Editor’s Notes: Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day: Resurgence is out in wide theatrical release this Friday, June 24th.
The “adventure” film, for lack of a more nuanced or clinical term, is nearly as old as cinema itself. Even further back than this (much further, in fact) is the hero’s journey, a category of stories which has seen a myriad of iterations. But I don’t want to get into narratology, per say, especially given the relative campiness of the film referenced in the title of this essay. Instead I just want to expand a bit about what makes this very mediocre movie a tinge more meaningful and emotional, and how it helped elevate, if ever so slightly, an otherwise silly exercise in CGI destruction.
Somewhere in the first tenth of Roland Emmerich’s 158-minute 2012 (released, as a reminder, in 2009), I realized it probably wouldn’t be a prestige picture in any way, shape, or form. Maybe it was when government geologist Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor, bless his heart, giving it his all) storms into a schmoozy black-tie gala to serve scientific papers to the White House Chief of Staff, informing him of the looming disaster. Maybe it was when a scummy plastic surgeon is outed as a bad guy because he doesn’t do liposuction on Fridays because it’s “too messy” (insert eyeroll emojis here). Or maybe I should have been weary of a distinct overuse of Woody Harrelson voiceover in the trailer. My bad.
Anthony Lane lamented “‘2012’ is so long, and its special effects are at once so outrageous and so thunderously predictable, that by the time I lurched from the theatre I felt that three years had actually passed and that the apocalypse was due any second’” in the New Yorker. Meanwhile, Joshua Rothkopf wondered in Time Out New York, “Do we really care about the emotional fissures of a broken suburban family, when only moments earlier they are seen piloting through a collapsing Californian seaboard or an erupting Yellowstone?”
Point taken. I suppose it’s hard to expect prestige or a grand accomplishment from Emmerich, who has a spotty track record directing projects which fall closer to camp than true awe. The man really hates the White House (I mean, really, truly, hates it, whether it’s the abode of President Bill Pullman, Jamie Foxx, or here, Danny Glover), and already tried to tackle the generally-flat climate-change-disaster genre in 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow. It wasn’t in itself a disaster, nor was it anything to write home about.
It’s even harder to defend 2012 with the age-old maxim “at least it’s fun!” Tried and true, this idiom has been flogged by too many silly (and bad, bad, bad) movies, including several in Emmerich’s own filmography. Generally speaking, “it’s fun” is a flimsy excuse for flimsy movies, and it’s hard to even use in this case. Tonally darker than even Independence Day without as much “fun” as White House Down, 2012 is a colossal of bummer, lacking even the wherewithal to say “fuck it, let’s put Godzilla in Madison Square Garden” just for the hell of it.
Yet 2012 differentiates itself in a much more subtle but significant way (and I do realize how ironic using the word “subtle” is in a column on 2012; bear with me). What novelist and main character Curtis Jackson (John Cusack) lacks, unlike say Captain Steven Hiller in Independence Day, is a home. Sure he owns a house in Los Angeles, a place to park the limousine he drives as a temporary job, but we as the audience spend approximately a minute inside su casa. As he flees the disaster first striking the golden state (revving up the limo after picking up his ex-wife, their kids, and her new husband), there’s no indication that anyone will be returning to southern California. This monomyth won’t end with a glorious return, and in that way, we don’t truly know what the emotional payoff might be. Those ties are cut, and the fate of Curtis and his family are (relatively) uncertain, but like Max Rockatansky told us last year, they have just one thing left to do: survive.
Many films are grounded in returning home, gaining back what we once had (or dreamed of having). These stories of redemption sell tickets, make good trailers, and bump Fandango ratings. They resonate with audiences and give a sense of fulfillment to the third act. Yet 2012 isn’t quite this, with the words “redemption” or “reclamation” remarkably absent. No, 2012 is an adventure story to the bone, and not one where Curtis chooses to act heroic, but where he’s simply hanging on for dear life.
I love this romantic sense of a limitless excursion, the clean slate that comes with a new start that’s altogether terrifying and thrilling; the short tightrope walk between the end of something familiar and the beginning of something unknown. In a much less dramatic fashion, we survive these transitions all the time, leaving the safety of a local high school to the uncharted territory of a faraway university, or quitting that first job to pursue your passion. The further along we get, the larger the jumps and the deeper the canyons become. This process can be eerie and breathtaking, but formative and life-altering.
In this way, 2012 is a fantasy beyond the natural disasters dreamed up by the CGI team. Unlike Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (another favorite “adventure” of mine) or Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper in Interstellar, Curtis Jackson gets the benefit of knowing that he has everything that really matters with him on his journey. Despite their initial protests, his ex-wife Kate (Amanda Peet) and their two kids Noah and Lilly (along with Gordon, their step-father) are with Curtis every step of the way, and even play an integral role in their survival at times. The suspension of everything except those who matter most resonates as loudly in 2012 as it has in other (better) movies such as Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. Nothing brings the family together like the destruction of the human race.
Within its genre, the film is also gratifying in its self-consciousness. In one of the (many) opening sequences, a group of “officials” take away the Mona Lisa to be put in a “safe place” because of the looming disaster, which is at this point a secret to the larger world (and, in a way, to the audience). Later, we see a myriad of monuments felled by earthquakes, from the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican to the Randy’s Donuts statue in southwest Los Angeles. If 14-year-old Ryan were to make a disaster flick, it would assuredly look like 2012.
But it isn’t just the CGI money-shots we’ve all wanted to see that makes the movie so appealing (if no better in terms of quality). Instead, we go back to Curtis Jackson, who if you couldn’t tell already plays the everyman we’re engineered to related to. The definition of his role, however, compared to the everyman in countless other action films, is palpable. Jackson isn’t the hero of humanity-blowing up the alien mothership to end the last battle for planet Earth. No, he’s simply the hero for his family. Empowering his ex-wife’s husband to pilot a few airplanes to safety, catching the group a ride in a pick-up truck in the far reaches of the Chinese Himalayas, Jackson is closer to a facilitator than an action star. Most “regular guys” (of the Tom Hanks variety, for example) are called to act at an almost unfathomable level, at least for those of us gorging ourselves with popcorn and slushies in the audience; Jackson is just weirdly well-connected, the glue of an oddly successful group of people riding out the storm.
2012 is over two-and-a-half hours long, and it feels every minute of that. I first saw the film in 2009 in a university lecture hall, my butt numb on the unforgiving wood. Yet it’s an endurance test in many ways beyond this, with the safety of the character’s homes destroyed with one of the first devastating earthquakes on screen. That type of abandon is pronounced, and quite honestly unique in tentpole filmmaking (just look at the major blockbusters this year, from The Martian and Mad Max: Fury Road to Jurassic World, where the narrative ends with the characters’ trip back home). It’s a sense of adventure, and of worldly detachment, that makes 2012 such a loveable picture. Now just imagine if we could get something like that from a better movie.