If I wasn't aware that director Roland Emmerich, the once so-called "master of disaster" studio movies, was a champion of equal rights, and an active campaigner for the awareness of global warming, and whose college thesis film was a sci-fi project titled The Noah's Ark Principle, it would be easy to simply dismiss his films as mindless, special effects-laden, cliched, formulaic narratives.
The openly gay German filmmaker once claimed that he witnessed overt industry racism firsthand, when studio executives were opposed to having him cast Will Smith for the lead in the 1996 blockbuster, Independence Day, and expressed a similar ambivalence in allowing Emmerich to portray an interracial couple in 2004's The Day After Tomorrow. He also previously claimed that he encountered homophobia within the industry – something he's been vocal about.
However, despite not particularly liking the business, one that he's referred to as "very cold," and "brutal," he continues to produce work, stating that he genuinely loves making movies!
While I can't immediately say whether his love for movie-making is evident in the work he's produced thus far, I think the influence of his other passions – champion of equal rights/equal representation, climate change awareness – are certainly evident in some of his films, and 2012 is one of them.
To be frank, I went into this film screening fully expecting something not-so unlike Emmerich's previous efforts; past criticism that his films were too often unimaginative, cliched vehicles that relied heavily on visual effects, than on character development and story, wasn't entirely baseless. His reputation preceded him, and he seemed to embrace each judgment of the faults of his work, unabated by the negative criticism, stating that his goal as a filmmaker was to entertain the audience, and that he "creates his own fiction based on actual science or history to make the messages he sends more exciting."
I think anyone who still believes that cinema (no matter how lazy it might seem on screen) is simply mindless entertainment, is fooling themselves. Even Emmerich, who some may not take too seriously, and readily dismiss as a filmmaker, is fully aware of the power of the medium, utilizing it to further his own agendas, as I mentioned above. Sure, they may come under the guise of "disaster movie fluff," and thus, maybe the impact of his messages isn't instantaneously felt, amidst all that visual flare; but, don't be mistaken – it's all there. Seriously!
By some accounts, Emmerich just might be one of the more powerful, influential figures in Hollywood, if only because of his reach. To wit, according to Box Office Mojo, he's the 19th-highest grossing Hollywood director of all time, with his films generating close to $4 billion globally. Obviously, millions of people all over the world have seen, and continue to see his films, and are unconsciously being influenced by them, whether they realize it or not.
Standing firm, in the face of opposition, on his decision to cast Will Smith as the star of Independence Day, may, on the surface, seem inconsequential. But, maybe it wasn't. After all, it did indeed help launch Smith's big screen career, on his way to becoming on of the most bankable stars on this planet, a rarity for a person of African descent. The film was seen by millions all over the world – a science fiction film in which a black man starred, and played hero, helping to save mother earth! Usually, the big screen savior we've fondly come to refer to as "the one" (thanks to the Matrix trilogy), is white and male.
2012 may as well be a sequel to Emmerich's 2004 apocalyptic science-fiction film, The Day After Tomorrow. Both could be retitled Nature Retaliates Part 1 and Part 2, as both depict catastrophic events brought on by extreme weather effects, except one (2012) borrows loosely from the range of beliefs and proposals positing that cataclysmic events will occur in the year 2012 – the end-date of the Mayan calendar; while the other (The Day After Tomorrow) warns of the potential transformative effects of both global warming and global cooling.
The former doesn't spend much time expounding on Mayanist end-of-the-world theories; there's quite a bit of scientific jargon dished out by the myriad of characters in the film, notably Chiwetel Ejiofor's Adrian Helmsley, the scientific advisor to the President, played by Danny Glover, and, I'd like to think some of it was based on real science; but, ultimately, it all takes a back seat to 2+ hours of an orgy of destruction and death, brought on by rapidly rising sea levels, erupting volcanoes, and earthquakes topping the Richter scale.
Oddly enough, despite the significant human toll, I felt nothing. It's hard to feel anything, when the film does very little to connect the audience with the characters, thanks to their lack of development, cliched dialogue, and predictable actions – another criticism of Emmerich's films. We've seen them all before, countless times; and we know exactly who they are, what they're going to do, and when they will act.
John Cusack's Jackson Curtis, a down-on-his-luck writer who works as a limousine driver, is essentially a rebirth of Tom Cruise's Ray Ferrier from Steven Spielberg's War Of The Worlds – both men estranged from their wives and children (one boy and one girl, in both cases), and living separately from them. In each instance, the boy is older than the girl, and despises his father, and naturally, their relationship heals as the movie progresses. As each man's wife gives their children to him to "spend time with their father," the earth faces some disastrous force (whether aliens or mother nature), and each man must protect his children by any means necessary.
But, in the end, it all seems rather disingenuous, seeing Chiwetel smooch the now-dead president's daughter, played by Thandie Newton, as they consider a potential future together; or Cusack's character happily snuggling up behind with his wife (played by Amanda Peet), after witnessing the world being destroyed, and more than 2/3 of its population dying in the destruction. As a survivor, sure, it'll be great to have lived through it; but I'd expect each character to be in a state of extreme shock, sadness and bewilderment, after that kind of a catastrophe, and not planning a first date.
However, despite those criticisms, as I started this post saying, the influence of Emmerich's other passions – equal rights/equal representation & climate change awareness – are evident in 2012, as they've been in some of his previous films. Specifically, there are 3 black characters who play prominent roles in the film and not just as background filler – Chiwetel Ejiofor, the smart, compassionate scientist and advisor to the equally compassionate, brave and thoughtful president, played by Danny Glover, father to an equally compassionate and considerate daughter, played by Thandie Newton; each has their fare share of screen time, as well as a direct hand in saving what's left of humanity. There are moments when 3 of them share the screen simultaneously that I found oddly refreshing – likely because it's a sight rarely seen on screen, in movies like this. They are essentially, in some ways, Emmerich's commentary on economic and political power in this country – at least, as it had been up until the election of our current president. Not only are they all of a different hue, they are far more altruistic than most real life men and women in power. In fact, if they existed in our real world, they'd likely all be vilified as socialists.
Also, Emmerich's concerns with mother nature's wrath and possible retaliation are crystal clear, as I've already discussed above. The title of his thesis film, The Noah's Ark Principle, is a revelation in this case; if you're familiar with the biblical story of Noah's Ark, which I think we all are, you'll instantly make the connection as you watch the film; and even if you don't see 2012, I'm sure the relationship is clear.
The film's closing shot is worth noting – a nod to humanity's origins, and in a way, where our salvation lies; at least, from Emmerich's POV. With the rest of earth rendered inhabitable after nature's revenge, the survivors head for the only piece of land still standing, located in the southern tip of Africa. The camera zooms out, exponentially, to a view of our revolving planet from space, as it rotates on its axis; and as the scene fades, the so-called "dark" continent (Africa) comes into focus.