First, it was aliens. Then it was climate change. Now Roland Emmerich is again destroying the world ... through ancient Mayan prophecy. What in the world does this guy have against our world? Did it beat him up at recess or something?
"It’s not the end of the world."
We tell ourselves such things when we burn our toast or spill our juice or get D’s on our semester projects. It’s a comforting thought: No matter how badly we mess up today, we have a chance to wake up and make it better tomorrow.
And even if it really is the end of the world, well … there’s still a bright side. That D suddenly doesn’t look so bad, for instance. And, really, why worry about the status of your toast when you’re toast yourself?
Jackson Curtis, a part-time novelist and full-time chauffeur, isn’t thinking about toast of any sort as 2012 gets underway. He’s thinking about a trip to Yellowstone National Park and how much fun he and his children will have there—especially if he remembers the bug spray. He’s thinking about how his ex-wife will kill him for showing up late to pick up said kids. He’s thinking about what terrible timing his SUV has, stubbornly deciding not to start when it surely knows full well that he’s already running late. He’s thinking about how silly it’ll look, going camping in Yellowstone in his boss’s limousine.
Ah, well, at least it’s not the end of the world, right?
But, of course, it is—or, at least, close enough. For at that very moment in Washington, D.C., a handful of clued-in politicians are wringing their hands over the cataclysm to end all cataclysms. The earth’s core is wigging out, and in a matter of days (or hours or minutes), it’ll turn Yellowstone’s Old Faithful into Old Vengeful, then touch off massive earthquakes and mega-tsunamis while unhooking the very crust of the earth itself.
In other words, it’s just another day at The History Channel.
But it’s not the sort of thing that can be easily fixed with, say, a stimulus package. So the world’s in-the-know leaders decide to keep their collective mouths shut. They have for years now—all the while building massive "arks" to carry humanity’s remnants (the smartest, the strongest and the richest) to start a new life … somewhere.
Jackson, not being particularly smart or strong or rich, has no idea that his vacation will be cut short. Not until, that is, he tries to visit a lake that has boiled away and meets a crazy, end-times radio show host with a penchant for pickles and a map to those arks.
I wonder if they’ll bring any toasters.
"The critics said I was naive and an unabashed optimist," Jackson tells a fan of his books. "But what do they know, right?"
Director Roland Emmerich might’ve spoken these words about himself. It might seem odd to call a film that revolves around the end of the world "optimistic." But 2012 does offer a strange sense of emotional buoyancy—and that’s a good thing, considering most of the earth gets shoved under water.
The crux of this optimism revolves around the characters’ willingness to sacrifice themselves to save others. We see this again and again: a father pushing his son to safety, losing the chance to save himself; a pilot helping passengers escape a crashing plane while he stays behind; a man flirting with almost certain death to save an arkload of humanity. The president of the United States himself—who, by virtue of his job, has a spot on one of the arks—elects to stay behind in solidarity with the rest of the country.
"Today, we are one family, stepping out into the darkness together," he tells everyone.
That idea of family is another massive theme: how family can make disaster not just bearable, but strangely worthwhile. While we see and hear scads of familial tales, Jackson’s becomes our focal point. Divorced from his wife, he seems at first to be a benignly inattentive dad. His son, Noah, finds his mom’s new boyfriend—a guy named Gordon—to be more approachable. But as the family battles one crisis after another, the five of them—mother, father, children, boyfriend—grow closer, sacrificing and caring for each other. When Jackson’s kids ask him to promise that they’ll live through it all, Jackson simply says, "I promise you we’re going to all stay together, no matter what happens." Later, Gordon confesses to Jackson that he has what Gordon always wanted: a real family.
"You’re a lucky man, Jackson," Gordon tells him as the globe grinds to a grim end. "Don’t ever forget it."
When the arks shut their doors on a teeming mass of humanity begging for refuge, a scientist makes a heartfelt plea to let at least some of them in. It’d be terrible, he says, to launch our future with "an act of cruelty." His speech works.
The idea that the world ends in 2012 is based on a calendar formed by the ancient Mayans (though it should be noted that the Mayans also had predictions covering at least another 2,700 years, meaning they must not have thought it was the end). The talk show host tells us that other civilizations echoed the prophecy and claims that the Bible predicts something of the sort, too. ("Kinda," he says.) As his final broadcast is coming to an end, the host tells his listeners he hopes they have all made their "peace with God."
Jackson and his young daughter, Lilly, sing the gospel song "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" on the way to Yellowstone. We see religious services on television and hear a pastor say he and his followers believe in "the gospel of the Lord Jesus. We have nothing to fear." The president spends time in a chapel and, in his final address, recites Psalm 23.
When it looks as if he’s about to die, we hear the president whisper to his deceased wife, "Dorothy, I’m coming home." Another politician refuses to tell his aged, forgetful mother about the end of the world, explaining later that she deserves to "meet her Maker on her own terms."
Catholics gather in St. Peter’s Square to listen to the Pope: The service is cut short by a massive earthquake that destroys the Vatican, whereupon we see a massive crack in the roof of the Sistine Chapel which opens a fissure between Michelangelo’s Adam and God.
Of course we see a man on a street corner holding a sign saying, "Repent! The end is near!" And Buddhist monks play ancillary roles.
Gordon, a surgeon who specializes in breast implants, apparently lives with Kate (Jackson’s ex-wife). When he tries to cuddle her in the supermarket, he tells her that women pay thousands of dollars to have him handle their breasts. He says, "You get it for free." Jackson tries to take his children to a spot in Yellowstone that he and Kate used to love, whereupon his son says, "I don’t want to know where you and Mom had sex."
One woman wears skimpy, cleavage-revealing outfits. Several couples kiss.
If I described every scene of violence in 2012, this story would use up more bandwidth than YouTube. So let’s start with the obvious: The film ultimately kills off about 6 billion people.
2012 showcases what the ultimate apocalypse might look like if it were a Six Flags thrill ride. We see water swamp the Himalayas, Los Angeles fall into the Pacific, quakes tear cities asunder and, yep, Yellowstone blows sky high. Planes crash in massive fireballs, trains plummet off their tracks, cars slam into pillars of earth and aircraft carriers take out the White House. People drown. They fall. They’re consumed by fireballs. They’re thwacked by massive, flaming dirt clods. They’re crushed by machinery.
Along with the rest of those 6 billion hapless souls, many of the main characters die. We don’t see the gory instant of doom for any of them (the camera moves on just before the tidal wave crashes down, or hovers above the machinery as someone’s body slips into the gears), but we’re meant to feel their loss.
Before the end comes, we hear that governments have been killing people who wanted to tell the world about its impending doom. The curator of France’s museums is subsequently killed when his car explodes in the same tunnel in which Princess Diana perished. We see news footage covering the aftermath of a mass suicide.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word. Four s-words. Nearly 20 misuses of God’s name (paired with "d‑‑n" at least five times). Jesus’ name is abused twice. "A‑‑," "h‑‑‑" and "b‑‑tard" are also blurted out. An obscene gesture is made.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Characters drink wine, champagne, whiskey and beer.
Other Negative Elements
Noah talks back to his dad and disobeys him (albeit to help him). A politician tries to convince folks to not reopen an ark door. Lots of people lie, or, at the very least, withhold the truth.
Someday, people will look back at Roland Emmerich’s films and ask one very important question:
What was his deal, anyway?
Emmerich has, in his most popular films, destroyed the world in many colorful ways: through aliens (Independence Day), through climate change (The Day After Tomorrow) through Japanese monsters (Godzilla) and, now, because an ancient Mayan calendar told him to. In terms of sheer body count, Emmerich makes Jason Vorhees look like a pacifistic boy scout.
He says that 2012 will be his last disaster flick: "I know I can’t destroy the world again," he told The New York Times. "That would be kind of a joke."
I don’t believe him.
Emmerich wrecks the world like 10-year-old boys wreck Matchbox cars: with a childlike sense of innocence. So just because I callously compared him to the Friday the 13th serial killer, don’t think that he’s doing it all just for the sake of viciousness. Just because he treats the death of 6 billion people as a ghoulish circus doesn’t make him heartless. Because through the mayhem, Emmerich seems to always try to explore humanity’s best inclinations.
In that respect, 2012 is Emmerich’s most positive film. I don’t mean wholesome; it has too much bad language to be that. And I’ve already talked about the circus-style attentiveness to carnage. But while character development is kept to a bare minimum—just a skeleton on which to hang spectacular CGI effects—the themes here still pack a punch: We can be better than we are. We need to care for others. We are family.
Most of Emmerich’s characters gallop through the worst days of their lives with dry eyes, set mouths and humorous quips at the ready. Little 7-year-old Lilly, however, sees the true horror. And she cries for the unnamed billions.
Despite the fact that disaster movies like this are consistently used to "entertain" us, hers is the more relatable response. As 2012 star John Cusack told USA Today, "If it were reality, we’d all be weeping all day."
There’s an old Greek myth about a little girl named Pandora and a mysterious box she finds. In the story, she opens the box and lets loose all manner of plagues and horrors upon the world. But once the box’s terrible residents fly off to deal out destruction, one last beautiful fairy flutters out—a thing called Hope.
In 2012, Emmerich opens Pandora’s box and lets loose catastrophe. But in the midst of all the CGI destruction we see the flitting wings of a thing called Hope.