The End of the World, Hollywood Style

I dreamt that my dad and I were somewhere in Florida. I think it was Daytona, but Disney World was featured, and giant tidal waves washed ashore every few minutes. It wasn’t a nightmare, although I sort of expected it to be while dreaming it, because I would brace myself for a wash of cold water and lungs feeling like they’d explode from lack of oxygen, but after successive tsunamis, I always found pockets of air in unexpected places, like under car roofs, or tied plastic bags that hadn’t been punctured. In the end the whole thing was sort of beautiful. I’ve had other dreams about tornadoes – very realistic dreams too – and the feeling wasn’t fear, but sheer awe.

Anyways, without consciously making the connection, I had a craving to watch the movie 2012. The blu-ray version is one of my desert island movies, simply because it is frickin’ awesome, and after I finished it, I realized that I hadn’t watch The Day After Tomorrow (TDAT) in ages. So I put that one in as well, and like with most stories, I began an impromptu comparison.

I’m sure it’s been done before, given that these two movies are the most memorable disaster movies in the past couple decades, and the only ones in my recollection that involve a global disaster. But I think I wanted to vindicate TDAT a little, given that my dad is so anti-climate change that his opinion on anything (and anyone) who supports it is an automatic FAIL regardless of how sound their reasoning might be. Both movies are very well done. You start off the with the built up – featuring the obscure expert who alone understands what exactly is going on and how to stop it – followed by the establishment of familial instability – the broken Curtis family in 2012 and, Jack Hall, the largely estranged father in DAT – to the crisis event that drives human kind to drastic measures to save as many people as they can. Then the resulting mayhem, the heart-pounding action sequences where you’re not entirely sure if the good guys will make it or not – a feeling that both movies still create despite the fact that the disaster is really no one’s fault (okay, TDAT claims that global warming has caused the change, but even in that case the collective ‘villains’ would be faceless multitudes of the greedy fossil fuel burners). Not everyone makes it in the end, and both movies have what we call ‘senseless deaths,’ which is meant to create pathos and leave us feeling unsettled, because death is not something that should be easily sermonized, whether in fiction or real life. And finally, after we’ve felt loss and sadness and relief, there’s the triumphant, ‘against all odds’ conclusion, where the good guys – the ones who really matter, fiction-wise – survive, and there’s a brave new world waiting for them all.

TDAT is pretty decent. It’s well directed – note the use of light in the office tower, right before the janitor opens the door to find that half the building has been demolished by a tornado – and the effects are excellent, given that the movie was made in 2004. The disaster factor is more subtle, but certainly original, like when the super-cold air is pulled down from the troposphere and freezes the helicopter fuel lines, or when Sam and his friends have to find penicillin for Laura’s blood-poisoning and they’re attacked by wolves who escaped the New York zoo. The moralizing about how ‘we thought we could use this planet’s natural resources for our ends’ is too preachy, but if you watch it the same way as 2012 – as an apocalyptic fantasy made up by Hollywood movie writers – it’s definitely worth having in a disaster movie collection.

With that in mind, 2012 is spectacular. The critics called it ‘the best disaster movie EVER!’ and even seven years later – yes, it was made in 2009 – I believe it retains that title. The special effects alone got it into my desert island movies, but it’s the intensity of the emotional journey that puts it over the top, and I honestly think most of that comes from the fact that in this case, the disaster was not man-made. The world ends and there’s nothing we could’ve done to stop it, and as the characters watch footage of earthquakes and tsunamis around the world, the devastation goes to the heart because at that point all they can do is sit back and watch it happen. Granted, the coincidences in 2012 are clearly not from a realist repertoire: Gordon happens to be a pilot who figures out how to fly a two-engine plan in thirty seconds, Jackson happens to go to Yellowstone and hears Charlie Frost’s broadcast right before everything goes down, Jackson happens to be the limo driver who takes the Karpov family to the airport and hears about the ‘big ships’ they’re leaving on, Karpov’s girlfriend happens to have been Gordon’s patient, and oh yes, the Karpovs are stranded at the Las Vegas airport at the same time as the Curtis family. Abjectly extraordinary thing after extraordinary thing happen to them, but who goes to a disaster movie expecting to see something entirely realistic?

At the same time, there is the typical ‘How can this character manage to keep just missing the debris or the bullets, or they’re the only ones to make it through this against-all-odds situation?’ My response is to say, ‘Think of real life disasters. If someone inevitably makes it out alive, chances are they’d have a pretty extraordinary story.’ That’s usually enough real to get me to suspend the rest of my disbelief.


One thought on “The End of the World, Hollywood Style

  1. I love this assessment. Both of these films are in my Top 5. I’d suggest you should also include the original Independence Day, as long as we’re taking films to our desert island. My family taunts me incessantly about my love for these films, hence I was delighted to find another fan who shares my passion for the pure entertainment value. I had hoped San Andreas would compete with these films. While it was entertaining, it just lacked the pure drama and tension of 2012. Excellent analysis.


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