Best apocalypse I’ve ever had
Every now and again a film comes along that defies your expectations, raises the bar for all film-makers working in the genre, and leaves you feeling much much better than when you went in. When that happens you feel blessed; films that hit the mark like that come along so rarely they deserve your respect, your money and, dare I say it, your love.
I am an unashamed fan of disaster movies; they capture the essence of what is important about humanity and remind us that we people are one with nature and not apart from nature. The first genuine disaster movie was Deluge, made in 1933 in which a paper model of NYC, and most especially the Statue of Liberty, is destroyed by a tsunami (Roland Emmerich referenced this in The Day After Tomorrow). Like all such films to follow it concerned the struggle of a good, honest working man, trying to protect his loved ones in the face of almost insurmountable odds.
Disaster films tend to introduce a new kind of special effect to the audience. The Poseidon Adventure gave us the first realistic depiction of a capsised boat (though if you watch the capsising scene frame-by-frame you can actually see the actors pulling the table-cloths off the tables as they run past them). The Towering Inferno was the first to show fire in reasonable proportion to the building (watch old episodes of The Thunderbirds to see the opposite of this, where flames and water give away the scale of the models to humourous affect.) Earthquake in 1974 introduced Sensurround to the jaded masses and The Swarm in 1978 (I saw it with my Mum) gave us some pretty convincing bee-clouds.
The 80s saw an almost complete time-out on disaster flicks. Audiences, jaded by one too many Airport films flocked to the spoof Flying High! (as we knew it here in Oz, or Airplane! as the rest of the world knew it). While the world was distracted by Hypercolour t-shirts, the boffins at places like Industrial Light and Magic and Silicon Graphics were busy inventing the next great leap in disaster movie technology; CGI. In 1996 Twister tore screens apart and layered some stunning CGI storm effects on top of Helen Hunt and an unfortunately dreadful script.
Later that same year Independence Day (which I don’t actually count as a real disaster movie as it’s man vs aliens, not man vs nature) showed us just what blowing up the White House could look like. Enter Roland Emmerich, genius. That same year Tim Burton gave us Mars Attacks! which, being based on a Pinball game of the same name, was more of a spoof than a genuine disaster movie. Disaster movies are not meant to be hilarious, they are meant to make you sit on the edge of your seat and, every now and again cry out “Holy Shit!” while reflecting on your own humanity.
By the end of the 90s the Disaster flick was back. Dante’s Peak and Volcano went head to head in 1997 with CGI lava. The jury is out as to whether James Cameron’s Titanic is a disaster film, (it’s actually a chick flick) but if you can count the Poseidon Adventure then Titanic has to count. And that scene where the boat breaks in half is some of the best 45 seconds of cinema ever, or was anyway. In 1998 Bruce Willis and Robert Duval both died to save us all in Armageddon and Deep Impact (two word review - Deep Shit), both essentially remakes of the 1979 film Meteor.
These films should have been able to cash in on the general end-of-the-millennium madness that was predicted and I am shocked that no-one made a Y2K film in retrospect. But the events of 11 September 2001 were so much like a disaster movie in real life that Hollywood spurned the disaster movie for comic book heroes instead.
It took the teutonic genius of Roland Emmerich to get skin back in the game with his Climate Change themed The Day After Tomorrow . Here for the first time we see Emmerich mastering the art he had been practicing for so long. All of the significant disaster tropes are there in spades but Emmerich peppers it with genuine insight, political nuances and a clear sense of humour.
But all of these films were just practice runs for 2012 . This movie not only combines every single disaster movie trope into 200+ minutes of the most eye-bugging special effects ever seen on a screen (and a mere 50 minutes of soap), he also manages to throw in a wink and a nod to every other disaster movie ever made. It out earthquakes Earthquake, towers over the Towering Inferno, makes the volcanoes in Dante’s peak look like some much potassium permanganate on fire in a grade 8 chemistry class. Its massive waves, gushing over Mount Everest, put The Perfect Storm into a teacup. His capsising cruise liner is gone in seconds.
By crushing the White House with the USS John F Kennedy, Emmerich shows just how far one’s tongue can enter one’s cheek. It even gives a nod to such classics as The Cassandra Crossing, albeit for less than a second of screen time. It revels in its “Hollywood science”, makes reference to almost every conspiracy theory ever named, (this is a film than demands freeze frames so you can see the book titles, background movie posters, etc etc) and keeps the “son I always loved you but now we are all going to die” melodrama to an absolute minimum, cutting short the traditional boring reunion scenes.
This is disater porn at its best; almost all money shot. And for once the trailer doesn’t give away the most dramatic scenes in the film either. As a disaster movie this is simply the best there has ever been, and possibly the best there ever will be.
But 2012 is more than that. Roland Emmerich not only references all of the other disaster movies, he takes the whole format and twists it, wrings out the dross and presents to us the ultimate in humanist dramas. All disaster movies are essentialy atheistic. They are about people, nature and people coping and surviving as nature shows herself to be all powerful. Emmerich takes huge delight in ramming this point home again and again by first mentioning in passing the Taliban’s wanton destruction of Afghanistan’s giant Buddha statues, and then going on to destroy many of the Christian world’s most significant icons.
(He cut the scene destroying the Kaaba in Mecca. “Well, I wanted to do that, I have to admit,” Emmerich says. “But my co-writer Harald said I will not have a fatwa on my head because of a movie. And he was right. ... We have to all ... in the Western world ... think about this. You can actually ... let ... Christian symbols fall apart, but if you would do this with [an] Arab symbol, you would have ... a fatwa, and that sounds a little bit like what the state of this world is. So it’s just something which I kind of didn’t [think] was [an] important element, anyway, in the film, so I kind of left it out.” - SciFi Wire)
Anyone in the film who resorts to prayer gets killed, usually immediately. The tearing apart of the Sistine Chapel roof (the crack groes right between the touching fingers, severing Adam from his god), the collapsing of the giant Jesus in Rio De Janeiro and the crushing of the faithful in St Peters Square all drive home Emmerich’s point. In a time of crisis people need to rely on themselves and their inherent decency, not on superstition and blind faith. In 2012 the Mayans were right, the Gods are dead, and humanity is saved by its own human nature.
2012 is spectacular, but politically and socialy nuanced like no other disaster movie before it. But most of all it’s tremendous fun and deserves to be seen on the biggest screen you can find.
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