One of my earliest memories of a palpable and completely irrational fear was camping with my father somewhere in Ontario, well before my 10th birthday. We had typically only taken family vacations to a cottage on Lake Michigan, which, while it was remote and seemed poorly protected as far as locks were concerned, at least had four standing walls and felt sturdy and protective, similar enough to my home to put me at ease. While I was camping, I began to consider the luxurious protections that a house afforded me in ways I had never before. Sure, I had always reasoned that the locks would keep criminals, zombies, and vampires out, but it also protected me from rabid raccoons, bears, falling tree trunks, and flash floods. Camping, I was totally exposed, and even my dad couldn’t adequately protect me from the runaway malevolence of nature.
I became aware of disaster movies in my early teens by way of Airplane! and I felt an immediate connection to them. Movies like The Towering Inferno, Earthquake, and Airport showed me that even ensemble casts of celebrities – people like Steve McQueen (who I just sort of assumed wielded supernatural powers) were still at the mercy of natural disasters. They also exposed me to exciting new fears, like elevators, airplanes, and, thanks to Earthquake, the city of Los Angeles. I discovered these movies about the same time I became increasingly aware of the world’s inequalities, and took solace in them because they leveled the playing field; the people who survived were primarily alive because they were lucky (and had received top billing). Wits and skill, to say nothing of physical attributes or money, entered only minimally into the picture.
After 9/11, and especially after I moved to New York, I found myself drawn to disaster movies in which the city gets destroyed. As someone who has gone through life accumulating fears like others collect baseball cards, movies like Cloverfield and The Day After Tomorrow were a form of immersion therapy for me, putting me face to face with my worst, most irrational fears about the rational order of the city turned completely on its head.
2012 continues in this grand tradition, except instead of leveling a city, or even a region, it does us a chronic worriers a courtesy by destroying the entire world. Currently hovering at about 37% on the freshness meter at Rotten Tomatoes, 2012 has been blasted by critics for being schmaltzy, too long, and unrealistic. Still, in its own peculiar way, 2012 has an undercurrent of emotional realism that has been completely overlooked by critics.
The story is about as intelligible as one would expect from an end of the world movie: the sun has begun emitting a new form of neutrino which is rapidly heating up the Earth’s core (for some reason). With a heated core, all the world’s tectonic plates now move freely about the surface of the earth, causing the types of catastrophes that can only be rendered in CGI. The movie follows Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) a failed novelist, as he tries to save his family by getting them one of several “arks” located in the Himalayas, built by a consortium of G8 countries and private investors.
To be sure, the movie is far from flawless, and the set pieces (and there are plenty) in 2012 is ludicrous. Curtis escapes with his family from Los Angeles in a limousine that handles like a Jaguar, while the San Andreas is opening on their tail, dragging the entire city into the abyss. The escape includes driving through the window and across the floor of a crumbling high-rise, launching over gaps, and skating just under a collapsing overpass. They eventually make it to a tiny propeller plane, getting into the air just as the runway falls away behind them. This narrow escape is repeated not once, but twice, making it off of the tarmac just as it falls away into the fissures enveloping the earth. Ideally, if you’re going to see this movie, or if you know anything about Roland Emmerich’s body of work, you should be expecting this. While the “taking off as the earth gives way” shtick gets a little tired by the third time, it’s still got some climactic scenes on par with those of other classic Emmerich movies like Independence day.
But when it comes down to it, Jackson Curtis is only the protagonist of the movie because he is the main character, not because of any particularly noble or even redeeming personality traits. He’s a taciturn, unfriendly, neglectful father, who is pretty much a failure in all social situations, and solely through an endless string of unfortunate coincidences is he able to see his family, and his family alone, at the neglect of all else, through this end of days scenario. One of the running themes of the movie, brought up by both Curtis and several other characters is people banding together to overcome impossible odds, but the sentiment is oddly undercut by the actions of the characters. Jackson Curtis is only concerned about saving his family, and even though he eventually teams up with a ragtag gang of survivors, they only do so because each holds information that is essential to the others for survival.
There are also some particularly macabre shots of spectacular deaths, people plunging off the side of precipices, and a couple of senior citizens that drive headlong into a wall, that are closely followed up by shots of Curtis’ children staring, tear-streaked and horrified, at the carnage. There are several scenarios in which people could be saved but are left to die, and the featured cast looks on as they die. This story, supposedly about unity triumphing over adversity has a strong undercurrent of individualism in the moment.
Which, honestly, was part of what made it so entertaining to me. Beneath the Vaseline lensed soliloquys about giving people the chance to fight for their lives is a darkly cynical movie about completely unlikable people lucky enough to survive. And if that’s not enough of a draw for you (spoiler alert), they almost crash one of the arks straight into Mt. Everest!