie Newton) connects with her father to find out his decision of staying behind.
Reports of tsunamis coming from all around the globe, Dr Helmsley zeros in on an area where the cruise ship his father is playing on and mourns the death of his father. Meanwhile President Wilson, is at the White House helping others and is also hit by the waves of the Atlantic Ocean and dies. Dr Helmsley also finds out that his friend in India was never picked up by an airlift and also has died in a tsunami.
In Tibet, the young monk, Nima - Tenzin's brother - talks to his elder about information that he received from his brother and is granted permission to take the pick up truck to take his grandparents to where his elder brother is at in the mountains.
In the air on the Antonov, all on board discovered that Hawaii is up in flames, and they are running low on fuel... deciding to head to the South China Sea they put on life preservers and prepare for a water landing. Later they realize that they are actually flying over the Himalayas and decide on a mountain landing. As Sasha forces the plane to land, everyone else on board piles into a Bentley and flies out the back down as a snow raft... only to watch the plane take a nose dive off the cliff, killing Sasha. Eventually the Chinese helicopters stop, but only pick up Yuri and his sons, because they have "tickets" to board the ship, leaving Jackson, his family and Yuri's girlfriend, Tamara behind.
As Jackson and company walk through the mountains, they come across a pick up truck also heading towards the ships and wave them down to pick them up. It turns out that this is the young monk and his grandparents driving down to meet the elder brother to sneak onto the ships.
Reaching the arks, Nima talks to his elder brother, Tenzin, about the additional passengers and pleas with him to allow them to come along.
Meanwhile Air Force One has landed and Dr Helmsley and the First Daughter realize that the arks were constructed to save the heads of state, hand picked individuals that were chosen to aid in repopulated the Earth, and those wealthy enough to pay the one billion euro ticket per person. Helmsley and the First Daughter are aghast that no one else was given the opportunity to try to make it into the arks and were immediately shot down when the notion of mass chaos looms as a possibility.
Many individuals are not allowed into the arks because one of the completed arks - it is believed that only four were completed since the schedule ended up being a lot faster than predicted - suffered damage during the earthquakes, including Yuri and his sons. After Yuri punches out a guard, everyone runs to the docks and screams for help as the arks' gates close shut.
Dr Helmsley delivers an impassioned speech about letting others onto the ark by quoting Jackson Curtis' book and eventually convinces everyone to allow everyone else on board. The arks open the gates allowing everyone left behind to come in, Yuri was stuck underneath the gate until it rose up and Yuri pushes one son up and tosses the other son up, but in doing so falls to his death.
Jackson and company managed to sneak on board one of the arks (the one that the United States contingent is also on) only to be separated when the gates started to close, losing Gordon and injuring Tenzin. As compartments start to flood, Jackson's daughter Lily is separated from the rest of the group, and Yuri's girlfriend, Tamara drowns after being closed in. Everyone else is further behind as the welding device used to open a hatch gets stuck in the gears not allowing the ark gates to close completely... thus not allowing the ark to start it's engine.
Dr Helmsley and Anheuser zero in on the problem as to why the gate won't close shut, and Helmsley with Laura and one other run to where Jackson and his group are to fix the problem. After finding Lily and connecting with Jackson, Helmsley informs Jackson that something is stuck in the gears and that it needs to get unstuck before the ark could move safely. Jackson volunteers to go back and eventually his son Noah follows him to the gears where the welding device was left behind between the gears.
Back at the bridge, the first impact of the waves hit the arks and the parked Air Force One damages the anchor causing it to head on a crash course towards Mount Everest.
Eventually Noah and his father dislodge the welding device from the gears allowing the gate to close shut, and the engines allowed to run and although the ark does hit Mount Everest the impact is minor because the engines started running in reverse.
Later on the 21st day of year 0001, we find that Laura Wilson has just completed reading Jackson Curtis' book and she and Dr Helmsley embark on a relationship... Dr Helmsley is called to the bridge and it is discovered that the floods had receded and everyone is allowed outside to breathe in the fresh air. We find that Jackson and his ex-wife Kate have reconciled, their children are happy, and they seem to be good friends with Yuri's sons. It is discovered that Africa rose in sea level and is the first mass of land to be dry, so the arks chart a course and head to the Cape of Good Hope.
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The ships are actually giant boats, and not space ships like was implied through the whole movie. As the ships are about to set sail, the lead scientist on the ship realizes that they are about to leave thousands of humans behind to die, and gives a speech, explaning that if they leave behind all those people, they aren't saving humanity, they are destroying it, since they would start the world anew with a horribly cruel act.
The American leader refuses to let the people on board. All of the other ships, ruled by other countries, agree to pause setting sail and open their doors to the thousands of people who didn't pay for tickets aboard the ships. The American leader then follows and allows non-paying passengers.
Everyone rushes on board, but there is a problem. Something is jammed in the American ship's motors, preventing the door from closing fully, and, because of poor design, they are unable to start the engines unless the door is sealed, even though the engines are fine. Jackson returns to the turbine room, but it is completely flooded. He is told it is a suicide mission, but goes for it anyway. He unjams the door, and it seals, just moments before the American ship crashes into Mount Everest. Jackson manages to survive and everyone lives happily aboard the boats.
27 days later, they make a discovery. All of the previous world's tallest mountains are no longer the tallest, and, in fact, one in Africa is. Due to the way the plates shifted, Africa was lifted several thousand feet into the air, and never flooded or received much damage at all. All of the ships set sail for Africa, with hopes that it will be in tact and able to hold human life.