In this end of the world story, we follow John Cusack trying to save his estranged family along with a few others all over the world, before the earth’s crust shifts and destroys all life with tsunamis after the planets all align (Anybody remember the predictions of the Jupiter Effect back in 1982? — 2.0). Interesting how there has been a spate of end of the world movies in the last few years, such as The Day After Tomorrow, Knowing, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Road, and The Happening. Although I would say that these kind of disaster stories are in our DNA, because they continue to come up through all of history. One is reminded of all the parallel Flood stories in Mesopotamia, Sumer and Babylon as well as the Hebrew version of Noah’s Ark. Whether one believes they are legends or history, they all reflect our inherent need to face our mortality and values in life. There’s something about facing imminent and unavoidable mass destruction that makes you reevaluate what you are wasting of your life, and the need for change, repentance.
The obvious literal parallel of Noah’s ark is in 2012, as they build 7 huge arks to save important rich people who can pay their way with Euros (since dollars are not as trustworthy), along with a bunch of animals and important art works. The Ark concept was used in Knowing and The Day the Earth Stood Still. But interestingly, whereas the two “Day” movies and The Happening impute some environmentalist blame on mankind for causing it, 2012 does not because it is a huge influx of neutrinos from the sun that boils the earth’s core and causes the shift in poles and “earth crust displacement,” not unlike continental drift only really really quick. Regardless of this lack of moral blame, the movie still exalts a kind of nature worship that displaces supernatural religion with a humanistic naturalistic “we are all children of the earth” substitute. Here is how it does this:
There are all kinds of religious references in the film, from people praying to the cliché kook holding a “The End is Near” sign. A kooky but correct “Art Bell” character explains, “It’s the apocalypse, the end of days, like the Hopi Indians saw, the I Ching, even the Bible – kinda.” Kinda? There is a reference to the supposed Mayan calendar prediction to the year. But like all good humanistic subversions, the point is to undermine those religious images with a new humanistic definition. Thus, we see massive symbols of religion all over the world being destroyed, from a Tibetan monastery in the mountains, to the Rio de Janeiro Jesus statue to a long sequence of the Vatican being crumbled into dust and flames along with St. Peter’s and the Sistine Chapel. The extended detail and lingering on this particular Vatican destruction seems to illustrate an extra hatred and intolerance for this Christian religion by the filmmaker. The cracking of the Sistine ceiling goes right through the hands of God and Adam in the Creation of Adam, “splitting man from God,” a symbolic statement of this event. Interestingly, the director was too fearful of a fatwa being put on his head, so he avoided showing the destruction of any Islamic holy places, probably the only reason why he didn’t show the destruction of Jerusalem, since the Islamic Mosque resides in the heart of the Jerusalem Temple area. Evidently, Emmerich saved his hatred and violence for the peaceful religions that would not murder him for attacking them. When the US president gets on TV and tells the world, “We are one family stepping into the darkness together,” he begins to pray the 23rd Psalm, but is cut off before he can get past the first sentence. Another expression of the powerlessness of his Christian faith.
The central struggle in the film is the contrast of values of survival and self-sacrifice, as we see various versions of each worldview battling with each other through the different characters. The prominent one being a scientist and a Whitehouse politician from America. The politician exposes the cold reality why the government didn’t tell the people to prepare, because “Our mission is to assure the continuity of our species,” and of course if they told everyone, there would be mass pandemonium and anarchy, which would result in no one getting saved (and pandemonium does in fact, happen). As he says, “What did you think, the world’s going to sit around and join hands and sing Kumbaya?” The scientist thinks everyone should know the truth so they have time to face their demise together to comfort one another and ask for forgiveness. This is a good ethical conflict because both sides contain an equal amount of truth that causes us to think through values in conflict.
The politician says, “Nature will choose from itself by itself who will survive,” as they are about to push on without letting a crowd of people into the arks because there is not enough time or room to do so. And the scientist makes the thematic statement of the film, “To be human means to care for each other. Can we stand and watch each other die? The moment we stop fighting to save each other is the moment we lose our humanity. Everyone out there has died in vain if we start a new future with an act of cruelty” (namely leaving the extra crowds of people behind). This statement, coming as it does from a scientist as the symbol of nobility, embodies the storyteller’s view of the moral conscience residing in science rather than religion. This reflects the common modern worldview that believes religion is powerless, and then promotes morality without religion through a scientific viewpoint, which is all rather problematic, since science provides no foundation for morality. Only the religions that have been deconstructed or destroyed by the storyteller provide that transcendent basis for such a value system.