Just look at 2012, currently rattling the lobby at a cinema near you. Somehow planet-killer Roland Emmerich has churned out the greatest American political allegory of the new century (doubly impressive having just made 10,000 B.C, arguably the greatest prehistoric prison riot film ever made). The 2012 ad campaign would have you believe the movie is about some imminent rendezvous with cosmic destruction predicted centuries ago by the Mayans, but don’t be fooled. 2012 is actually about the right now of 2009, and while the rest of the cosmos is involved to some degree, it is primarily a movie about America coming to terms with its own mortality.
Here’s all you need to know about the plot: For 2.5 hours, panicked Americans flee from escalating disintegration…literally, that’s the entire movie. Whether he knows it or not, Emmerich has masterfully translated the nation’s broken polity, economic despair, waning influence, environmental destruction, befuddled impotence, and general malaise into a single visual motif—cracking pavement. For the first half of the film especially, rare is the moment when the central cast isn't fleeing by foot, by car, or by plane from ground that is literally disintegrating out from under them. Earthquake movies used to be about falling head-first into great chasms, having your bright future tragically pre-empted by a fault-line of fate, but here the characteristic terror is spidery fissures and collapsing topsoil chasing you from behind--like a bad dream. The entire vibe is like trying to get an overloaded Hummer out of a Walmart parking lot before it rolls back into a sinkhole full of rioting third-world factory workers and angry Chinese bankers.
Scientists generally agree that the end of the world will begin in Los Angeles—the epicenter of the American “look at me” industry--and 2012 does not disappoint in this regard. After all, where else would the end of the world begin other than in the city that so loves to imagine what it would be like for the rest of the world to witness the singular tragedy of its demise? Every time I see L.A. destroyed on film (which is constantly, it seems), an extra-textual drama appears to unfold as well: “See, this is what we who make the movies risk to bring you the movies. The obstacles and hazards we face, like the pleasures and luxuries we enjoy, are like no other on earth.” It’s a bit like having to show up to bear witness every time a hysterical teenager has a suicidal fantasy that demands a concerned audience for full catharsis.
As pleasing as it is to see multi-million dollar CGI work dumping vast swaths of multi-million dollar real estate into the sea, I couldn’t help but think how much more interesting the movie could have been in reverse—the end of the world starting somewhere beyond the media horizon, rippling across the ocean and North American continent, imploding the Mojave, crashing through the Santa Monica range, moving down Sepulveda Boulevard ever closer toward a non-descript post-production house in the valley. And then the final shot: the shockwave blasts open the door to reveal a bunch of interns sitting around eating Koo-Koo-Roo and waiting for the now obligatory “there goes the big donut from Randy’s Donuts” sequence to finish rendering on the computer. “Dude! The world really is coming to an end?!,” exclaims a terrified animator just before the screen makes a shock-cut to blank white. That would make 2012, not just the greatest political allegory of the century, but also the first truly great film about the cinema’s own apparent death wish.
But seriously, the unmoored "Randy’s Donut" joke has got to go—it’s like having every film about New York feature a stiff wind blowing down a Gray’s Papaya sign. We get it…it’s a tacky place beloved by the locals for its tackiness (i.e. west side culture workers who have to pass by it on their way to airport).
Subsequent scenes of destruction are much less compelling. A volcano goes off in Yellowstone, but that’s nature v. nature action, so no one really cares. Washington D.C. is destroyed—but as D.C. is now more of a theme park than a real seat of power, seeing the Washington Monument collapse (it’s the Randy’s Donuts of D.C.) is really no different than seeing a demolition crew take down the Cyclone at Coney Island. Molten lava pouring through the Mall of America would have been a much more effective and terrifying scene, reminding us all that the true “end of the world” for this nation is losing the ability to buy Chihuahua sweaters, personal desktop dehumidifiers, and vibrating slankets on credit.
Here and elsewhere, Emmerich subscribes to the Michael Bay school of character development; specifically, if a character speaks five or more lines of dialogue without popping a kid’s balloon or drowning a kitten, it is presumed we are now intensely “invested” in that character’s fate. Apparently Hollywood hasn’t yet worked out all the kinks in this program of affective compression, as 2012 seems to have endless scenes of people you don’t care about saying tearful goodbyes to other people you don’t care about. George Segal? Don’t care. Old jazz musician father? Equally unconcerned. President of the United States? So what. Heroic Russian pilot? Not really. Son with Japanese wife and grandchild? Nope. Anonymous Chinese worker who might die if not released from the hydraulic gears? Ditto. In fact, I doubt anyone would be that broken up if John Cusak or Amanda Peet had bitten the magma. Why filmmakers still feel the need to intercut awesome destructive spectacle with such perfunctory sentiment is beyond me. If I wanted plot and characters with my fantasies of future annihilation, I’d read the Bible, thank you very much.
But back to the political allegory. One charming aspect of the film is how the United States still thinks it is in control of everything--even as the world is coming to an end. World leaders dutifully line up on monitors to hear what our President has to say, to see what he wants to do—a nostalgic throwback to the American fantasy that Ronald Reagan single-handedly lectured the Soviet politburo into submission and glared the Berlin Wall into rubble. A more likely scenario here is that the United States will one day create the film’s central “neutrino” crisis by developing some particularly pungent form of granite-dissolving Body Spray, landing the Prez. in the Hague and forcing all other Americans to once again travel the world with Canadian backpacks until the molten lava at last breaks through the earth's mantle to put us out of our embarrassed misery.
When not reveling in the U.S.A.’s misplaced sense of awesomeness, 2012 makes strange nods to the nation’s uncertain position in the new global economy. Outsourced Indian labor makes the initial discovery that the earth is about to implode (by a character who returns half-way through the film with the rest of his photogenic family so that we might see them crushed by a tsunami. Again, don’t care). Boris Repulski (see above) vacillates, like Russia itself, between potential ally and ruthless backstabbing bastard (his main “crime,” other than being fat, would appear to be that he practices a cold, heartless post-glasnost form of capitalism, as opposed to the good old-fashioned empathetic capitalism of the USA). We see the Queen of England and her Corgies skulking into the Survival Ark, once again coding England as America’s eccentric grandparent. And then there is China. Here the movie has a very specific and very pronounced political message: the survival of the entire world depends on dislocating the people of Tibet and installing a program of forced Chinese labor. “Only the Chinese,” says one character when he first sees the gleaming metallic arks that will save humanity’s elite—meaning only the Chinese could finish such a massive project on time and on budget. It is a statement of grudging respect for the nation that has now stolen America’s Eisenhower fantasies, but also one of racist resentment that would pin our nation’s decline on the extreme and thus inhuman discipline exhibited by the teeming Asian hoards.
There are so many other things to love/hate about 2012: its almost confrontationally hostile use of coincidence to throw certain characters together over and over again (“Look Dad! Our grocery store is on TV!”); the humanistic blather of one guy thinking it’s worth endangering the entire future of humanity to let another .0000000001% of the remaining population onto the arks; the fact that the same .0000000001% manage to rush on to the arks at the very last second with (apparently) no one trampled to death (I mean, come on, 13 people died rushing the stage for a second-rate reincarnation of The Who); a brilliant scientist who uses his one bag of carry-on luggage to “save” a bunch of books for the future, when of course the entire Library of Congress has no doubt already been downloaded into the Ark’s mainframe; the insertion of not one, not two, not three, but four shout-outs to Wisconsin (most likely the screenwriter’s home state); and last but not least, the “All-American but slightly broken family fixed by the eruption of extraordinary events” formula shamelessly lifted from Spielberg.
As a portrait of the earth’s physical destruction, 2012 is passable. But as a symptom the continuing collapse of American popular cinema (alongside its economy and imagination), 2012 is truly terrifying.
If you really hunger to see how the world typically comes to an end, go see the Cohen Brothers' A Serious Man instead.