Disaster movies can be a lot of fun because they show us something we would never expect to see in real life. There’s just something jaw-dropping about watching things that were built up over centuries destroyed in an instant. But all of that spectacle doesn’t amount to much if it’s missing one critical aspect.
I noticed something strange as I recently rewatched 2012. I was seeing millions of people suffer violent deaths as the ground came apart under the entire city of Los Angeles. And I felt nothing. I was a little invested in the main characters’ plight, but even if they died, I wouldn’t have felt much about that. I wondered why.
Perhaps it’s because I had also rewatched Independence Day not long before, and I could see a stark difference between the way the two films deal with similar subject matter: a doomsday scenario. They’re both directed by Roland Emmerich, and I think they reflect a loss of something essential that’s taken place in the last few decades. Let’s identify what is in Independence Day and not so much in 2012 by first discussing their characters. Then we’ll finish up by talking about how best to approach the end of the world.
Can the Little Guy Make a Big Difference?
Both Independence Day and 2012 revolve primarily around groups of government officials and everyday people as they navigate what appears to be the end of the world. It’s clear that these films show government officials because they want to portray how decision makers might deal with large-scale problems when they have an obvious role to play. But the two films differ radically in the way they handle the everyday people the audience is more likely to identify with.
Independence Day follows a number of seemingly inconsequential people who end up making a big contribution. Just about every character plays an important role in saving humanity. David has a rather lowly tech job, but he is the only person who cracks the aliens’ secret code, which saves the U.S. president and eventually the whole world. David’s father inspires his son to come up with a computer virus that will take down the aliens’ defenses. Captain Hiller is just a regular fighter pilot at first, but he flies an alien ship to the Mother Ship to plant the virus. His girlfriend is a stripper, but she survives the alien attack in Los Angeles and rescues the First Lady. Even her dog has a part to play in finding the First Lady. Russell is an alcoholic single father, but he exploits a weakness in an alien ship and sacrifices himself to kill all of the aliens in it before they can cause more damage.
All of these characters and their stories send the message that even if we think we’re small and unimportant in the grand scheme of things, we can end up doing something great if we persevere and fight to stay alive even when everything looks bleak and futile.
2012 mainly tells its story through the eyes of Jackson Curtis, a failed author and divorcee who does his best to keep his estranged family alive as they go from one disaster scene to another. Other characters are either a hindrance or help to his survival, but there’s little he can do save people outside of his family. His character, along with a couple of old band members on a doomed cruise ship, send a message that no matter what we do, we can’t change much of anything. We might survive or die, but we can’t stop the world from ending and everyone else from being killed.
There are no stakes except whether or not a small number of people will survive the apocalypse. But we’ve watched so many people die that a few more deaths seem inconsequential. Entire continents have been wiped off the map over the course of the film, and yet we’re supposed to fear for these people’s lives at the climax? I don’t think so. Of course, the reason we’re following these characters is so that we can have a narrative thread that ties together many scenes of destruction. Otherwise, we would just see city after city being destroyed without any kind of involvement on our part, and that’s not cinematic.
To sum it up, there’s nothing special about the characters in 2012. We could have followed anyone else and it would have been just as eventful and dramatic. Sure, the movie tries to shoehorn in the idea that Jackson is more important than he seems because of his book. But it never fully develops that idea, and he’s really just a glorified spectator as the world crumbles around him. The characters in Independence Day all grow beyond their limitations to accomplish the impossible. They are much more than they seem at first, and that’s what helps them save the world.
Comparing Two Presidents
The portrayal of the President of the United States in Independence Day and 2012 also showcases the opposing attitudes of each film. In Independence Day, President Whitmore makes lots of costly errors, such as staying at the White House under the shadow of a giant alien ship to prevent a panic. Thankfully, he figures out that that was a mistake and escapes in the nick of time before Washington, D.C. is incinerated. He later learns that fighter jets and nuclear bombs are ineffectual against the aliens at the expense of many lives and property damage. But he never gives up. Even the death of his wife isn’t enough to deter him from taking decisive action. He inspires his men before they go into battle by giving a rousing speech about not giving up. In the end, he leads an attack on the aliens to destroy them once and for all in defense of humanity.
In 2012, President Wilson acts like a defeated man from the beginning. During a secret meeting, he tells all of the other main world leaders that the world as they know it is over. He gives up and seems to want to die in order to be with his dead wife again. He stays at the White House and waits for his inevitable death, even though his leadership could have saved lives and helped people rebuild out of the rubble. In his final speech to the nation, he says there’s nothing they could have done to prevent the present catastrophe. He just wants to give them a chance to say goodbye to the ones they love before they die. Sadly, he doesn’t even get the dignity of finishing his speech before it gets cut off the air by natural disasters.
Independence Day inspires hope and resilience in the face of overwhelming odds. We’re all human and imperfect, which means we make mistakes, but it also means we have the capacity to accomplish great things and rise to the occasion when called upon. 2012 has an air of inevitability and futility to its proceedings. Sure, the main character is doing his best to keep his family alive, but he’s completely helpless to do anything about the billions of people around the world who are doomed. There’s no chance of saving the world and trying to prevent more damage from occurring. The focus is solely on getting aboard one of the arks that will carry what’s left of humanity to a bleak future that will surely be worse than the past, even though the film tries to salvage a happy ending.
How Do We See the End of the World?
I had originally planned to talk more generally about many other disaster movies and how they handle character deaths, but this article took on a life of its own as I started writing it. I found myself writing solely about Independence Day and 2012 I suppose because they fit the spirit of the times. We are faced with enemies we can’t see or stop (and I’m not just talking about diseases), and it’s easy to fall into despair and fear. Those two films give us markedly different ways to approach this situation. When times get tough, do we give up and wait for death or try to save our skins at the expense of everyone else? Or do we recognize that we are imperfect but keep trying to do better and even see greatness in ourselves despite our perceived smallness?
The thing I alluded to at the start that is in Independence Day and not in 2012 is a feeling of hope that stems from personal agency. Independence Day is packed full of characters fighting not just to survive but to solve the problem that threatens everyone’s survival. 2012 posits that there is no solution to the problem, and the only thing to do is either to live or die through pure chance. It’s ironic that the arks make their way to the Cape of Good Hope at the end when everything was so hopeless leading up to that point.
I’ll step outside these two films to share my final thoughts on this topic. If we think we’re alone and at the mercy of random forces of nature, then the end of the world would be a terrifying prospect. The end of everything we know looks like pure darkness and a grave reminder that our existence is a temporary accident. But if we have hope that our lives have meaning and they won’t end at death because we’re part of a grand plan, the end of the world in its current state is something to look forward to. It signifies the beginning of something better.
The end of days has been on my mind a lot lately. I’m part of Generation Y and I’m raising kids who are part of Generation Z. There’s no letter that comes after that, so it seems like whoever came up with those names even recognized that the end is close. Things I used to think were solid granite appear to be coming apart at the seams faster and faster. But I will do my best to remain hopeful that something far better is on the horizon just past the edge of my vision. I’m sure that dark times are coming, too, but they never last. As the saying goes, hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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