Saturday, November 21, 2009

It's the end of the world as we know it... and I want my money back.

I get it. We like roller-coasters, we like horror flicks, we like apocalyptic tales of total destruction and annihilation. We like to be scared. Maybe our lives -- too planned, protected and Purell-ed are too boring and we long for the thrill of knocking on death’s door just to see if anyone will answer. Or maybe, our day-to-day activities are so mundane we cling to reminders of what we value most - the chance to see and breathe and live another day. Maybe Tyler Durdin was on to something when he terrorized that convenience store clerk at gunpoint just so the clerk would wake up the next morning and value life more than anyone else ever possibly could. Then again, Tyler Durdin was a crazed figment of one man’s imagination and more importantly, Fight Club should never be a film to live your life by.

But I get it. The adrenaline rush that comes with the prospect of losing everything you hold dear - and then the rush of satisfaction when you get it all back. Isn’t this why we flock to theatres to see these “end-of-days” movies? At least, movies that toy with the idea of the end-of-days but are never actually the end - because let’s face it, who would want to go see a movie where every human being actually died and everything was lost and there was nothing but total despair? That would be, probably, kind of a downer.

Besides, if we really want to see war, destruction, despair, and the suggestion that we’re headed towards our own apocalypse, don’t we just need to turn on the news?

And that might beg the question, is this why 2012 - Roland Emmerich’s latest global destruction flick - is hopelessly cheesy and ridiculous? Because the death of civilization is too possible; too real - that he has chosen to hand us a parody of what the end of the world might look like so as not to make any of us feel uncomfortable in our ever-increasingly insecure post-9/11 world?

Or is Emmerich really just that terrible of a writer?

2012, for those who haven’t seen it (and I really don’t recommend that you do, unless you have 158 minutes of time you really need to waste and a REALLY good sense of humour), is an unforgivably bad movie, and easily the worst end-of-the-world movie to have come out of Hollywood in the past couple decades (although maybe I should re-view Armageddon before I make that claim; I was 15 years old and in a Ben Affleck haze at the time and may have found merit in some of the wrong places...).

And maybe the claim that 2012 is the worst of the bunch is a bit unfair - I mean, the Americans (er, I mean humans) did save the world in Independence Day by uploading a virus to the Alien spaceship’s mainframe -- miraculously and mysteriously compatible with Jeff Goldblum’s Windows laptop -- and then blowing the ship to smithereens with this feisty line from Randy Quaid: “in the words of my generation, ‘Up yours!’” It’s not like anyone can argue against the silliness and the tongue-in-cheek pro-USA rah-rah-rah nature of Emmerich’s first disaster movie - and maybe 2012 isn’t even any worse in that regard; It certainly does have its own tongue planted securely in cheek for much of the film (really, the governor of California is an Austrian former actor who dies when Armageddon hits California first? Yeah, there’s subtlety).

But there’s something missing here. Independence Day was made in the NINETIES. Pre-9/11. Pre Iraq and Afghanistan. Pre-economic devastation. This was a funny, cool, kick-ass movie. Our enemies were these twitchy, foreign entities, arriving from outer space with every purpose to destroy us, and without any reason why. Watching the White House blow up was comical because at the time, it seemed impossible. We got the 30-foot drop roller-coaster thrill of watching it explode; while we still had the seatbelt safety of knowing the real White House was tucked away on Pennsylvania Avenue. It was fun to be afraid during a time when people felt they had nothing to fear. The US was all-powerful; untouchable; infallable. There was right, and there was wrong; and when the alien enemy was blown to Kingdom Come, we celebrated with 4th of July fireworks.

Fundamentally Independence Day was a celebration of war; of fighting; of winning - during a time when the United States was not at war -- but seemed to have a kind of misplaced, nostalgic yearning for it.

I think my biggest issue with 2012 is that thirteen years later, the template for the end of the world hasn’t changed much (and if I may interject a footnote here - I know I’m skipping over The Day After Tomorrow - and partially because as cheesy as it was, I thought it was a better film. It at least flirted with the idea of dealing with the very real issue of climate change, even if ever so comically. I could easily dissect it too but that’s not the point of this post. Besides, who can argue with the delicious irony that was the tongue-in-cheek in that film - Americans illegally crossing the border into Mexico? Well done). The only real change from the template in 2012 is that this one is bigger, louder, and faster (and frankly, more annoying). The earth gets destroyed on a much bigger scale. Time seems to run out more quickly for everyone (except for John Cusack and his family, who are excruciatingly always a half second ahead of certain death for the ENTIRE MOVIE - someone please explain to Roland Emmerich the concept of overkill), and the repercussions for the planet more dire (more people die in this film than in any other).

And aside from the mere cinematic point of view that thirteen years later, audiences deserve a plot with more sophisticated storytelling, dialogue, plot devices, character development, and so on (and I could go on - and I do think this is a valid point entirely on its own), I think I take much bigger issue with the fact that within the past thirteen years our social and political landscapes have irrevocably changed, and this film doesn’t even attempt to reflect that. This film is at best, a total joke, and at worst, offensive to our intelligence and sensibilities. We arguably live in apocalyptic times. We live with the threat of nuclear war at our doorstep; we are ever-so-slowly (or, increasingly, quickly) causing the decay of our planet, rendering it potentially uninhabitable for our own species. There are wars and famine; there is disease and overpopulation. Now is a time that is ripe for apocalyptic rhetoric - and maybe we’d all be looking in the wrong place if we looked to an Emmerich film to recite it, but still, I think I’m offended by the mockery of it.

And I don’t mean that I wanted to see a dark and depressing portrayal of a true end of the world; as pessimistic as I can be, I believe in hope and I believe in a future for humanity (and I like entertaining movies where things blow up just as much as the next person). I just think there’s a way to channel apocalyptic possibilities without making them look so false; so cartoonish. Comedy had a place in Independence Day -- people were rallying around a common enemy and that made everyone giddy. In 2012 there is nothing to rally around except for John Cusack’s stupid, unlikable family. Comedy is intermittent and misplaced in this film. One never knows when a moment is meant to be serious or whether it’s intentionally that flaky; then you see a character die and you sort of think “I guess I shouldn’t be laughing right now.” And here’s a question - when the generally nice step-dad dies at the end (sorry to spoil) for no reason other than to make room for John Cusack’s character to reclaim his throne as the family patriarch, is that supposed to be darkly funny? Or did Emmerich just really hate his own step-dad?

I think there’s a lot that could have been done with the concept of this supposed Mayan prophecy of the end of the world (though Mayans today think the whole thing is a lot of hogwash, but I guess that’s just another footnote). Emmerich seemed to skip over the intrigue of prophecy entirely to cut right to the CGI. There was no chance to build a plot; there was no chance to introduce characters that any human being would have recognized as one of their own. More importantly there was no chance to portray unity of human spirit. There was no chance to even portray fear, or the appreciation for life. Everything happened too fast, and in the end, everyone in the world died except for a few arks full of the wealthiest people on the planet who paid 1 billion Euros each to get a seat (with a few Chinese factory workers thrown in for good measure), oh, and also John Cusack and his family. Everyone else died and there was no remorse. And there was certainly no sense that the end of the world was in any way the responsibility of humankind (people died due to the shifting of the continents by way of crustal displacement, which flooded the Earth, except for Africa it seems - how nice, too, that since likely no Africans made it on to any of those arks, the wealthy people of the world got to go expropriate Africa and exploit its resources. Again. Handy, that Africa).

If this movie had been made in 1996, it would have been just as bad (albeit with better effects), but it wouldn’t have bothered me this much that it was this bad. And maybe I’m looking into it way more than anyone should, but I actually take offense to it. Does Emmerich really think we are this stupid? Wait, how much money did this movie make on opening weekend?

If it had been parody, I might have said Emmerich is a genius. Then again if Ann Coulter’s books were considered satire, the same could be said of her.

But we already know that Ann Coulter is just a crazy, inflammatory nutcase.

And as for Emmerich, it would seem that unfortunately, he’s just that terrible of a writer.


Graeme C. said...

“…who would want to go see a movie where every human being actually died and everything was lost and there was nothing but total despair? That would be, probably, kind of a downer… I don’t mean that I wanted to see a dark and depressing portrayal of a true end of the world; as pessimistic as I can be, I believe in hope and I believe in a future for humanity.”

Just wait for The Road

Graeme C. said...

"Does Emmerich really think we are this stupid? Wait, how much money did this movie make on opening weekend?"

$65,237,614 in the US, plus another $11 mil US or so in the UK (plus Canada I guess). But with a budget of $200 million, it hasn't made a profit yet. Still hasn't opened in other countries though.

One of my co-workers saw it, and she loved it (she also thought James Cameron produced it however, and that James Cameron directed Lord of the Rings). Some people just want to see CGI I guess. I suppose movies like this work for them. I remember one of my professors at U of T claiming that Independence Day had some redeeming qualities on the level of satire or something (and it was a remake of course; in the original the aliens are defeated by actual viruses, which makes a bit more sense); I wonder what she'd think of 2012.