With 2012, Roland Emmerich has crafted a perfectly pitched disaster film. I don't mean "perfect" in the sense of meaningful art, but in the ultimate mega-zeitgeist sense that it captures so much about our current historical moment. We can think of this film in the same way that Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia or Triumph of the Will encapsulated the Nazi gestalt, or how a perfectly executed Pepsi ad embodies all the secret recipes of global capitalism's deranged view of the world.
Emmerich is a pop genius. In one flick he combined the entire '70s genre of catastrophe films while riffing some of the top grossing films of all time: Titanic, Earthquake, Poseidon Adventure, Airport, Towering Inferno, and of course he recycles his own global warming saga, The Day After Tomorrow, and his other hits, Godzilla and Independence Day.
So to think about this movie you have to toss out whatever idea you have that this is about 2012 in any remote way. This movie is not about consciousness transformed or reborn. Rather, the Mayans, along with the film's actors, are mere props for the film's main character: computer generated animation exploding on a spectacular scale.
Movies on this magnitude are nothing less than fragments from the dream life of global capital, or what I call the World System. Thus, to get at the film's deeper meaning, we have to take it for what it is: an out-of-body flight through the corporate dream world's restless vision of collapse. Recalling that a "corporation" is a kind of abstract "body," are we not vicariously flying through the World System's hyperspace POV? Films, ads, and commercial culture depict escape from our bodies, banishing the earth spirits so that we can become angels, and this film lifts us like no other.
The runway for our departure was created with linear perspective and its vanishing point during the Renaissance. Just beyond the horizon lies utopia and the space shuttle launch pad. Now that we are in full orbit, flying outside of our traumatized obese/anorexic bodies, we feel this strange jitter like maybe something has been left behind. We look back at earth, but our flight careens through cascading buildings with shattered glass spraying the horizon, smoke billowing from the severed earth, bridges twisting and bending, monster sounds emanating from the bowls of the planet's interior. This is no healing dream of drifting voyage, but one of distress and angst, a roller coaster of tension and release that can no longer be satisfied by bodiless sex. This is how hungry ghosts mindfuck.
As we witness spectacular CGI destruction of LA, Las Vegas, Hawaii, Washington DC, the Vatican and so on, in 2012 almost always we are treated to a bird's eye view as our gaze flies through one disaster zone after another. If it's not airplanes, it's a subway, limo, RV, or boat hurtling over and through cracked earth. But unlike our personal dreams of flight, which often are about expanded consciousness, freedom and release, our mechanical cocoon — the airplane — comes to incorporate an armor against technological and scientific death. But airplanes also are the most common symbol of civilization's failure to keep us safe. One plane accident is a blip compared to how many people die each year from car travel, yet our most haunting traumas come from aircraft catastrophes. Consider how the Hindenburg's ashes smolder in our unconsciousness, or why 9/11 is one of the most potent symbols of terror in our lifetime.
Like Day After Tomorrow, 2012's social commentary is scattered about like fuselage wreckage. The G8 steers the global economy and sets the economic tone in which Hollywood's business is the production of consciousness. Likewise, in 2012 the G8 comes to represent a limited view of the the global consensus. This is no different than the current news reporting from Copenhagen that mistakenly calls the leaders of the globe's top-grossing capitalist bureaucracies "the world," or how we internalize the behavior of a corrupt military industrial complex as the work of "our" democracy. Neither represent "us." So when it comes to the film's Malthusian lifeboat metaphor (leaders have foreknowledge of impending world destruction and only a limited capacity to save the population), G8 leaders sell cabins of the mega-luxury ocean liners that will be civilization's arks for one billion euros apiece, the rest are left for the "genetically fit." Only the humble presidents of the US and Italy (you can hear the Italians snicker at this odd detail) stay behind to be with "their" people. These acts of humility notwithstanding, when the Vatican and the White House are simultaneously destroyed by earthquake and tsunami, we secretly take pleasure in seeing the old order destroyed. The shot in which a crack predictably separates Adam and God's fingers in the Sistine Chapel is the final breach between the old system's churches and the cinema that takes over as our primary house of worship.
Recall the poetic justice in Day After Tomorrow when the US has to relocate its government to Mexico, and that it's the southern neighbors who save selfish Americans from imminent destruction. In 2012 the greedy Russian mafiosa dies (of course!), but so too does the Indian scientist who was responsible for discovering the impending planetary disaster. He dies with his family because there's no room for him or his brood on the high tech arks designed to weather the pole and tectonic plate shifts. In fact, so many people die in this film with such vivid detail, one is left a bit numb and immune to it by the end. In this respect, it's hard to see the poetry.
We live in a risk society that has the dual nature of offering us protection while simultaneously creating more peril. This tension has to be constantly resolved, with media serving as a particularly good balm for containing our fear of disaster and contigency. Film gives us the catharsis necessary to nervously laugh off the truly scary dangers that are the result of human actions, not acts of gods (at least the organic ones). But in the film, the very megamachine that threatens the planetary biosphere is what saves humanity. I don't think it's without irony that the only way the arks — or spaceships for planet earth — can be built in secret and so quickly is by the one society that so perfectly symbolizes the ideal of the megamachine: China. What else has the power to relocate populations and marshal the forces of massive bureaucracy, global capital and corruption to build such high-tech asylums. Like the sci-fi TV series Battlestar Galactica, these ships are an advanced technological life support systems that can sustain us in a homeless universe, and they can only be made by a cyborg-like society with people as its mechanistic components. (I'm not trying to demean China, but look at it from the symbolic filter of Western media.)
Ultimately the film pits a cipher for humanity — an African American scientist — against a technocrat who is responsible for overseeing the lifeboat project (American-commanded and Chinese-built, no less). Emmerich can't help but eat his bioengineered cake: the technocrats are assholes, but they save us anyway. We just have to bite the bullet while they engineer our way out of the apocalypse.
I awaited for the sunset and kiss to conclude the film, and it came, but not without an additional penultimate Western resolution. In the end the megamachine delivers the protagonists like a bunch of Nazis fleeing to South America with their collection of European art masterpieces and dreams of genetic fitness, but this time it's Africa, ready to be colonized again and to become a playground for domination and imperial fantasies launched from the decks of the ocean liner fortresses. Don't be fooled by the cast's multicolored skin hues, this is nothing less than a narrative of monocultural salvation. After all, with arks, floods, earthquakes and God's wrath, is this not a Biblical tale of purification updated for the 21st century?
In the last shot we zoom out to see a planet transformed, not by cosmic alignment as the sleight of hand would like us to believe, but by the world eaters whose CGI teeth have bitten a huge chunk off of the African continent, its gaping wound now swallowed by a world reconfigured by alchemists of abstraction. While not explicitly stated, is it not the alien point of view that is finally offered to us, a view in which we look down upon the world as utterly strange and unreal?
Did I enjoy the film? Immensely. Intercourse with the World System has to be pleasurable, otherwise we wouldn't mindmeld with it. Blockbuster films are contemporary religious incantations to praise the gods' work in order to justify and reward our labor, and to feed the machine. But they're not monolithic either. Films like this have enormous benefit because they allow us to creep around the mind of the World System to see how it thinks. But it also comes with a warning sticker: be mindful of this entertainment, for it can call forth even greater dreams of annihilation. And after this massive barrage of destruction tropes, only the obliteration of the universe could top it, and that would make movie going moot.
Image by TheAlieness GiselaGiardino²³, courtesy of Creative Commons license.