WARNING: END-OF-THE-WORLD-AS-WE-KNOW-IT (AND I DON’T FEEL SO GOOD) SPOILERS
Imagine you’re a divorced father with an 11-year-old son named Noah and you take him and his sister camping in Yellowstone Park, but he’s sullen the whole time because he still blames you for the divorce, and he’s already bonded with mom’s new live-in boyfriend, a breast-augmentation surgeon named Gordon, who’s given him a cool new cellphone with which he won’t stop playing. But imagine during this camping trip the lake that was once there is now all dried up and guarded by the U.S. military, and imagine via the ramblings of a rogue radio DJ you figure out that the earth’s core is heating up, and, days later, via the snide remarks of the kids of the Russian billionaire for whom you chauffer, you figure out there’s a giant spaceship that the best and brightest and richest are all getting on in order to survive this global cataclysm, which is coming now, yes, right now, so imagine you return like a madman to your ex-wife’s house and get the kids and the ex-wife, and even Gordon, and you all pile into your limousine as California shakes and the earth crumbles behind you, literally behind you in the rearview mirror, and in order to get away from it all you have to drive around slow grandmas and falling telephone poles and through falling skyscrapers, but you do it, you get your family to an airport, and you convince Gordon, who’s had one or two flying lessons, and is dithering even as the world breaks up, to fly the family up and out, and you all watch in horror as half of California sinks into the sea.
Then imagine you fly back to Yellowstone because the rogue DJ has a map that shows where this giant spaceship is being built, but to get this map you have to drive a camper crazily up an down a small mountain, and then around more falling trees while, again, the earth crumbles in your rearview mirror. But you get the camper back to the airfield in time and you search and search and, yes!, find the map, but, no!, just then the crumbling earth catches up to you and the camper falls into the widening crevice and it looks like you’re toast. But with your family watching, and with Gordon urging everyone to just leave you behind, you somehow crawl out of the crevice, map in mouth, and then run and catch the plane as it gathers speed and takes off with you breathlessly on board and Wyoming literally opening up and bursting into flames below you. But you’ve got the map now so you know where to go to save your family. Holy shit! China!
Then imagine you’re in the Vegas airport, which is where you head even though, let’s face it, it’s closer to the west coast and the disasters you left in the first place, but you don’t have time to think about any of that, you just need a bigger plane, one that can take you and your family (and Gordon) all the way to fucking China, and lo and behold!, you run into your Russian billionaire, who has such a bigger plane, but who needs a co-pilot, which you have, in Gordon, and a deal is struck, and the two families take off in this giant Russian jumbo jet with its large cargo hold filled with expensive automobiles instead of, you know, hundreds of the people below who instead of being saved die horribly as Nevada, too, succumbs to earthquakes and upheavals and destruction.
Them imagine this same plane, damaged during your miraculous takeoff, makes it all the way across the Pacific Ocean but suffers final engine failure and has to crash in the Himalayas, but everyone survives because of two people: 1) the Russian pilot, who gives up his life, and 2) you, because, as the plane is near-crashing-landing, you take one of those expensive automobiles in the cargo hold and drive everyone down a ramp and onto the snow and ice of the Himalayas at, what, 150 miles an hour, before the final, fiery crash of the plane, but you do it, you do it again, you save your family (and Gordon) again.
Then after the Chinese military drops in and picks up the Russian and his kids—because they’ve paid their way on board the spaceship—imagine you manage, at the last instant, to flag down a Tibetan Buddhist family driving a truck to, quel coincidence!, the same secret spaceship where they have a family member who’s a guard and who’s allowing his family to stow away on board. And imagine because they’re Buddhist they let you and your family stow away on board, too, and you do, you’re inside!, you’re finally inside the spaceship!, even as the Russian and other billionaires are mere rabble below, about to be left behind in the devastation of earth’s final moments.
Except imagine that the powers-that-be have a change of heart, and decide to let those billionaires actually board the ship, and they lower the ramps, and you and your family, not to mention the Russian mistress and the Tibetan family, who are stowed away in there, are caught in the gears of this lowering and raising of ramps, and though the Chinese guard’s foot is crushed in the machinery you manage to save him, but you can’t save Gordon, poor Gordon, and he’s crushed and gone, allowing you to finally reunite with your family, and with your wife, who still loves you.
But imagine the devastation of the earth has created tsunamis that have now reached the mountainous levels of the Himalayas, and they come crashing onto your ship, which isn’t a spaceship at all but an ark, an ark to travel these new oceans. Except, in the raising and lowering of the ramps, something, and not just Gordon, got caught in the gears, and is preventing the final ramp from being raised, and water is pouring in, ocean water, one imagines freezing ocean water, although arguments can be made that this water, too, has been heated enough by the earth’s core so that those drenched in the water, which is you and yours, do not suffer from hypothermia. But now imagine the powers-that-be, aware of you, and aware of the problem with the ramp, need a volunteer to swim down and remove the obstruction, even as they define such a mission as “a suicide mission”; but with a final farewell to your ex-wife, who now loves you, and your kids, who now admire you, you swim down further into the cargo hold, and your son, your formerly bratty son, actually follows, and the two of you remove the obstruction that allows the ramp to close, which allows the engines to start, which prevents the ark from crashing into Mt. Everest and dooming all aboard. Instead everyone is saved. Everyone. Because of you. And guess what? It wasn’t a suicide mission after all. You and your son survive.
And now imagine it’s 27 days later and you’re one of 4,000 people left alive on earth, but everything is stabilizing faster than anyone anticipated, and—better!—it’s discovered that Africa has risen several thousand feet, and is habitable, and that’s where everyone is headed, toward the Cape of Good Hope, ah yes, Good Hope, and for the first time in 27 days the ark doors are opened and people get to breathe fresh air, and you and your wife, who loves you again, and your kids, who admire you again, all of you stand on this platform like a family on vacation and lean on the railing and look out at the placid ocean that you’re plowing through in this brave new world that barely has any people in it, and your son looks up to you and says:
“Daddy? When are we going back home?”
Question: Do you smack the kid around? Or do you smack around the writer-director who wrote that shitty line?
There were many instances in “2012,” particularly in the second half, when I wanted to smack around writer-director Roland Emmerich. To be honest, the first half of the movie isn’t that bad. At least it’s better than I thought this type of movie would be. Emmerich is a good roller-coaster operator and he gives us a helluva ride. Here’s his problem: He thinks he has something important to say about life. And he has nothing important to say about life.
The action-hero father described above is novelist Jackson Curtis, played by John Cusack. When I first heard Cusack was going to be in this disaster flick, this update of “The Poseidon Adventure” and “The Towering Inferno” but with an all-star cast fleeing, not a upside-down boat or a burning skyscraper but the entire planet, I blanched. Really? Lloyd Dobler? In this? But he’s the best thing in it. He makes us care. Someone else has written that Cusack and Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Adrian Helmsley, a scientist who is among the first to figure out that solar flares are heating up the earth’s core, which will cause cataclysmic shifts in the year 2012, are the two best things in the movie, but it’s really just Cusack. Sorry. Normally I love Ejiofor, but the scientist role is a drag role unless you do something like Jeff Goldblum did in “Independence Day,” where he always seemed not quite there because he was always two steps ahead of everyone else. Ejiofor doesn’t give us that. His scientist isn’t even particularly smart. He doesn’t figure out what’s happening to the earth’s core (his scientist-friends in India do that) and his timeline for when the cataclysm will occur is off by months or years (which is why the panic at the end). But he cares. That’s his redeeming quality; he cares. And there’s nothing worse, during an environmental cataclysm, than a scientist who doesn’t know science but cares.
Plus he’s given one of the worst speeches any actor has ever been given to read.
Let me back up. In 2009 scientists in India discover the earth’s core is heating up, and, in 2010, the President of the United States, Thomas Wilson (Danny Glover), announces the bad news to other world leaders, but everyone keeps it secret. And in secret they build their arks. And in secret they finance the building of the arks by offering the richest people in the world a seat on board. Cost: 1 billion euros. And in secret they gather the best that humanity has created (this DaVinci, that Picasso) along with the best that God has created (“of clean beasts and of beasts that are not clean, and of fowls, and of every thing that creepeth upon the earth”), to try to preserve something of what has been.
And when do they tell the rest of the world? They don’t. Because they don’t want to start a panic. Which you kind of understand. But still.
Plus anyone who knows about the world ending and tries to tell the rest of the world? They kill them. Boom. Dead. Which you kind of understand. But still.
When the apocalypse finally happens, Pres. Wilson decides to stay behind in D.C.—to go on the air and let the people finally know what’s happening—and the vice-president, well, he dead, and so Chief of Staff Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt), doing his best jowly Al Haig impersonation, takes charge on one ark. And when it’s discovered that Helmsley’s calculations are wrong again, and, instead of hours, they have a mere 28 minutes before a tsunami hits them, Anheuser orders the ramps of the arks raised, dooming the hundreds of people in the holding area still clamoring to get on board.
And that’s when Helmsley, this simple scientist who can calculate nothing correctly, overrides Anheuser, the cutthroat career bureaucrat who didn’t even tell his own mother the cataclysm was coming; and Helmsley talks directly, via Star Trek-like viewscreens, to the world leaders in the other arks, about those hundreds of people below, and about what it means to be human. And how the best in us involves risking ourselves in order to save others. And how if we begin this enterprise, this brave new world, by an act, not of sacrifice but of selfishness, then we have doomed the enterprise from the outset.
And there is silence. And there is silence.
And all the world leaders say with contempt: “Who the fuck is this guy?”
No, they agree with him. And so the ramps are lowered and the rabble are allowed to board. And the people are saved. And by extension, through this act of sacrifice, we are all saved.
The problem? Those rabble are all the rich fuckers who paid a billion euros a seat and told no one else, including their own mothers, that the world was ending. They’re the selfish of the selfish. And they’re the ones who are going to start our brave new world?
The time for that Helmsley speech was 2010, when every backyard mechanic and carpenter and welder could’ve attempted to build his own ark, for his own friends and family, but the leaders of the world didn’t allow this to happen. The enterprise, in other words, began with the most monumental act of dishonesty and selfishness possible. And nothing Helmsley could say in 2012 could right that.
But Roland Emmerich needs his moment of hope. Even if it makes no sense within the story he’s created. Even if it’s such a lie that instead of raising hope it raises bile.
All of which raises a disturbing question. Most of the movie is about the rush to get to a safe place, the ark, which, yes, is safer than Yellowstone, safer than Vegas. But is it really safe? It’s one of the three vessels floating on the oceans of a dangerously different world, and filled to capacity with rich bastards, politicians, monarchs, bureaucrats and schemers. In some ways, give or take a cute John Cusack family, they’ve managed to gather the worst people in the world into this one place. And some of these people, remember, were nearly left behind in the Himalayas, and so know not to trust the people in charge. Which is who exactly? Who is policing matters? What rules of government are being adopted? Who is ensuring that food is shared, and property isn’t stolen, and women and children aren’t taken? Who is making sure these arks don’t turn into floating versions of “Lord of the Flies”?
I know. It’s just a movie. By which people always mean: It’s not supposed to make sense. It’s just supposed to make us thrill at the destruction. So in “2012,” along with everything mentioned above, we get to watch the Vatican crumble, God and Adam on the roof of the Sistine Chapel torn asunder, the Washington Monument collapse, and the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy, risen by a tsunami, obliterate the White House. Fun! And if it all feels a bit derivative, well, at least Emmerich, the man responsible for “Independence Day” and “The Day After Tomorrow,” is stealing from himself here. But did his dialogue have to be derivative, too? Did Jackson Curtis, on first meeting the wacky DJ, have to say “I have to get back to...earth”—like Woody Allen to Christopher Walken in “Annie Hall”? Did he have to say, upon discovering their destination was China, “We’re gonna need a bigger...plane”—like Roy Scheider in “Jaws”? Are these homages or lazy writing?
Don’t even get me started on the scene where, in the quiet of the cargo hold of the Russian plane, with the world being destroyed below them, Jackson turns to his ex-wife, played by Amanda Peet, and asks, “Do you think people change?”
Do I think people change? I think solar flares change and the earth’s core changes and tectonic plates shift, and, yes yes yes, I think people change, or at least are capable of changing, every single moment of their short, sad lives. But at the moment I just think people die, as they are doing right now below us.
The only one who doesn’t change, apparently, is Roland Emmerich, who keeps giving us this, the dumb epic disaster film brightened by the last, false moment of hope, and who deserves, for the ten bucks and 160 minutes he just cost us, to be smacked around just a little.
November 15, 2009
© 2009 Erik Lundegaard