Filmmakers might never tire of finding new ways to destroy the earth but at this rate, the audience will.
11 Nov 2009 - 10:43 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM

It's the end of the world as Roland Emmerich knows it, and we apparently all feel fine.

Opening this week, the German filmmaker's apocalyptic special effects extravaganza 2012 is pretty much the full stop in terms of ending the world at the cinema. The two and a half hour blockbuster – whose various trailers have liberally prepped audiences for mass carnage by showing us Woody Allen's enduring fear of California literally breaking off and falling into the Pacific Ocean – takes out the entire planet.

There are no near misses, no narrowly averted disasters that can only be averted due to a risk-all mission staffed by a collection of movie stars holding their nose through the banal dialogue to collect their pay cheques. When tsunami waves come over the top of the Himalayas then there's really not much hope for the rest of us (just to ram the point home a sailor helpfully points out the looming impact with the North face of Mount Everest).

And yet, does anyone really care?

There's no denying that 2012 is the epitome of the special effects driven popcorn epic; there's an entire world built on hard drives and then destroyed. No-one expects great art, but as the stakes have risen in terms of destruction audiences have become desensitised. In 1996's Independence Day, the picture where Emmerich made clear his ambitions, he showed alien invaders perched above the (deserted) White House eventually firing down and detonating the building. Audiences were wide-eyed. In 2012, after massive earthquakes, a giant wave envelopes all of Washington D.C. (and presumably America's eastern seaboard), tossing up an aircraft carrier like a bath toy. Cool. Whatever. Next.

“This will be the last one for a long time because I think there is nothing more to tell,” Emmerich has recently claimed. “I do not know how to top this one.”

Perhaps he shouldn't have bothered. Audiences increasingly are blasé about the destruction that filmmakers offer up – it's one reason why trailers are revealing ever more, they're desperate to excite people to come back for one more dose of oversized digital carnage.

People are at once overawed by the scale of what they're seeing, but nonplussed by how nothing is at stake because there's not a tangible feel. Special effects have increased at an exponential rate over the last two decades and there's even a palpable difference between Emmerich's The Day After Tomorrow in 2004, where a new ice age unexpectedly begins and Jake Gyllenhaal has to pretend to be a high school student one last time, versus the contemporary 2012, but the increased detail really doesn't add up to anything.

Watching 2012, you might notice that at first the vast set-pieces, such as Los Angeles being upended by devastating earthquakes that rent the very ground apart, feature tiny individual people. You can see them sliding down upended freeway sections and scrambling to avoid the fissures that inevitably engulf them. But at a certain point the destruction stops being about people – we're too small for the shock and awe campaign Emmerich has in mind – and the tiny figures disappear.

They also stop featuring because Emmerich, being a canny filmmaker, doesn't really want you to think about what's implied by his planet leveling sequences. In 2012 over six billion people die and a chance of safety is implied only for a few hundred thousand placed on giant arks in what is called China but to some may still be Tibet. It's one thing for a giant volcano to launch fireballs of lava at Woody Harrelson's ranting conspiracy buff (all that money on digital effects and they couldn't even find the poor guy a decent wig), but heaven forbid you should actually see something befall a child.

There's something to be said for disaster movies that worked on a smaller scale. In the 1970, the last heyday of the genre, Emmerich's spiritual predecessor, producer Irwin Allen (who proudly flaunted his nickname “the Master of Disaster”) would give audiences a skyscraper on fire (The Towering Inferno) or a rogue wave capsizing a cruise liner (The Poseidon Adventure). They were geographic specific, with a start and end.

When Wolfgang Petersen, the other German filmmaker with something of a yen for destruction, remade The Poseidon Adventure as Poseidon in 2006 audiences were singularly unimpressed, despite Black Eyed Peas singer Fergie being one of the first passengers to go. Showing some of that renowned Germanic humour, Emmerich goes out of his way to put a few characters on a cruise ship in 2012, just so he can topple it with an even more daunting wave and still not give the storyline more than ten minutes of screen time as a way of showing his contemporary how it is really done.

Lately I've been thinking about Peter Weir's The Last Wave, a very different disaster film from the 1970s. Weir's film was more of a thriller, examining the psychology of what happens when a rational man must confront the spiritual world. You don't get the titular wave until the very close, when Richard Chamberlain's lawyer – Peter Weir cast Richard Thorn Birds Chamberlain! I'm eternally fascinated by that – emerges to find Sydney about to face a disaster linked to indigenous mythology. Compare it to a recent end of the world thriller by an Australian filmmaker, Alex Proyas' Knowing with Nicolas Cage, and see how formulaic the process has become.

Subconsciously audiences have required ever more engorged end of the world scenarios because it's crossed over from popular culture into our daily lives in the form of uncertainty about the outcome of climate change. It's easier to imagine that the Earth's core has come to a stop – requiring a super-drill to be built and staffed by Hilary Swank and Aaron Eckhart in the truly moronic The Core from 2004 – than to ponder the slow, devastating effects of what might unfold if climate change goes unchecked.

Emmerich made climate change the cause of the extended winter in The Day After Tomorrow (melting icecaps disrupt the warming North Atlantic current), and even had a Dick Cheney-lookalike pour scorn on a square jawed Dennis Quaid's warnings of what was to come. For 2012 he's gone back to eruptions on the sun and the Mayan calendar, although the fictional events do result in a heating of the planet that dislodges the earth's crust. It's certainly not the most oblique metaphor.

Speaking to reporters last week 2012's John Cusack, one of the more unlikely stars for a disaster epic, offered his take on why the genre has legs. “They give voice to everybody's collective fears, for sure. Movies about these myths – or stories about the apocalypse – imagine a time when there's a kind of an event that makes everything equal and all people equal and wipes out all of the divisions between people – and the illusions of all those divisions. There are still rich and poor until the very end, but there's no Chinese and Americans and Russians and Christians and Jews and Muslims. Everybody's in the same boat, and all the countries are in the same boat. I think people really want a world like that, and it takes something cataclysmic to imagine how it could ever happen.”

Given that Emmerich and his collaborators were too scared to show Mecca being destroyed in case they drew a fatwa, we're not quite at the utopia Cusack foresees. The disaster flick still has many problems to deal with before the destruction even starts.

Additional Links

Read our review of 2012 here

Watch the trailer here