The Master of Disaster Destroys the World (Again) in 2012

The Master of Disaster Strikes Again

Roland Emmerich may have finally outdone himself. After using alien invasion and global warming as recipes for cinematic calamity, the director has ratcheted up his destructive celluloid vision to Biblical levels in his newest film, “2012.”

The main thrust of “2012” is built around the prophecy that civilization will end when the Mayan calendar reaches its conclusion on Dec. 21, 2012.

Of course, aside from a brief expository mention at the beginning of the 2-hour, 35-minute retelling of Noah’s Ark, the Mayan prediction is all but ignored. But who are we kidding? No one’s going to see this movie expecting a philosophical debate over the accuracy and intent of the Mayan culture. As co-star Amanda Peet points out, “It’s not ‘Syriana.’…I don’t think his primary focus on this movie is, 'how can I be topical and socially enriching?'”

If spectacle is what audiences want and expect, they won’t be disappointed with “2012.” Emmerich has raised the bar on the level of destruction to such ridiculous heights, his latest makes “The Day After Tomorrow” seem like a low-budget indie.

It’s one reason why the filmmaker says this is most likely his last disaster epic.

“For me at least, it’s the last disaster movie," Emmerich said. "Because I cannot imagine anything else…maybe a sequel to ‘Independence Day,’ that could also interest me, but that would be it.”

It’s not hard to see why he’d want to call it a day after “2012.” As disaster movies go, how do you top the end of the world?

Tidal waves inundate the Himalayas; monstrous earthquakes decimate California, while volcanic eruptions turn Yellowstone National Park into a cinderblock. Emmerich again takes gleeful aim at some of the few American landmarks he hasn’t trashed in his previous blockbusters. The Washington Monument buys the farm, as does the White House (again). Not even Las Vegas escapes his wrath.

[Neither does the Vatican. However, Emmerich decided against destroying an Islamic holy site onscreen, for fear of upsetting Muslims.]

A personable fellow who sounds like he could make a good living impersonating Arnold Schwarzenegger, Emmerich has always shown keen awareness of the impact the leveling of iconic landmarks such as Rio de Janeiro’s ‘Christ the Redeemer’ statue has on audiences. Review his filmography, and they’re dotted with unforgettable snapshots of destruction. You can’t think of “Independence Day” without envisioning that shot of the aliens destroying the White House. His type of devastation is so distinctive, Emmerich jokes that fans in other cities and countries constantly ask him when they will get their turn in his destructive spotlight.

If a picture’s worth a thousand words, then for Emmerich, a picture-postcard landmark reduced to rubble is worth a $70-million opening weekend.

“Our society is totally determined by pictures and images. All these kinds of landmarks become symbols for something…because of that, when you want to [reference] South America, you pick the most famous symbol and let that fall apart, which indicates for [audiences] that, ‘oh, South America’s gone.’”

“This guy definitely knows how to put together a movie that delivers a catastrophic view of the world,” according to box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian.

“He is sort of his own sub-genre. If you’re looking for logic or any kind of realistic portrayal of these things, that’s not what you go to this movie for. You go for this vicarious thrill of watching the world [get destroyed].”

Disasters will endure

Even if “2012” is truly the last time Emmerich chooses to unleash hell Hollywood style, don’t bet on the genre going extinct. Natural disaster has had a role in the movie business going back to the 1930s, with films such as “San Francisco” and “In Old Chicago.” The heyday for the genre came in the 1970s, when all-star casts tried to survive mayhem in films such as “The Poseidon Adventure” and “The Towering Inferno,” films produced by Emmerich’s cinematic ancestor, the late producer Irwin Allen.

Various “Airport” pictures and “Earthquake” continued the trend. But once the appeal of seeing familiar faces such as Lorne Greene holding on to collapsing cardboard film sets wore thin, the genre was banished, for the most part (the 1983 TV movie “The Day After” a notable exception), to the B-movie back lots for nearly two decades.

Then in 1996, Emmerich and co-writer Dean Devlin set box-office records with “Independence Day.” Besides turning Will Smith into a superstar, ID4 also upped the ante for the level of cinema cataclysm, Disaster Porn if you will, for future filmmakers.

Pretty soon, you had asteroid movies (“Armageddon” and “Deep Impact”), volcano films (“Volcano” and “Dante’s Peak”), and of course alien invasion films (“War of the Worlds”).

The appetite for destruction continued to grow in large part because special effects technology has advanced to the point where there is literally nothing that CGI wizards can’t build, and subsequently destroy.

Emmerich himself says there is no way “2012” could have been made a decade ago, because the technology wasn’t yet to the point where the massive tidal waves in the film could have been realistically delivered.

There seems to be no limit to the amount of virtual apocalypse Hollywood will crank out. Emmerich confirms that talks are ongoing for a “2012” TV series, which would pick up where the film leaves off.

Movie audiences have already seen “Terminator Salvation,” the fourth installment of the humans vs. machine war of the future, and “9,” an animated film set during a time when humanity has been wiped out. We even had dystopia played for laughs with “Zombieland,” which follows the few remaining survivors after a virus turned the U.S.A. into the land of the walking dead.

Thanksgiving week will see the debut of “The Road.” The adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel of a near future stars Viggo Mortensen as a father trying to show his son how to hold on to his humanity on a devastated Earth where gangs of human cannibals run wild.

Why we love cataclysm

The allure of the End of Days for audiences is a reflection of real-world uncertainties, according to “The Road” director John Hillcoat.

“I think there’s a lot of stuff that’s come home to our doorstep,” said Hillcoat. “Whether it’s terrorism, the environment, now the latest is the economic [downturn]…there is a lot of insecurity out there in the world. A lot of stuff that we’ve buried our heads in the sand over for too long.”

 “The Road” doesn’t show or explain the event that wipes out much of the planet. Unlike “2012,” it deals with the aftermath. But that didn’t stop the film’s producers from releasing a misleading trailer using stock disaster footage, in an attempt to cash in on the movie’s apocalyptic appeal.

John Cusack and Amanda Peet play divorced parents trying to keep their children alive while the world crumbles in “2012.” Peet compares the appeal of a disaster movie to that of a roller coaster.

“We all feel really vulnerable, and in a low-grade way, we’re all anticipating something…you go to an amusement park and go on a roller coaster because it’s a controlled way to scare yourself. It’s like a safe enactment of something really scary. You can kind of weirdly enjoy it in a masochistic way.”

“I think that’s why these stories have a hold on our imaginations too, people like that feeling,” Cusack suggests of community and brotherhood. “…When they get to that place where there’s no more China, U.S., Russia, Christian, Jews, Muslims...none of that stuff, and everybody’s in it together, people want that unity…I think its escapist entertainment, with a little bit of social conscience.”

“This genre offers all of these questions,” offers up Chiwetel Ejiofur, who stars as the scientist who first learns of the impending danger. “…We can ask ourselves what we would do, what we wouldn’t do, and how we would behave and how we might not behave. And I think audiences enjoy those dilemmas.”

Ejiofur, whose character is sort of the movie’s moral compass, says the main appeal for him to do “2012” had to do with the director.

“I think they [disaster films] have obviously, with Roland…this incredible visual landscape and sort of, style and pure cinema that’s kind of adrenalized and I think people really go for that,” said the actor. “And it was one of the reasons why I wanted to work with Roland. I just think he’s someone who’s so passionate about giving people a unique cinematic experience and really try to push the boundaries. It’s very exciting to be around that.”

The Master of Disaster

While none of the actors put much stock in the accuracy of the Mayan calendar, they do profess undying faith in Emmerich as the master of disaster.

“The thing that surprised me most about the experience was how easy it was, and how sweet Roland is,” Peet said. “It’s hard for me to believe how anyone can be in control of that many people and so many aspects of a very difficult production on that scale and not be a lunatic, egomaniacal tyrant. I don’t know how he gets anything done being so gentle.”

“He’s great. He’s very collaborative. He said to me, ‘look, the special effects are only going to be as good as the actors I’m cutting to.’ I think there’s maybe four or five people on the planet who can make a movie, master the special effects but that also have total control over the film, write it, work with the actors [like Emmerich does.]”

Because his character is not involved in any of the major disaster scenes, Ejiofur admits to a bit of green-screen envy, during the earthquake sequences shot on the Vancouver soundstages. He even admits to jokingly pleading with the director, “I want to be more like John. I want to do stuff!”

Alas, your chance to dodge disaster, Chiwetel, may have to wait until next time. If there is a next time.

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