Roland Emmerich is the Irwin Allen de nos jours, and his new film, 2012, is an anthology of disaster films past. It’s got a bit of Volcano, of Earthquake, of all the Airports, and even When Time Ran Out, not to mention The Bible, at least the part about Noah. But unlike those earlier films, 2012 is primarily a comedy. Sure, serious things happen, such as the near demise of the earth and the deaths of billions of people, but the story is told with a certain measure of wit, a wink to the audience that says this is all for fun. When you see elephants being hauled by helicopters to a modern ark, or when someone says, “I’m not going to let anything come between us,” immediately before a fissure opens up on the floor before him, you have to realize that the director and his fellow credited writer had a Hitchcock-Psycho attitude to their material. Unfortunately, 2012 runs out of gas about halfway through the film, just like the subject of its disaster machinations.
It’s hard to figure out why. Even if you don’t like the film, and many don’t, the tale does move swiftly for the first half, and there are a lot of laughs and last minute escapes to keep one preoccupied. But the first half takes place in the sunshine, and in suburban residential areas, and in vast forests emblazoned first by the sun, and then by noxious fireballs. The second half, like The Poseidon Adventure, takes place at sea, mostly inside, and way too often in the dark. On the other hand, maybe the first half of our movies are always better. Maybe filmmakers should start conceiving their narratives from the back, moving forward, instead of the more common other way around.
2012 is essentially an animated movie, and like most animated films these days it tells the story of a small clique of beings who are trying to rescue someone. In this case, it is divorced novelist Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), trying to ferry his two kids and his ex-wife (Amanda Peet) – and her current boyfriend – to a secret site hosting escape ships that he heard about from a looney conspiratologist radio broadcaster (Woody Harrelson). This means flying out of Los Angeles as it crumbles and into Yellowstone National Park before it goes up in flames, and thence to China before it is consumed by water. I would also say that the second half of the movie, besides being sluggish, if not inert, is not as easy to follow as the first half.
At root, 2013 is a zeitgeist movie, less important in and of itself as another indice of the culture’s preoccupation with the end of the world, from the debate over global warming to the subjects of numerous movies such as The Road and TV shows, some already cancelled, others such as Flashforward ongoing. In that regard, it is interesting how much of the emphasis falls on black characters, from the opening scientist, to the president, to the fact that in the end Africa becomes, once again, the birth of civilization. On the other hand, end of the world movies have been around as long as the 1950s, and even the racial thing isn’t particularly new, if you’ve seen The World, the Flesh, and the Devil.
2012 makes an interesting contrast with The Box. Both are apocalyptic, though The Box is more subtly so. At the same time, The Box is a quirky intricate “small” film with none of the identifying marks of a big budget tent pole film like 2012.
Richard Kelly does not make “normal” movies, that is, films in the style or manner of the day, and especially not the cookie cutter style of storytelling found in most studio pictures or CBS police procedurals. The better art films, on the other hand, follow either the style of, say, Terence Mallick’s Badlands, which is also the new “international” style, somewhat distanced from the action and often visually beautiful and about “real” people, or they follow the juiced up musical Scorsese style of Mean Streets.
Kelly’s films are much different. Because they obey no known cinematic style, not even the Miramax-indie style of minimal locations and novelty casting, his movies can discombobulate viewers who are expecting at least some semblance of the same old thing. Like David Lynch or Guy Maddin, he films to the beat of a different drum, one so different that the viewer has to be educated in the language of the film itself. Donnie Darko puzzled viewers though many were intrigued, enough to start a cult. Southern Tales has its defenders but was widely viewed as a misstep, an uneven production, though it was very much in the spirit of Donnie Darko, though on a broader canvas, bigger scale. Worst of all for the regular viewer, Kelly doesn’t feel inclined to explain the metaphysical mysteries his films traffic in.
Take the crazy scene in which teacher Norma Lewis (Cameron Diaz) is browbeated by a student into showing why she limps. There are a lot of things “wrong” with this scene. It is unlikely that someone would let a conversation go in this direction. It is unlikely that a teacher would allow herself to be so humiliated by someone in her class. It is unlikely that the student would be so aroused by the spectacle. Or that the other students would stand for it, or at least not express some reaction to the incident.
Other questions arise. Why does the dean of Norma’s school get a nosebleed? Why does that humiliating student end up at a family celebration at Norma’s parents’ house? Why do the nosebleeds become epidemic? How does the babysitter Dana (Gillian Jacobs) suddenly become psychic? Who is the strange disheveled guy watching Norma?
Unfortunately, most people these days have a high disregard for other human beings and would have no trouble pushing the button. So the existential debate between the couple can spark impatience in the modern, cynical viewer who will say to herself, “Damn the other person, press the button and get the million dollars, and see what happens!” After all, someone somewhere in the world is going to die anyway whether or not the Lewises push the button.
The Box is based on a story by Richard Matheson, perhaps the most inventive science fiction writer ever, but Kelly has taken the material back to the strict suburban world of Donnie Darko, its tree-lined lanes and big houses and expensive wedding receptions and its working government employees and professionals. Kelly has also added a strain of The Day the Earth Stood Still and maybe even Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But another important book is sociologist Erving Goffman’s Stigma, which is an examination of our reaction to visible and cultural disabilities in ourselves and others, and how the stigmatized have internalized the “normalcy” of the society in which they live and in a sense take its side against themselves. Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), the man who proffers the box, and the deal of a million dollars to the Lewses, has a ghastly facial wound. Yet though Steward shocks Norma when she first sees him, the man with this stigma in this case, unlike in conventional society, is the one with the power. Norma’s stigma has made her, it seems, less trusting of others. At school she teaches Sartre’s maxim that hell is other people. In the end, it is Norma, the stigmatized one, who must be eliminated. It turns out that the box is a form of enormous metaphysical chain letter.
The Box gets a little hard to follow in its second half. After a series of endeavors to change fate, things end up once again at the Lewises house, with the couple sitting across from the agent of the box. And thus most of the events in the film are explained. Or not, depending on one’s sense of horror. The “end of the world” as envisioned by Kelly takes place one suburban household at a time.
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