2012 is not a film that has divided critics. Most people think it’s crap. I was undecided about Roland Emmerich. Is he just another Michael Bay, marshalling expensive mayhem and ill-gotten sentiment painted by numbers to a strict blockbuster formula? Or is there some wit and irony folded into delirious excess of the whole enterprise? Emmerich seems to be making the same film again and again, continually dressing up one idea of global catastrophe’s effect on families in ever bulkier clothing. I myself can’t quite decide. I oscillate between giving it some credit for fabricating a committed deconstruction of the blockbuster disaster movie, and trying to pretend that I ever went to see it at all. So, maybe you too can indulge your indecision, or flatter your hardline opinions with another of Spectacular Attractions‘ patented “Build Your Own Review” posts. Think of it like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” approach to film reviewing. That way, you won’t be distracted by the sight of me weaseling out of my responsibility to give my own view…
1. Why don’t they put on the posters “2012: From the director of Ghost Chase.” Because Ghost Chase was crap. Really crap, to the extent that it couldn’t possibly be a mistake on his c.v., but more likely an indicator that Emmerich struggles with deficiencies in the talent department. His films are repetitive, and they don’t develop or get more adventurous: the escalating scale of his disaster movies indicates that all he knows how to do is make everything the same but bigger, making 2012 an index not of his development as an artist, but of the fattening of his wallet and the stultifying bloat of his imagination.
2. It seems unfair that Emmerich gets compared to Michael Bay, who lacks any sense of wit or self-aware humour, when we might just as easily give him the same credit that critics have routinely afforded Paul Verhoeven, who similarly subverts Hollywood genres by replaying their cherished conventions as vulgar, excessive, ethically troubling fantasies. A generous critical reappraisal of his work will one day reveal him to be a cunning and self-reflexive trash auteur, skilfully moulding a cohesive body of work that critiques the values of late capitalist society by demolishing its achievements. Don’t be surprised if someone describes him as the Douglas Sirk of disaster movies a couple of decades from now.
- So, what are we to assume from this film? The wealthiest people in the world get to buy their way out of inevitable doom, and we’re supposed to consider this a hopeful ending just because John Cusack’s little girl no longer pees her pants? Now that‘s moral relativism. The world’s governments successfully hide their plans to save their elites and let the rest of the world perish (because they would only panic like the troublesome individuals they are), though I’m sure they don’t tell the world to stop paying taxes and enjoy themselves, because that would leave less money for them to build themselves needlessly lavish arks filled with all the modern conveniences and control-room equipment so that their lives need suffer minimal disruption due to apocalyptic annihilation. This is nothing short of monstrous, the single-most contemptuous act committed by world leaders in any film ever. And yet it is never met with comeuppance. Sure, the proud elites feel about sorry about what they’ve done, but they don’t actually do the decent thing and throw their old bonebag bastard selves into the nearest hole in the ground. There’s a gesture towards egalitarianism in the elevation of Cusack’s lowly chauffeur to the status of action hero, but there’s no attempt to overthrow the super-rich international cabal that conceals the true fate of the planet in order to give themselves a headstart on survival at the expense of everyone else on Earth. They get away with it. Except for the fat Russian. And it’s all forgotten by the end – there’s no global stench of death or the calamitous spread of disease that would inevitably spread with six billion bloated corpses bobbing around in the surf. There are no consequences here, just an optimistic sunset and dry knickers.
- The only way to deal with this film is to take it as satire. As with other Emmerich films, there are a number of political gags that cue the spectator that there is an underlying political bite to it all: Governor Schwarzenegger caught in a lie and sucked into an earthquake; humankind upended and sent begging back to Africa; the White House swatted aside by its proudest piece of military hardware. These are all moments of retributive destruction that show Emmerich using his spectacular mandate to dish out justice to the deserving, smashing the hubristic and humbling the mighty. Yes, a more sensational ending would have seen everyone destroyed. Picture a final shot of an unpeopled Earth, its babble silenced, its dramas concluded, inherited by fish and whales who can now go about their business unharpooned. That might have been daring, but we’ll have to make do with what we’re given, I guess. It’s not the job of a blockbuster movie to flatter all of our ethical preferences and settle all of our political disputes.
- There was a plot? I suppose it has some very simple narrative set-ups in order to manouevre all the characters into position to be destroyed or escape. Mostly, this involves having family members separated from one another, gesturing in the direction of sentimentality but never truly interested in studying those relationships. The underlying theme of families whose estrangements and disagreements are thrown into perspective by the collapse of the ground beneath their feet might have been a potent dramatic base, but instead it’s nothing more than an excuse to pretend that there’s more going on than a bunch of stuff noisily falling falling over.
- Emmerich stages his disaster scenes on the framework of families in peril. He has to personalise the destruction to make the omniscient, global perspective more affecting. Many scenes show people communicating from around the world – this is a disaster that affects everybody, and Emmerich focuses on the tragedy of seeing all of the structures of family and society put under stress. Just as disaster separates family members, it can also unite them, as with Cusack and his estranged wife. Hey, you may find it schmaltzy, and it’s certainly idealistic, but you can’t deny that it’s there.
- Let’s cut to the chase – the visual effects in this film are impressively staged by expert technicians, but that’s where the compliments have to end. They are used to replace the need for plot, dialogue and character nuances, and are delivered with such monotonously gargantuan force that they are overwhelming rather than engrossing. It’s also repetitive. John Cusack manages a last minute take-off from a crumbling city at least three times. There’s only so many times you can watch a bunch of stuff falling over before you get the point and have to move on to something more substantial.
- Analysts of popular culture seem ill-prepared to think about special effects without falling back on rudimentary rhetoric about the depletion of narrative. Rarely are spectacular visuals considered as valuable ends in themselves, permitting viewers to indulge in fantastic rehearsals of annihilation, or adding a new depiction of the apocalypse to our cultural pool. As john Cusack’s plane takes off through a collapsing Californian city, we get a vision of tumbling bodies, subway trains, buildings and earth that rivals Hieronymus Bosch for its compendious pile-up of incidents of doom. These are visual effects that enunciate a terrible vision, a fantasy space that can’t be compared to any realist tradition, and needs to be considered a spectacular means of communication on its own terms.
- Borrowing scenes from every other disaster movie (The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake, The Towering Inferno, The Day the Earth Caught Fire, Volcano…) doesn’t constitute a postmodern remastering of genre conventions. It’s evidence of a paucity of ideas, plain and simple. Emmerich springs no surprises, breaks no rules; his only engagement with the disaster movie genre is a kind of visual-effects pissing contest where scale and noise are the only values. Unable to do anything clever, he just inflates everything out of proportion and makes it all the same as the other films, but bigger.
- By knowingly re-iterating genre conventions in an extreme, camp tone, Emmerich reveals their constructedness and their inadequacy at communicating truths about the world. He demythologises genre by refusing to honour or defer to it. All of this catastrophe is supposed to represent the wrath of a disinterested universe, but it seems so aestheticised, so carefully laid out that it actually ends up feeling directed, designed by some intelligent force of natural vengeance. This is most obviously pronounced when the Sistine Chapel splits in two, and a crack runs across the cieling between the fingers of God and Adam. What are we to make of this clash of the secular and the spiritual? These are moments of religious iconography rendered malevolent; for all their terrible weather and rising seas, the key points of spectacular escalation come when these natural forces run into man-made things, revealing them to be utterly perishable. It is in his particular imagining of “natural” disaster that Emmerich imposes a powerful sense of malicious, downbeat doom amidst the apparently safe fun of the whole enterprise.