I’ve been eagerly anticipating Roland Emmerich’s recent 2012 for quite some time now.  One of the first previews for the film released early this last year showed a Tibetan monastery high in the Himalayas being engulfed by gigantic waves.  This and other previews seemed to promise a spectacle of global destruction heretofore only hinted at, a disaster so large and frankly absurd that even the highest point on Earth wouldn’t be immune from its sublimely catastrophic effects.  Except for the strangely missing nuclear referent, Emmerich has tackled most of the major versions of global apocalypse and epic disaster.  He gave us aliens destroying the White House and the Empire State Building in dramatic fashion in Independence Day (1996); attempted and failed to revamp the monster movie in Godzilla (1996); gave us a global warming eco-apocalypse based on ridiculously sketchy science in The Day After Tomorrow (2004); and even gave us a pre-history apocalypse—in the sense of massive civilization change—in 10,000 BC (2008) (btw, for those who are following, yes that is two movies in a row whose titles are dates).[1] W/ 2012 I could only imagine that he would go above-and-beyond the all-out destruction of those previous films, as he would have to simply go bonkers-overboard to top them.  I even permitted myself to hope that he might actually deliver on his and our desire to see it all end spectacularly on the big-screen in all the CGI glory he could muster.  In all earnestness, I was excited for 2012 not because it would be some genre-bending, metacinematic commentary on apocalyptic tropes, nor would it be some prophetic warning to humanity,[2] nor would it be some careful and subtle exploration of a post-apocalyptic situation. . . no, I was excited for 2012 for the sheer spectacle of the thing: no substance, just everything going to hell.  And in that, it was pretty successful.

Don’t get me wrong, 2012 is an awful film that even the intrepid John Cusack couldn’t save.  Like all of Emmerich’s films, rather than the disaster taking center stage, he inevitably only uses it as a background to tell a laboriously clichéd, trite, normative, banal “family” narrative that barely holds together.  For all the quite visually captivating death and destruction, the entire film culminates in Cusack having to free a stuck gear.  That’s it.  A wire is coiled around a gear that is preventing the gate from closing on one of the arks.  And it takes twenty minutes for this to resolve in the manner we were all expecting in the first place—i.e. Cusack fixes the gear, the gate closes, everyone is saved from drowning, he reunites with his ex-wife[3] and kids, etc. etc.[4] Up until that point, the narrative was simply a convenient vehicle to transport us from one site of disaster to the next, with ridiculous, last minute escapes from each: L.A. falling into the San Andreas Fault and the Pacific Ocean, Yellowstone Park blowing up (largest volcano ever),[5] the proverbial waves coming over the Himalayas, etc.[6] (I won’t even get started w/ all the other convoluted, unnecessary plot points except to mention the whole thing still ends up being conservatively “moral” at the end and the science is even worse than The Day After Tomorrow: gigantic solar flares have caused a new (new! how does he get away w/ this shit!?) radioactive element in the Earth’s core, and it is heating up the entire planet, causing the tectonic plates to massively shift and, you know, sorta melt.  Clear?)  But for all that, my anticipation was still satisfied.  L.A. dropping into the San Andreas fault was perhaps one of the most captivating images of massive destruction yet “captured” on film.  I won’t even really try to describe it, and really anything less than the big screen won’t do it justice, but I will say that the detail is so fine one can actually see tiny people falling through the smashed windows of toppling skyscrapers.

My desire to see this film was simply a desire to see how he would pull off more destruction.  Mercifully, this film was (fairly) free of big, famous, historic landmarks blowing up or being encased in ice (w/ the one exception of an aircraft carrier smashing into the White House riding the back of a Tsunami[7]; I wish I could say it was some sort of commentary on the military industrial complex or perhaps New Orleans, but frankly Emmerich probably thought it just looked cool.[8])  What this film appeared to promise (and almost fulfill) was disaster w/o context, disaster simply for the sake of it, w/o warning, narrative, or meaning.  This was ultimately what his previous work bordered on, but the obvious eco-guilt-trip parts of The Day After Tomorrow, the strange patriotism of ID4—esp. considering Emmerich is German[9]—prevented this.  These films were still part of the Hollywood-summer-blockbuster ethos that you can only show disaster to this extent if the end result is uplifting for the human spirit or whatever.  2012 is not a summer blockbuster.  It came out in November for chrissakes.  It skirts the “human spirit,” but ultimately the moral question it asks—who gets saved and why if we can only save a percentage of a percent on the ark—seems tacked on at best, and completely opaque and mishandled at worst.[10] The moral dilemmas raised by the film are an afterthought, something to “justify” the rest of it.

And this is ultimately Emmerich’s problem.  His films don’t need justification.  If he took a Koyaanisqatsi approach to disaster filmmaking (70mm visuals w/ Philip Glass music), he would finally achieve what he’s been trying to all this time because at this point no one cares about the who, what, when, where, why, how, etc.  We just want the image.  An anti-narrative apocalyptic disaster film w/ a Hollywood Budget, now that would be something.  He comes mighty close to this in 2012, perhaps the closest because it is arguably the worst film out of them all (or best. . .) in that it is more difficult than ever to care about any of the loosely constructed characters, but it ultimately fails because you could tell exactly the same story w/ [insert disaster, however minor (say, a broken leg), here].  His films try so desperately for substance, pulling every possible heartstring and using the rhetorical gravity of global catastrophe to do so, but always ultimately ignore what is so enticing and brilliant about them: their special effects.  Nothing else.  If he was faithful to what he was actually doing, making a film which resided completely and only on the surface, he might actually achieve some depth.  Rather than trying to insert meaning w/ whatever hackneyed father has to save his children bullshit that winds up in every one of his films, if he simply eschewed meaning, gave up cause-and-effect, morality, messages of warning, the human spirit. . . really everything except the special effects, he’d really be on to something.  I know we’ll never get this film, but hey, we do have 2012.

[1] Also, one can easily see from his first student film, Das Arche Noah Prinzip—in which a “weather” satellite has the power to create massively destructive natural disasters—that Emmerich has for a long time been in the business of megadeath.  He also looks like he’s about to take on another version of this by making Asimov’s Foundation (at least according to imdb).  I’m sure hardcore SF fans the world over are groaning.


[2] There isn’t any, b/c this film reverts to an apocalypse wholly outside of human control.  It is destined, prophesied in the old traditional style.

[3] Who, not ten minutes before this had lost her current husband, and poor-ole Amada Peet acts like it never happened once Cusack comes through.

[4] I feel no guilt if I’ve “spoiled” the movie here.  This is sorta the point.  The narrative doesn’t matter at all.  We already know what is going to happen.  It is moot.  My question, why even bother w/ a narrative at all in such a film?

[5] Though Woody Harrelson does have a delightful cameo here as the crazy End-is-Nigh guy.

[6] Actually, for the global nature of the disaster in 2012 we get quite a limited version of it.

[7] Literally.

[8] It did.

[9] He also made The Patriot (2000) w/ Mel Gibson, btw.

[10] I.e. the governments of the world knew about this impending disaster 3 years beforehand, but kept it under their hat so the world wouldn’t descend into anarchy, secretly building 4 arks to save government members and the fabulously rich.  When one of the arks fails near the end the major moral question is: do we let these 100,000 people on knowing that it might endanger those already here.  This is of course to gloss over the fact that everyone might have been saved if the initial decision was to tell the planet and mobilize the entirety of global production toward one single goal: survival.  Where to enter this morass, or even worse why one would enter it, is beyond me.  No one could take this film seriously enough to seriously answer the moral questions it tentatively raises.

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