On One Hand

November 16, 2009

2012: Colonialism Revisited?

Filed under: culture,media — ononehand @ 9:20 pm
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Few would see a movie like 2012 expecting a heartrending story line or touching lesson in human nature. From the onset the purpose of the film is clear: we’re going to blow this place up.

That was certainly the reason I rushed to see it on opening night, after the trailer laid it out for us in telling sneak peeks: Acres of city blocks slide like clods of dirt into the Pacific Ocean. A Buddhist monk rings a sacred bell as a tidal wave the size of a continent washes over the desolate Himalayas, killing him. 2012 boasts itself with scenes that are as awe-strickening as they are disturbingly beautiful.

As far as that goes, the only criticism I can offer is that the film pivots, about a quarter of the way in, from going too slow to suddenly going way too fast. A few mild tremors shake Los Angeles in the first part of the film – during a painfully tedious exposition to let characters reveal their cliche family backstories – and then without warning, Southern California splits itself apart in an abyss as deep as the Marianas Trench. The next thing we know, Yellowstone Caldera is erupting as a supervolcano in a bang so powerful it sends out shockwaves and a mushroom cloud akin to a Hydrogen bomb. (True to action movie form, the explosion rips over the hills at thousands of miles per hour until it approaches our protagonists fleeing in a lumbering motor home, and slows to their pace for their nail-biting escape. The explosion seems to pause or even retreat for several minutes as they scramble out of the vehicle into a parked airplane, but quickly re-accelerates to barely kiss the tail of their plane as it speeds away, churning with black smoke, glowing rocks and lava all the while.)

By the time Yellowstone has erupted, the world is basically over. The skies darken. Subsequent scenes of destruction are posed as an afterthought. “Oh, by the way,” the President’s Chief of Staff explains to aides in Washington, “Rio de Janiero was just destroyed by an earthquake” (cue footage of Christ Redeemer crumbling off its perch), then in a similarly decontextualized scene, we watch St. Peter’s Basilica collapse and kill the entire hierarchy of the Catholic Church along with prayerful masses (we see nothing of the rest of Rome, though). When our protagonists get their airplane to Las Vegas, most of its hotels and casinos have already anticlimactically collapsed into the core of the Earth in a giant earthquake, and we witness the ruins of Las Vegas astride a seemingly infinite abyss. Washington D.C. is next to go, at a pace that is almost too fast to comprehend; an earthquake takes down the Washington Monument, then a gigantic, yawning tidal wave rises out of the Atlantic and looms over the city (which is covered by volcanic ash from Yellowstone), but the film cuts away just as the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy, an aircraft carrier, lands on top of the White House.

Scenes such as this will continue through the rest of the film, revealing impending disasters but ending before the actual destruction ensues. Tidal ways loom up, but we cut away before the waves strike, and we assume that the characters who stood watching it are killed. Earthquakes begin but leave the scene before they reach their full strength. In other cases, we happen upon a ruined city that has already been destroyed, as happens with Honolulu, covered by lava. Most often we get even less than this: a military commander tells a diplomat that “Tokyo has been destroyed by an earthquake. Singapore has been wiped out by a wave.” The most dramatic disaster scene of the film remains the drawn-out Los Angeles earthquake from the beginning.

The thing that is notably missing from the film is discussion of the Mayan prophesy (or rather, rumor) of destruction in 2012 that is its impetus and namesake. If the film had the spiritualistic or supernatural overtone, then maybe the rapid succession of perfect coincidences that destroy the Earth’s cities would have a haunting poignancy. Instead, we are left only with science to explain what is going on, and the science falls flat. (According to 2012, solar flares make the lower Earth’s crust melt and the continents slide around through the ocean like leaves on a pond.) We learn that the planets line up in such a way as to lead to these events every 650,000 years, even though there has certainly never been an event like this in Earth’s history, which has been through almost 7 thousand 650-million year periods in its 4.5 billion years. As exposited in the film, the geophysical anomalies leading to the Earth’s destruction cause the continents to shift thousands of miles in the blink of an eye – something that requires them to move at tens of thousands of miles per hour, yet nobody on the ground is flung into space as would realistically happen if that occurred. This all happens magically on the ground without so much as cough of disturbance in the atmosphere, as observers in airplanes don’t figure out that land masses have moved until suddenly what they thought should be Guam turns out to be Tibet.

It is the end of the film that really gets me, though (Spoiler Alert). Beyond all the drama of survivors taking refuge in gigantic futuristic arks (tickets cost a billion Euro, so it is the world’s richest people who survive – our middle-class protagonists are stowaways) that the world’s governments had been building all along for mankind’s survival, the last scene in the movie tells us where humanity will go to rebuild: Africa.

According to the final scenes of 2012, in all the earthquakes and tectonic shifting, Africa has risen in elevation so much that it avoided being washed over by tidal waves that obliterated the rest of the planet. The Cape of Good Hope is now the highest point on Earth, which is, confusingly, where the world’s governments decide to set up humanity again, on the peaks of what will likely turn out to be glaciated mountains (sounds like paradise, right?). Our protagonist tells his children, who mourn the loss of their Southern California home, that they will find new homes where they are going.

But – uh – don’t people already live in Africa? Mayans were the first ethnic group be written out of 2012, Latinos are strikingly absent from the casting, and now the narrative suggests that native Africans are absent from the Earth. Forgive me for my politics, but it seems that having the world’s billionaires land on a dark-skinned continent to “re-build humanity,” as the story explains, is just a tad colonialist. There is no reference to the African governments, which were evidently not even part of the international ark-building program to begin with. I’m confused if the film’s writers see all Africans simply as tribal nomatic peoples, or as so militaristically primitive that it just doesn’t matter whether or not they already own the land you want to take. Perhaps the pending television series will elucidate this further.

I would say that 2012 has the basic structure of a great disaster movie, with awe-inspiring computer-generated explosions akin to Armageddon and Independence Day. But it tries too hard to be something else; if its all about the disasters, then the disasters should follow the same natural arc that any good story line does: subtle at first, but introduced to witnesses (in this case, the world’s population) through a gradual process of discovery, first with small bad news, then in steps to full awareness. In 2012, everyone outside a secretive government agency finds out that the world is ending after it is already well under way. There is no great “pending doom” scenes as occur in the latter parts of The Knowing where the horizon glows red with what is to come. There is no gradual escalation of events like the way small volcanic eruptions and gas emissions precede the big climactic pyroclastic explosion in Dante’s Peak. For the full effect, panic needs to slowly build through political wrangling, small cities taken down, riots, disasters following realistic trajectories, looting and then outright terror before the world’s ultimate demise rather than mundane obliviousness until suddenly your home and city is swallowed by the Earth.

Finally, the end of the movie leaves out bits of information that nerds like me are interested in most. What is the state of natural flora in preserved Africa, or in the rest of the world? The closing scene zooms out to show us a remodeled Africa (with drastically altered coastlines), the lone continent that has not been stripped bare by waves, and its central parts are still green. But what about the rest of the Earth? Does Florida border Argentina now? Is Antarctica to turn into a tropical paradise? The producers were either too lazy or just didn’t think audiences would care enough to want to see what has changed. In a movie that utterly lacks a decent human story, there is too much emphasis on the human story when those of us who did like the film liked it for one reason alone: the awe-inspiring natural world.

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