Sunday, November 22, 2009

2012: Emmerich's Apocalypse on Steroids

What, one must ask, does Roland Emmerich have against the world? In his debut blockbuster, Independence Day, he blew up New York, LA, and Washington. Apparently that wasn’t enough, so he topped that with the 2004 disaster flick, Day After Tomorrow, in which a new ice age descends upon North America, freezing the inhabitants and sending the entire population of the U.S. fleeing to Mexico.

Now, he’s decided that decimating a few continents isn’t enough, and this time, it’s the entire world that has to go. In 2012 – which basis its end-of-the-world mythology on the Mayan Long Count calendar, which predicts the end of this “cycle” of time on an upcoming winter solstice of December 21st, 2012 – the end of time is precipitated by hot spots on the sun that somehow send mushy mutating neutrinos into the earth’s core, destabilizing the crust and causing world-wide havoc. If you thought the science of Day After Tomorrow was half-baked, this time Emmerich doesn’t even bother putting it in the oven; we’re essentially given a few lines of cartoon-level excuse for plausible explanation, and then off we go on the usual scientific / government / everyman race to outlive the giant whatever.

This movie has obviously been guided by an invisible studio hand, or at least someone whispering in Emmerich’s ear saying “forget trying to explain why it’s happening, just get to blowing stuff up.” Blowing stuff up is what Emmerich does really well, and it’s truly unfortunate that we have to plod through the entire first act of a way-too-long movie to get to the visual popcorn. No one in this movie – most especially the hero, played by the always cynical seeming John Cusack, a divorced father who discovers that the world’s expiration date is sooner than anyone realizes while taking his kids on a camping trip to Yellowstone – is someone we especially want to root to see survive, but we’re all for seeing more scenes of buildings crashing and national parks exploding.

In fact the scene at Yellowstone, where the North American “cauldron” erupts in what looks like a tremendous atomic explosion, is probably the emotional heart of the film and perhaps the only moment that is based on some actual real science (except, of course, that everyone who survives that episode would have in reality been toast – but that’s a minor point in an Emmerich adventure). This type of possibly-plausible nature unhinging man, and how we would react in the ultimate disaster scenario, is the type of cinematic thrill that we want from our popcorn movies, particularly in a post 9/11 world where our imaginative play about natural disaster seems like another useful form of risk preparedness.

The second act of Emerich’s film – as Cusack and his makeshift family rush to narrowly escape an endless series of disasters of Biblical proportions as they try to find the ships designed to save a few select members of mankind - delivers that adrenaline rush in spades, making it a film that really ought to be seen in a theater, especially in digital projection with the best sound (and fresh popcorn). Unfortunately, the first and third acts don’t live up to the spectacle of the second, and
the sagging on both ends tends to really almost sink this movie (pun intended).

The main problem is that none of these characters are very likable – to the extent that they even bother to depart from stock disaster types. It’s hard to imagine why governments would want to keep the end of the world a secret, but the decision in this film to hide what’s happening to the world, while limiting survivorship to a greedy cabal of the filthy rich and well connected feels both extremely timely, and massively disappointing. I suppose that Cusack is supposed to represent the one everyman who’s able to muscle his way into this super secret sect of rich bastards, but really, he’s not much better (he’s hardly a great dad and has few likable qualities), and in the end, with six billion people being sent to oblivion, one figures that there MUST be more interesting stories to follow than this. The obsession with the super rich begins to feel not like a critique of our cracked and seething present (which perhaps it was mean to be) but rather the opposite: a celebration of political cynicism and a paean to the Darwinian triumph of greed. The fact that some of the super rich may be left behind to die like the rest of us feels more like post-Goldman-Sachs-Great-Recession revenge fantasy than the trenchant moral dilemma that Emmerich hopes to build his wishy-washy third act around.

All of which is to say, the movie wants us to root for all the entirely wrong things, and that leaves me with a profoundly sick feeling in the end. There’s really a problem of scale, here, because when you are telling a story about the destruction of six billion people – neigh, the destruction of the whole of human civilization – there are issues larger to deal with than even a single, puffy, puppy, or the size of the bedrooms on the arc. I care not that the ineffectual President decides to stay behind and buck up the troops (how Richard the Third of him), nor do I care whether or not five thousand completely undeserving and biologically suspect Russian heiresses and Saudi oil barons are going to get saved from oblivion at the last minute. And certainly one must ask why these are these are the only people we have left at the end. One would think that if one wanted to repopulate a ravaged planet, there would be better specimens to do it with than this – where are the beautiful youth, the braniac scientists, the artists and philosophers, or at least the celebrities and NFL athletes? Not that I’m a fan of Eugenics, but just about any other method of selecting survivors –world-wide lottery, race to the finish, a “name that tune” contest – would have produced better results than this. The government doesn’t even bother to save a squadron of highly trained marines, which one would have thought would have surely come in handy in the Flood.

Which is another way of saying that the movie posits the end of the world without any of the cultural context that would have made it interesting – or personally moving and frightening – let alone remotely realistic. There are no reporters telling stories, no attempts at aid and comfort, and aside from a brief phone call between a clarinet player and his son, no review of personal stories of lives in the balance. Instead what we have is this narrow focus on a single man’s series of chase scenes and narrow escapes, while his exit route is manipulated by a secret set of self-absorbed politicians: a mashup of When Worlds Collide with James Bond. The movie really misses a chance to try to be about something more than simply cultural suicide. Like a Bond chase at its most daring, the film has its breath-sucking moments of wonder. But in the end, after all their stupid decisions, ineptitude, arrogance, and bad planning, you hardly think these people even deserve to survive – and given that they’re all that’s left, that’s truly a shame. And it’s sort of sad to see that as Emerich has gotten bigger in the scope of his destruction, his feeling for humanity has gotten smaller.

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