The World's Dead, But At Least the Family Survived

The World's Dead, But At Least the Family Survived December 2, 2009

There’s an interesting thread to Roland Emmerich’s disaster films.  Against the backdrop of alien invasions or global warming is the story of geographically or emotionally separated families reuniting with one another.  The same plot can be seen in his third attempt to destroy the planet in 2012

Roland Emmerich has tried his dead level best to destroy the planet over the last decade or so, but we pesky humans just won’t let him, tackling the most insurmountable odds as we are want to do.  In this instance, solar flares are heating up the earth’s core and the pressure moves outward, destabilizing all subterranean levels.  On the surface, giant fissures rip cities apart as titanic tsunamis drown coastal regions to finish off what’s left.  Yet all hope is not lost, because a few years ago, a group of scientists predicted this would happen and warned the world’s governments who set about building a group of arks that would preserve a remnant of humanity.  Through private sector sales (around $1 billion per ticket) and “natural selection” people have been given rooms on four giant arks that will ride out the floods.  A failed writer, Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) has been estranged from his wife Kate Curtis (Amanda Peet) and their two children:  they divorced, and she now has a new boyfriend Gordon (Thomas McCarthy).  Against the backdrop of global natural disaster, the broken family races to the arks, and, in the process, reunification.

I find it interesting that, in all three of Emmerich’s disaster films, a main narrative arc is a dysfunctional family becoming functional again, or at least a separated family reuniting.  It’s as if not even global disaster can keep a husband and wife down…or at least it will take said disaster to bring them back together again.  This narrative element is so strong in 2012 that Pop Theology contributor Richard Lindsay argues that 2012 is primarily about the preservation of the heterosexual family against all odds.  He even goes so far as to say that the boyfriend is the anti-Christ…the abomination that stands in the holy place.  As such, he must be sacrificed, in unfair fashion of course, to preserve the family that he invaded.  This also serves as a modern-day example of compensating moral values, a trend that Hollywood directors followed to subvert the Production Code.  They could show all the sex and violence they wanted, as long as the offender got his or her dues in the end.

2012‘s problems don’t stop here.  The world that Emmerich provides, or at least envisions, after the apocalypse is one of only G8 inhabitants.  The leaders of these countries head up the ark-building program with no participation from the two-thirds world…save for their cheap labor of course.  Sorry South American and African countries!  But wait!  Africa survives after all!  In fact, it probably wasn’t even flooded (but the Himalayas were…wow).  2012 concludes with a note of hope as the privileged aboard the arks set a course for Africa, but one wonders if the spared Africans are so hopeful about the potential re-colonization on the horizon.

Many critics have noted a disparity in Emmerich’s destruction of the world, particularly regarding Muslim shrines and Christian ones.  In the film, he takes (apparent) pleasure in destroying the statue of Jesus in Rio, the Sistine chapel, and the Vatican, slowing down the footage for maximum effect.  Jesus’ arms fall off before his body crumbles to the ground, a rift separates the outstretched arms of Adam and God, and the Vatican collapses and rolls over the thousands of Christians gathered to pray in the plaza, the Pope among them (you mean he wasn’t offered a ticket on one of the arks?!).  Apparently Emmerich did destroy Muslim holy places but left these images out of the final cut for fear of violent reactions from extremists.  This parallels, in a modern way, the ways in which Hollywood studios once tinkered with productions based on foreign diplomatic relations, shifting the ethnic or national identity of the villain based on real-world politics.  Of course Emmerich can’t win…some Muslims still protested his film because it pictured the apocalypse, a divine act which should not be envisioned.

One of my students commented in class last night that 2012 is nothing more than disaster porn, if you take the definition of pornography to be sensation without emotion.  This is certainly one way to look at the film, because Emmerich fails miserably at establishing emotional connections with any of the characters.  Now that he has the sets built for the arks, it would be interesting to see if he could succeed in elevating emotion over sensation with a film that looks at “year one.”  He’s repeatedly shown us how humans would respond to potential extinction.  How would we cope with survival?  For more on this, check out tomorrow’s review of The Road.

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