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2012: Not a Complete Disaster

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Ben Radford

Volume 34.1, January / February 2010

This review contains spoilers.

One might be excused for wondering what, exactly, German director Roland Emmerich has against the United States. After all, his films (such as Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow) are known for showing American icons such as the White House and the Statue of Liberty being destroyed.

With his new film 2012, Emmerich ups the ante, depicting a global disaster caused by terrestrial instability. John Cusack stars as Jackson Curtis, a Los Angeles writer whose failed novel causes the end of his marriage. Jackson wants to reunite with his family and ends up (almost literally) going to the ends of the earth to save them. At the same time in Washington, DC, the president’s chief science advisor discovers an impending danger in the earth’s unsettled tectonic plates. He butts heads with the chief of staff over when the information should be made public and who they should tell first.

The film tackles a variety of weighty questions, such as: If the end of the world was coming, what would you do? If only the government knew, who should be told? If there was a way that some people could survive, who should decide who lives and who dies?

In the case of a true global catastrophe, is there really any point to announcing it to the world? Put simply, if everyone’s going to die in thirty-six hours and there’s nothing anyone can do, what’s the point in telling people? Assuming you had perfect knowledge, why bother? Some people would panic, others wouldn’t believe it anyway, and still others would try to write and market their book on it overnight.

These are interesting questions, but they unfortunately get lost amid the film’s shouting, explosions, and crashes. About a half dozen subplots appear, several of them awkwardly aborted in the rush to get to the disaster scenes.

Then there are the implausibilities—and I’m not even talking about Los Angeles sliding into the ocean in such a cinematic fashion. Jackson Curtis has more lives than James Bond and Indiana Jones put together: he literally outruns fireballs and earthquakes, saving the day with each step. But my favorite eye-roller is when almost the entire world has been consumed by fire and flood—except, apparently, the parts that allow a last-minute cell phone call so that two lead characters can share one last scene together.

But to criticize a disaster film for being implausible is a bit silly itself. People don’t go to disaster movies to see rich emotional tapestry or Memento-like airtight logic; they go to see stuff get blown up. And on that level, it succeeds.

Destroying the world is not easy, and the filmmakers used a variety of special effect techniques to bring global disaster to the big screen. From a visual effects standpoint alone, 2012 is a remarkable achievement. The actors were often on moving sets—none of that cheesy original Star Trek technique of throwing actors to the floor while shaking the camera to simulate explosion concussions. In many of the scenes, the objects are actually collapsing around the actors while giant gimbals and hydraulic lifts jostle and jolt the sets. Some of the scenes are remarkably effective (a shot of a giant wave overtaking a cruise ship is genuinely chilling, reminding me of The Perfect Storm), while others look like a cartoonish video game.

The film is basically a retelling of the biblical flood story and has nothing to do with the date 2012. It could have been set in 1995 or 2013, but the 2012 angle made a perfect hook for the film: Why not tie it in with the supposed end of the world, allegedly tied to the end of the Mayan calendar in 2012?

Not surprisingly, Columbia Pictures is taking full advantage of the New Agey 2012 doomsday discussion/panic/concern to help promote the film. Over the past year or so, many people have suggested that the year 2012 will bring some sort of significant change, either catastrophic disaster (as in the film) or perhaps a new age of enlightenment (as in what did not happen with the so-called Harmonic Convergence in 1987). The link between global catastrophe and Mayan calendar-based prophecy is tenuous at best. Some ads for the 2012 film begin with the phrase “The Mayans warned us,” though of course the Mayans did not “warn” anyone—they simply had a calendar system that happens to “end” in 2012, much as our Gregorian calendar “ends” on December 31. The Mayans never said the world would end that year and have shown irritation and contempt for the way that their culture has been co-opted into pop-culture notions and Hollywood blockbuster film promotions.

New Age and doomsday authors have been cranking out 2012-themed books at an amazing pace over the past six months; there are literally tens of thousands of such titles in print, with more hitting bookstores every day. It seems that anyone with access to a keyboard and an opinion on 2012 (or prophecy in general) is out there trying to cash in. It will be interesting to see how many of these books will be for sale on Amazon.com for even one cent on January 1, 2013.

I interviewed the director and cast of 2012 for LiveScience.com; you can see the videos of the interviews online at http://www.newsarama.com/common/media/video/player.php?videoRef=NA_091028_2012-Emmerich#playerTop. Of particular interest to Skeptical Inquirer readers is my interview with Chiwetel Ejiofor, in which he discusses how his character struggles to maintain scientific integrity in the face of political influences. After the Bush administration’s well-publicized antiscience stance and overt attempts to bend scientific research for political ends, this point seems especially relevant.

Though 2012 is not a great film, it does have some interesting pro-science aspects that skeptics should take note of. While John Cusack is the lead star, the hero of the film is really a black scientist, Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Helmsley is the president’s chief science advisor, and it is he who first discovers the impending danger. The film somewhat realistically portrays the difficulties of scientific uncertainty—how sure do you have to be to sound the alarm? This is not an academic question but arises in discussions of scientific prediction on a wide range of topics, from asteroid impacts to global warming.

Not only is the scientist the hero, he is also the film’s major moral compass. There are no evil, white lab-coated scientists in 2012; there are only scientists (and a few nerds thrown in for good measure) doing their best to save humanity. 2012 is a completely humanistic disaster film; the catastrophes are not the work of either angry gods or magic spells but nature itself. The film shows prayer failing miserably to stop the destruction—even the Pope in the Vatican gets smacked away (Emmerich told me he originally wanted to show Mecca being destroyed but didn’t want to risk a fatwa). In the end it is science—hardworking, unglamorous science—that saves the day.

These are wonderful, humanistic, pro-science depictions that I’d hope to see in more films; it’s a shame to see them buried amid so many CGI disasters and explosions in 2012.

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Benjamin Radford is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author or co-author of six books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is The Martians Have Landed: A History of Media Panics and Hoaxes. Radford is also a columnist for Discovery News and LiveScience.com.