Morals, management, and 2012

With 2012, Roland Emmerich has forgotten Stalin’s first rule of disaster filmmaking: A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic. And so with the whole world coming to an end, Emmerich delivers a big pile of statistics but very little in the way of tragedy.

The Day After Tomorrow is pretty close to a perfect film. The key, of course, is the relationships  — between Jake and Emmy and between Dennis and Jake, with the plot driven by dad’s promise that he would come and find his son, no matter what. Of course he’ll succeed, but it’s the individual acts of heroism and loss along the way that keep us engaged with the magnificent special effects.

2012 is just one long mess of CGI’d destruction, with a relationship structure ripped straight from Twister. And while I’ll take Amanda Peet over Helen Hunt any day, John Cusack is no Bill Paxton. Worse, he’s no Dennis Quaid, with none of the manly-man gravitas that makes you want him to actually save his family. Instead, Cusack is a whiny, failed writer who is clearly a bad husband and a worse father. His kids dig mom’s new boyf, a plastic surgeon played by the creepy, corrupt reporter from the last season of The Wire. And of course they like the new boyf: he loves them and their mom and is a good provider.

None of this should stop you from seeing the movie, of course. But what really makes the film worthwhile is a chance to digest the film with the most perverse moral grounding imaginable.

There is a simple code to these sorts of films: There’s always a bad guy who redeems himself just before he dies, a magic negro type who sacrifices himself for the greater good, and the loyal friend who sticks with the hero, because he apparently has no real family of his own. In the end, the question of who lives and dies is determined by an entirely predictable calculus of schoolyard justice.

Emmerich has taken heat for the implicit racism of the film, which shows a bunch of white people getting saved at the expense of members of the other races. That’s true enough, but the big problem with this film is not that it is an example of twisted politics, but that it is a lesson in horrible management.

In 2012, the world is coming to an end, and almost all the people who do their jobs, remain calm, and make the hard choices are portrayed as villains and end up dying horribly, while the people who panic, get emotional, and abandon professionalism and public service in favour of private interest  are heroes.  The president abandons the citizenry and dies a noble death, while Oliver Platt — the most senior remaining member of the administration — is portrayed as an asshole for trying to make the tough choices that absolutely have to be made.

Meanwhile, through their own narcissism, John Cusack and his crew manage to almost destroy the ark that will save humanity, only to be cheered when they (barely) manage to fix the mess they caused. I dunno… maybe it’s some weird George W. Bush parable, but it is hard to love a film where a useless idiot like Cusack gets his wife and family back, while the guy who actually did all the work of saving them (the plastic surgeon) gets mulched in the massive jaws of an industrial ratchet, the harmless Russian mail-order bride drowns, and the guy who let them into the ship in the first place (against his better judgement) almost gets his leg ripped off for his efforts.

Still, it is nice to see the Earth get some.