Mark Harris on ‘2012’
The most repellent image I’ve seen in a movie this year is in a movie I haven’t seen. It turned up in the trailer for 2012, Hollywood’s latest big-budget exercise in literal overkill, which was viewed by tens of millions of Americans on Oct. 1 when the ad premiered on several networks and cable channels. 2012, a sci-fi thriller about the end of the world, is the brainchild (I use the term loosely) of director-writer Roland Emmerich, who previously destroyed the world in Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow and is apparently planning to proceed through the rest of his career unencumbered by good taste or a second idea. If you’ve seen Emmerich’s earlier movies, you already know his MO: Forget about the millions of people who are dying, because what are they, in the grand scheme of things, but extras? Just focus on the movie stars, and rely upon the certainty that the lovable doggy will almost always be able to outrun the mile-wide nuclear fireball.
Every generation is entitled to its own disaster-movie paranoia, from the aliens-are-taking-over parables of the 1950s to the Earthquake schlockathons of the 1970s to today’s end-times blockbusters. But the trailer for 2012 ventures further into what my colleague Marc Bernardin has called ”destructo-porn” than anything I’ve seen. In two minutes, a train plunges over a cliff; car-clogged freeways collapse, sending drivers to their deaths; a jumbo jet crashes into the ocean; St. Peter’s Basilica rolls over its congregants, smashing them like ants; an entire city slides into the sea — oh, and as a bonus for those of you who saw this in theaters, a tidal wave (in a river, but never mind) hurls an aircraft carrier onto the White House, smashing it to smithereens.
Meanwhile, we’re also granted a hint of the plot, which seems to be that some dude (John Cusack) is trying to get his family out of L.A. In the ad’s biggest high-five moment, his little escape plane zips between two parallel high-rise towers just seconds before those towers collapse into each other, presumably killing thousands of CGI flyspeck humans. Forget the towers! the trailer seems to say. How cool was it that the plane threaded that needle?! Awesome! Cusack lives! I half expected a video-game bonus-point total to flash in the corner of the screen. But about those towers: Eight years after 9/11, Hollywood has apparently decided that not only can we see two giant buildings coming down in a movie but we want to, because it’s fun. Yesterday’s world tragedy is today’s money shot. And make no mistake — 9/11, and your memory of those images, is what that moment is all about.
Strangely, I do think that even mass catastrophe can be packaged into popular entertainment. In ABC’s promising new sci-fi series FlashForward, an event of unknown origin that results in several hundred thousand deaths sparks a futuristic mystery — and yet the cringe factor is blessedly absent. In the 2012 trailer, however, mass annihilation isn’t the pretext, but the pleasure itself. Even last year’s destructo-porn entry Cloverfield made a mild effort to convey human horror. But 2012‘s ad does little more than string together image after image of computer-generated cataclysm to stimulate the part of your brain that just wants to see stuff (and people) blow up real good.
Artists reprocess world events into entertainments and provocations all the time. And why shouldn’t they? This summer, some critics gave Quentin Tarantino serious grief for rewriting the Second World War as a loony fantasy of Jewish-superhero vengeance in Inglourious Basterds. But I loved the movie. Tarantino’s hugely enjoyable film was riffing on the very idea of movies transforming history into escapism — something, by the way, that World War II movies have been doing since World War II. All 2012 is doing is mulching something real and awful into eye candy. It’s the Transformers aesthetic — relentless, weightless mayhem shot from PlayStation camera angles. And you can mark the sight of those falling buildings as the moment when Hollywood’s attitude toward 9/11 devolved from We should be careful to Oh, lighten up.
Actually, when it comes to appropriating imagery from 9/11 to sell an overpriced cheesefest of a disaster movie, here’s my feeling: Don’t. Thanks for the teaser, but I think I’ve seen enough.