The world ends not with a whimper but a bang in Roland Emmerich's new-on-DVD 2012, an apocalyptic apotheosis from the director who destroyed world landmarks in Independence Day and froze much of the world in The Day After Tomorrow. His quite literally earthshaking epic, gives us the end of the world that doomsayers predict will coincide with the end of the Mayan calendar, and that sane people say will go by like Y2K.
Whatever the case, such dire spectacles are an ever-popular prospect in fiction and non-fiction alike. Already this year we've seen the planet destroyed in Knowing and witnessed the aftermath of civilization's end in the History Channel series Life After People, a spin-off of the 2008 special. Some moviegoers remember seeing the Earth destroyed in the appropriately titled The Late, Great Planet Earth (1979), based on the speculative nonfiction book; The Rapture (1991), which played it solemnly; and the 2002 series finale of TV's Lexx, which played it as anything but.
This one plays it as destructo-porn. Pre-release, it was heavily marketed with a trailer and a nearly six-minute clip released online (after a portion was shown Oct. 1 in a "roadblock campaign" across 450 North American broadcast outlets and 89 cable channels, in both English and Spanish, in the same 10-minute window) that lovingly spotlighted the CGI destruction of Los Angeles. Limo driver/science-fiction writer Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) races to get his ex-wife (Amanda Peet), their two kids (Liam James and Morgan Lily) and the ex's fledgling-pilot boyfriend (Tom McCarthy) to a plane and ostensible safety. Still, insists 2012 co-writer/co-producer/composer Harald Kloser, "the disaster is primarily the background for strong emotional stories of regular people. You know, we have John Cusack, Oliver Platt, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Danny Glover — actors with higher standards than 'Run! Go! Watch out! Duck.' All those brilliant actors have accepted to be in our movie because the characters in the story were appealing to them. At least," he adds, chuckling, "that's what they told me!"
Kloser, a composer by training and trade, wrote the music for The Day After Tomorrow and says that when he suggested some story changes in order to enhance the score, Emmerich was impressed. He invited Kloser to co-script 10,000 BC with him, as well co-compose that film's score (with Thomas Wander, with whom he reteams on 2012), and serve as an executive producer. And while Kloser concedes that visual-effects-heavy clips are a way of selling the film as a big-budget thriller, he keeps returning to the humanistic themes that, to him, are more important.
"People see explosions and buildings collapsing and earthquakes, but that's only the stage," he maintains, "the canvas for very intimate and very private stories and very deep characters, which is what Roland and I — I can speak for him here — are most proud of." As for the audience appeal of glimpsing the end of the world, Kloser couches it as an environmental allegory.
"I think seeing the world destroyed makes us aware of what we are actually destroying every day with our reckless behavior on this planet," he says. "I think that is the appeal, at least in our movie — to see this as a wake-up call, and for audiences to leave the theatre and see everything safe and normal and to be aware there's still time to save things."
Kloser understands that the tectonic, mega-earthquake devastation in his film is a natural cataclysm and not the result of bad human caretaking, but the end, whether quick or slow, is the end the world.
"Do I believe in the apocalypse?" he muses. "Yeah, I do. If we don't stop what we're doing, you don't have to be a scientist to know the world's going to end" sooner than in some billion-year future when our sun goes nova. "If we keep doubling the population, fishing every living being out of the ocean and destroying our atmosphere, maybe it won't be in 2012, but how long can we keep on using up the Earth?"
The film's many and myriad building collapses do uncomfortably recall 9/11, and the fall of New York City's Twin Towers. Kloser is cognizant of the troubling memories this type imagery can stir. "I wouldn't want to see a movie just about big buildings collapsing," he says, "and I'm the first one who doesn't want to bring back all those horrible, horrible memories. Buildings crumbling are part of a natural disaster in our film —they come and go in a second or two and are part of the big painting in the background as our heroes have to escape. We're not exploiting things," he insists. "We're not zooming in, we're just flying [or driving quickly] by these things that happen. If you want to realistically show a 10 or higher magnitude earthquake, that's probably what would be happening."
The end-of-days date of December 20, 2012, is part of a widely discredited claim by pseudo-scholars based on the Maya "Long Count" calendar, which tracks 5,125 years in a series of b'ak'tun — cycles of 144,000 days, or roughly 400 years. The current 13th b'ak'tun ends on the Maya calendar date 126.96.36.199.0, corresponding to either Dec. 21 or Dec. 23 GMT, depending on the conversion formula used. The Long Count calendar was discontinued following the arrival of Spanish conquistadors, but as E. Wyllys Andrews V, director of the Tulane University Middle American Research Institute, told the Tulane magazine New Wave, "There will be another cycle. We know the Maya thought there was one before this, and that implies they were comfortable with the idea of another one after this."
Regardless, the idea that 2012 marks the end of Earth or, conversely, the beginning of a new age of great spirituality and enlightenment has led to a slew of books like Daniel Pinchbeck’s 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, Lawrence Joseph's Apocalypse 2012: A Scientific Investigation into Civilization's End and Andrew Smith's The Revolution of 2012: Vol. 1, The Preparation. It all makes about as much sense as The Da Vinci Code — and look how that did! Indeed, Kloser and Emmerich are already working with Sony Pictures and ABC on a planned TV series, 2013, "which deals with whatever happens after the movie ends. The ending bears some hope and the possibility of a new beginning."
That comes courtesy of what appear to be giant spaceships that the U.S. government has prepared under a Noah's Ark principle (which bears no relationship with German native Emmerich's first feature, 1984's The Noah's Ark Principle, which does have a space station but has nothing to do with preserving samples of life to start anew after world destruction). In 2012, President Thomas Wilson (Glover) has kept the imminent cataclysm secret in order to preserve the old trope of "preventing panic" (which begs a question, whether the movie asks it or not, of which is more humane — letting people know so they can make spiritual peace and choose their own ends, or keeping it from them so they can waste their remaining days going to work and winding up in a collapsing skyscraper). Science adviser Adrian Helmsley (Ejiofor) and chief of staff Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt) are on opposite sides of how to respond, but it looks like only a chosen few will get to ride out both the real and the metaphoric flood (the former of which shows John F. Kennedy returning to the White House — in the form of the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy).
"We have a situation where the government knows that a disaster of such magnitude is going to happen that it doesn't make sense to warn people," says Kloser, "because there'd be only chaos and that wouldn't help. But they can save a few hundred thousand people — the legacy, the culture — and plants, seeds and animals, which they choose to do. If you can save 400,000 or 500,000 people, who are you going to save? Even worse, who is going make those decisions? In the face of such a cataclysmic event, should we just die together and not bother? Or if we could actually build these giant vessels, is it unethical to try and preserve mankind and what we've achieved all these millions of years? If you say yes to that, then come the big philosophical questions, probably as big as you can think of."
Kloser, an immigrant born in Hard, Austria ("The name means 'a little outpost'"), says that the two children in the film were inspired his own 14-year-old son, Lennon, named after John Lennon, and 12-year-old daughter Luka, christened after the 1987 Suzanne Vega song. And like Cusack's character, Kloser also has an ex-wife he's close to — his kids' mother, Désirée Nosbusch, a Luxembourg-born actress. "She's my best friend," Kloser says of the since-remarried star of German TV. "We live ten minutes from each other" in Los Angeles.
So he sounds earnest, at least, when he talks about 2012 as a human story and not a disaster movie. "There's huge CGI and huge sets, but there's also, in that exact same scene eyes full of fears, close-ups of people talking and feeling. That's what I'm proud of, that Roland [doesn’t] have the huge, amazing visual effects detract from the feelings, the dialogue, the problems, the dilemmas, the decisions. As huge as it is, it's as intimate as it gets."