Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Disaster warmed over

As we noted last time, one of the conventions of disaster movies is frequently that some human being or human beings in general are ultimately responsible for either causing the disaster or, at the least, for making it impossible for the disaster to be averted or properly dealt with. As we also noted, Roland Emmerich’s 2012 seems to deviate from this convention in that no human being seems to be particularly responsible for the earth’s crust deciding to shift. It seems to be a case of cosmic bad luck because the planets have aligned in a certain way in relation to the sun. But the ancient Mayans seem to have figured this was coming, so maybe we human beings are at fault for not paying more attention to the Mayans.

And this is probably a good time to mention that, as before, I am not avoiding spoilers for the movie, so choose to continue accordingly.

The reason that we have become accustomed to having a human villain in our disaster movies is that, as with many specific movie genres, there is usually a consistent moral message. In horror movies, for example, the moral is usually that slutty girls get hacked up by serial killers. In westerns, it is often that men who can draw pistols out of their holsters very quickly tend to survive. And so on.

The implicit moral in many disaster movies is that people have no business trying to build skyscrapers, cruise ships, etc. that are too big. An ancillary moral in regard to movies about natural disasters is that people are too stupid to listen to concerned scientists or specialists who keep warning us about where to build our houses and other important buildings or about evacuating ahead of some impending doom. Indeed, the currently ongoing climate conference in Copenhagen would make a great opening bit for a disaster movie. 2012 has a bit of this in the tension between the concerned scientist played by Chiwetel Ejiofor and the character played by Oliver Platt, who I understand to be the White House chief of staff although I’m not sure his exact position is exactly specified in the movie. Anyway, Platt’s character is meant to be the thick jerk who doesn’t heed Ejiofor’s moral concerns. Interestingly, he never doubts for a moment Ejiofor’s scientific warnings. This is not one of those movies where the dramatic tension comes from authorities not believing the dire warnings of the scientists—usually resulting in some or all of the authorities dying horrible, terrifying deaths or at least experiencing extreme guilt when they see what they have caused. Instead, the tension in 2012 (such as it is) comes from the fact that the scientists’ projections keep turning out to be too optimistic. A secondary bit of tension comes from the running argument between Ejiofor and Platt over the unfairness of picking and choosing a small fraction of humanity to save because there is no way to prevent the deaths of the overwhelming majority of the planet’s population.

We are clearly meant to identify with Ejiofor, but here’s the problem. While Platt’s character is truly a jerk, he is almost always right. If the major governments of the world did not pick a select few to survive, then no one would survive. It would be nice to save everybody, but that is clearly beyond the technical capability of mankind. Sure, it would be nice to have a perfectly fair way to select the potential survivors instead of giving the places to the politically and financially connected, but what method could possibly be considered fair? At the very end, Ejiofor makes a fuss because hordes of unauthorized people have made their way to the dock, where the lucky few have boarded the arks that are meant to survive the calamity, and he wants them let on board. Platt argues, rather convincingly, that opening the doors for a mob could put everybody’s life in danger. Indeed, when Ejiofor convinces the crew to open those doors, it very nearly ends in disaster because John Cusack and his family have dropped some sort of cable into one of the doors’ opening mechanism, jamming it open.

The height of Ejiofor’s self-righteousness comes when he arrives at the cabin that has been assigned to him and exhorts to no one in particular that it is a travesty because he has so much room to himself and it could have been shared with several others. Yet, after the hordes have been let on board and the ark has been asea for some time, he seems to have taken on precisely one other person to share his spacious privacy: the attractive daughter of the late president, played by Thandie Newton. Wherever those desperate hordes were eventually stowed, it does not seem to have been in his luxury cabin.

The reason that I have gone over all this is not because I have a better idea than the filmmakers of how to save humanity in the face of a major shift in the earth’s crust. I don’t. I am merely expressing confusion. On the surface, 2012 appears to nearly be making a Marxist argument. Ejiofor’s character keeps demanding that rich capitalists be stripped of their influence and that everybody’s standard of living be made equal and their chances of survival made equal. But he is really the ultimate limousine liberal. Throughout the whole movie, he consistently enjoys the benefits of his station in life and leads a fairly privileged existence, all the while giving out about the system that has benefited him but, as far as we can see, never volunteering to give up his own perks.

This makes me wonder whether Emmerich has his tongue in his cheek. Is he deliberately tweaking liberal values while pretending to agree with them? It is worth looking at the movie in the context of the director’s overall disaster movie oeuvre. Emmerich, of course, burst into our consciousness in 1996 with Independence Day. It is hard to remember now but, coming as it did midway through the relative peace and prosperity of the Clinton presidency, it actually jarred with the time. Telling the story of an alien invasion, it was imbued with a sort of patriotism that had seemingly gone out of fashion. But it was strangely prescient. A half-decade later its scenes of urban destruction would echo as America lived through the very real terror of the 9/11 attacks. And Bill Pullman’s Air Force pilot president, personally taking on the invaders, would be subliminally reprised when George W. Bush briefly took the controls of a plane landing on an aircraft carrier festooned with a banner that read, “Mission Accomplished.” Was the German Emmerich actually embracing some American jingoism or was he slyly mocking it?

Emmerich’s follow-up to Independence Day, at least in his disaster movie skein (his other films include Universal Soldier, Stargate, Godzilla, The Patriot and 10,000 BC), was the global warming cautionary tale The Day After Tomorrow. Now, if any movie were to have to make a firm stand on a question that divides liberals and conservatives, it would have to be one about global warming. But it was an awfully strange global warming movie. You might expect a disaster movie on this subject to involve rising sea levels and vanishing islands. But maybe that scenario was a bit too leisurely for a big-budget, fast-paced action movie. Instead global warming took the form of glaciers appearing as if out of nowhere. And the way they appeared was the strangest thing of all. Forming ice seemed to actually chase the characters. As they ran away, the ice would form right behind them. This CGI gambit would be echoed in 2012 where the crumbling surface of the earth would constantly disintegrate just behind the wheels of cars and taxiing airplanes. Again, the question had to be asked, was Emmerich having us on? Was he having a joke by making a global warming movie that involved everything freezing?

If we believe the media, Emmerich is actually serious about global warming and so was apparently serious about the issue—at least to the extent that you can be serious making a big-budget CGI-laden action movie about an important scientific issue. As a person, he is known to be a concerned supporter of women’s rights in the developing world and of Hillary Clinton’s run for the presidency last year. But when it comes to filmmaking, it is clear his highest priority is merely to entertain. No more. No less.

-S.L., 17 December 2009

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