Long Count

A 2012 promotional wallpaper from Sony Pictures.

A 2012 promotional wallpaper from Sony Pictures.

It is among the most wondrous mysteries of the ancient world: how did the Maya, a civilization that preceded Rex Reed by millennia, know about plot spoilers?

By ending their “long count” calendar precisely on the 2012 winter solstice, the most advanced Mesoamericans allegedly gave away the date of the world’s end. The details of what will happen are a matter of debate among the 2012-ers, both professional and amateur. But those who bother to write and speak about 2012 agree that something big and very possibly bad waits on the other side of the countdown—which might as well have begun with last week’s release of the Roland Emmerich blockbuster.

Not surprisingly, Emmerich chose to run with the most catastrophic interpretation of the soon-to-expire pre-Columbian calendar. The director has always used the biggest hammers at his disposal, from Godzilla, to aliens, to climate change. This time, 2012 end-time theory offers the ultimate canvas for the director’s Bosch-meets-Benji style. According to his version of it, the 2012 climax comes fast and furious when solar flares, gamma rays, and “evolved” neutrinos combine to wreak atmospheric and tectonic havoc on our home planet.

Amazingly, say the starry-eyed soothsayers, the Maya saw it all coming. Centuries before Cotton Mather’s Puritans invented the Rapture Bunny to pass those long New England winter nights, they figured out the exact date, one tied to the observable events of a solstice and higher-than-usual sun flare activity.

If it seems a little eerie that the Maya picked a day that lines up with solstice and sun flares, it really shouldn’t. Solstices and sun flares are common cyclical events. The first occurs every six months, the second every 50 to 100 years. Despite the 2012 publishing boomlet, there is zero scientific evidence backing up theories of impending calendric cataclysm in three years time. Throw in the modern Mayans’ own disavowal of apocalyptic readings of their own calendar, and the 2012 doomsday freak-out looks doubly dubious. We moderns don’t usually take seriously the teachings of ancients who practiced ritual toddler sacrifice. Yet when it comes to the end of the Mayans’ peculiar calendar, a growing number of Amazon.com shoppers and History Channel viewers seem eager to make an exception.

In honor of the plot spoiling Mayans, here’s another 2012 giveaway: the new Emmerich film is worse than anyone predicted. There are those who may tell you that it is so bad that it is actually good. Don’t believe it. If you want to see what the end of the world looks like, see John Hillcoat’s The Road, not this Disney apocalypse.

The movie finds its hero in the Dad-of-the-Year heroics of John Cusack, a failing novelist. Cusack’s character takes his brats camping and meets a short-wave radio conspiracy spaz (Woody Harrelson) and the scientist (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who is in the process of ringing the alarm over impending doom. Cusack then leads his family through a mind-numbingly improbable apocalyptic adventure-course, pausing to enjoy Hallmark moments that would get laughed out of a creative session for the next Maxwell House campaign. An hour after the film should have ended, Cusack is still at it, performing a feat of underwater endurance not seen onscreen since Sho Kosugi’s ninja B-movies of the 1980s. He and his family then sail boldly into the Year One dawn, which looks and sounds like a combination of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 reelection commercial, “Morning in America,” and a diaper ad. (The film’s last line is actually a blatant product placement for Huggies Pull-Ups.)

If the story arc and idiocy level sound familiar, it’s because the expensive template used for 2012 is the one Emmerich pressed five years ago in The Day After Tomorrow. It’s becoming a very popular template. Steven Spielberg is using something similar for his 2010 remake of When Worlds Collide, the 1951 sci-fi classic that first used the myth of the American Adam in the context of secular apocalypse. Hopefully, When Worlds Collide will flop and achieve burnout for a genre that should never have existed in the first place: the planetary holocaust feel-good movie. 2012 is already one of the year’s biggest hits.

Sony Pictures spent $250 million to realistically depict the violent death of six billion people. The scenes of humanity crushed (or about to be crushed) under tidal tsunamis and smothered in molten lava are, like 9/11 footage, memorable. If this comparison seems crass, it’s one Emmerich himself did his best to invite. There are scenes in 2012 of people clinging to the sides of collapsing buildings, calling to mind footage of those who jumped from the World Trade Center towers. Now that we have a mental library of such things actually happening, which Emmerich is happy to tap into, it’s easier to see 2012 as an accurate picture of what a disaster like “earth crust displacement” would actually look like.

The problems with 2012 are the same as with every other big-budget movie by Emmerich. The effects are Big Macs of empty visual calories; the stories are stupefying; and the dialogue completely retardo. They should invent a new rating for these spectacles, and catch an extra product placement in the process: iPod-10 (viewers older than 10 are strongly encouraged to bring an iPod).

Even by the popsicle-stick standards of its genre, 2012 is an expensive (though lucrative) failure. Confronted with the task of creating a single believable or sympathetic human being or relationship, Emmerich and his co-writer Harald Kloser are as powerless as their doomed masses. The human story beneath the noise in 2012 is a numbing pastiche of clichés tantalizingly close to a Zuckerman Brothers-style spoof. Towards the end, I remember thinking that the only trope yet to be trotted out was the slow-clap. The moment nearly came after Ejiofor’s expository speech on the need to save the billionaires at the gate. The filmmakers spent vast sums of money fine-tuning scenes of mega-destruction, but for story-mortar relied on weak echoes of dialogue from Kramer Vs. Kramer, The Dukes of Hazard, Daybreak, and Free Willy.

The most absurd example of this comes in the film’s final minutes. Moments after the entire Indian subcontinent is violently subsumed by water, Emmerich expects us to bunch our fists over the fate of a yappy purse dog. But we don’t. Even the best-trained American audience has by then long transferred its allegiance to the side of apocalypse. It is simply not possible to make it into the second hour of this film and not root for the cosmic clusterfuck to hurry up and finish its business with every last member of the species responsible for Roland Emmerich. Nothing makes a catastrophic polar shift seem overdue like a stylized product placement for Bentley Motors, set against the death of a billion Chinese.

John Cusack deserves his reputation as a likable actor. Back in 1985, you wanted him to get the girl more than most teen actors. But 2012 is so dumb you only want to cheer, Die Cusack, Die! Ditto Amanda Peet. And their children. You don’t want this family to reunite, to make good on broken promises, or to carry the American flame forward into the reset future. You don’t want them to do any of that. You just want them to do what they’re supposed to do at the end of the world, and that is experience a brief moment of bone-chilled terror, then die like everyone else.

Want more? We’ve got a whole series all about 2012.

Alexander Zaitchik is a freelance journalist in Brooklyn. His book, Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance, will be released by Wiley in June 2010.