Movie Doubles – ‘The Road’ & ‘2012’

Apocalypse How

Today’s movie double is an attempt to draw together two films about the end of the world as we know it, and see what exactly it is that makes us want to watch this stuff. ‘The Road’ is based on  Cormac McCarthy book with some serious intention of exploring the human existence in extreme conditions, where society has simply ceased to be. The film is therefore somber and portentous with moments of genuine questioning about the human condition. It garnered much high praise and as such, belongs to the recent spate of depressing films I’ve watched.

‘2012’ on the other hand is a film about the end of the world co-written and directed by Roland Emmerich who brought us such trashy marvels as ‘Independence Day’, ‘Star Gate’ and ‘The Day After Tomorrow’. Now, when I say trashy, I’m not putting down Emmerich’s work for his choice of genre, but rather the lowbrow tone he brings to all of his work. The themes are always promising, but the execution always seems to go through the Hollywood lobotomy machine and comes out as the king unto the stupid.

With that out of the way, I also want to share with you that I am about to watch ‘Until the End of the World’ and ‘The Quiet Earth’ soon just because I picked them up recently and felt this rush of ‘Oh wow! I remember these”. If I seem to be writing a lot about the end of the world movies a lot, it’s just coincidence of a commercial kind.

Apocalypse Why?

So… the world as we know it ends. what do you do? ‘The Road’ is situated in some kind of post-apocalyptic landscape where most people are dead, and those remaining have reduced themselves to the most desperate means of survival. The choice is between scavenging and cannibalism and in Cormac McCarthy’s vision the strong choose survival, the weak choose suicide; good choose scavenging and the evil choose cannibalism. The reason why the world ends is never made entirely clear.

One of the more annoying things about ‘the Road’ is that if the end of civilization was indeed a nuclear holocaust, these survivors are getting off way too lightly. The whole film seems more like a rehash of the ‘Mad Max’ kind of junk culture sci-fi minus the glorious action by a powerful protagonist. Instead, the trip on the road is mostly a grueling trip through a devastated landscape trying to dodge bands of evil cannibals – but the underlying Mad-Max-ist vision is throbbing pretty hard. And by throbbing, I mean, the masochistic heart of this film is just joyous as it wallows in the wreck.

The problem I have with this vision is that it seems to be set up in a way that suits the survivalist NRA vision of a post-apocalypse more than anybody else. You can smell the gun-toting types yearning for a lawless human landscape where it might be permissible to abuse and shoot strangers on sight. Indeed, the whole scenario supports that vision in the same way that the whole of the Star Wars universe supports light saber duels. I mean, come on, if there were a serious exchange of nukes, you won’t have this version of a post-apocalypse.

‘2012’ is a different kettle of fish. Where ‘The Road’ relishes in the masochistic journey of desperate survival, Emmerich celebrates the desperate escape against sadistic CGI forces unleashed by ILM. People die off screen a lot in 2012, mostly to prevent us from really getting a handle on the violence that is being presented in the narrative. I guess if the whole of California slides off into the bottom of the sea and the only people who get out are on airplanes, then you take it as read that it’s tragic. Not so in this film. ‘2012’ goes a fair way to excite the audience with the endless row of near-misses and near-death moments both implausible and absurd. People die comic book deaths or simply get left behind by the bounding narrative.

Neither film is terribly realistic in any scientific way, but ‘2012’ makes no excuses about it. It just wants you to enjoy the apocalypse. ‘The Road’ wants you to share in the misery. Naturally ‘The Road’ gets more of a critical acclaim, but this is probably because it’s the same critics who like the miserable films giving it the thumbs up. It has to be said, the director of ‘The Road’ John Hillcoat, is an Australian. While I commend his good fortune in directing this film, I tend to think it has all the hallmarks of an Australian movie. It’s bleak, it’s dull, it’s sad, it’s got long stretches of miserable tedium followed by a triumphant downer of an ending you see coming from halfway through. Naturally Charlize ‘Monster’ Theron agreed to be in this too. As movie experiences go, it has the worst of all worlds.

Casting As An Art Form

Casting stars is a dicey business. Sometimes it’s just right – as with ‘The Men Who Stare At Goats’ – and other times it totally betrays the picture – as with ‘Brooklyn’s Finest’.

Seeing Charlize Theron looking pained and upset and suicidal was one of those, “oh that again” moments which was bad. Viggo Mortensen looking as pained as he does in ‘The Road’ only evoked moments from ‘Lord of the Rings’, but I liked him better in that. At least the pain had a pay off – he gets to be king.  Similarly, seeing Woody Harrelson play yet another human missing a few cards from a full deck made me think it was the latter in ‘2012’.

Big movies tend to suffer more because of the need to cast recognisable faces, who in turn ruin the film with their baggage from previous roles. Oliver Platt and Amanda Peet were completely miscast in ‘2012’. Which brings me to…

What Are You Doing, John Cusack?

The weirdest thing about ‘2012’ might be the casting of John Cusack as Jackson Curtis. After a career of playing all sorts of writers, here he is again playing a novelist who has one published work, with 422 sold copies. He keeps playing writers which is nice because he’s sort of credible playing writers because he’s played so many, but was there really a big need for this character to be a writer? And if there was, did they really need to cast John Cusack to play this writer?

I dunno. I just think it’s getting a bit too silly. Then again, he’s in Hot Tub Time Machine, headed straight for 1986. Clearly he doesn’t take himself too seriously, and that’s a good thing for ‘2012’ because the scenes where he meets Woody Harrelson’s Charlie Frost, the conspiracy-theorist radio dude, are just plain stupid. The rest of the implausible-ness just keeps ballooning as the movie goes on. What are you doing in this movie, John Cusack?

The Biblical Landscape Of The Texts

The text most associated with the world ending has to be the Bible, so it’s no surprise the motifs from the bible end up as the backbone of these texts. ‘The Road’ is a replay of Job, while ‘2012; is clearly working towards Noah’s Ark. The Bible is full of this sort of stuff, from parting of the Red Sea to Armageddon in Revelations and even the central motif of crucifixion all forms the jumbled archetypal mess from whence these films draw their images. That being said, there’s very little religiosity in either film – which is a blessing.

In its place though, are loaded insinuations that morality ought to be carried over into ethics in the case of ‘2012’ or that morality should be defined from an inner intuition as is the case with ‘The Road’. What is ethical gets short shrift in ‘2012’ precisely because if the world is going to pot, ethical behaviour is going to be the hardest to sustain, the film makers know this and exploit the angle just to set up a love story. Meanwhile, ‘The Road’ brings up a discussion of what is good and and what is evil, and it all seems to hinge on not being or being cannibals.  “Are we the good guys?” asks the boy. Viggo Mortensen’s character doesn’t really have a framework to explain good or evil, let alone ethical positions such as utilitarianism.

In ‘2012’, the ethical problem gets addressed in The Big Speech.

The Big Speech

Most films have a tub-thumping, ultra-loaded, highly motivated Big Speech. The Big Speech is the speech the main character gives in order to make sense of the paradigm by which the film is built. We like Big Speeches like the one Al Pacino gives in ‘Any Given Sunday’. We hate the ones that say too much or not enough or don’t get us over the emotional line. It’s the moment in the film where some ideological package is being sold. We love the ones that lift our spirits, laugh at the ones that don’t work. The Big Speech is the one you wished you said when you came to the big important fork in the road in your own life. It’s the single, meaningful articulation of what a film’s concern is about. Indeed, the Big Speech is the whole point of some of these movies. Even ‘Andrei Rubylev’ by Andrei Tarkovsky has a Big Speech. It might be as short as ‘Use The Force Luke.”; it might go for days like a filibuster. We are dying to deliver the Big Speech in our ordinary, imperfect, humdrum lives but can’t; so we watch movies and watch these characters say for us what we cannot in our real lives.

The Big Speech in ‘2012’ is about ethics of surviving while leaving behind others. It’s a plea to help some people. It comes way too late in the film after the vast majority of the planet has died off, but it’s a big speech intended to be rousing, heartfelt and convincing. It’s not – but you get that.

There is no Big Speech moment in ‘The Road’. It’s very ‘Australian’ that way.

Painting The Disaster

T.S Eliot said… yes, a whimper. Lately Hollywood has been painting a picture whereby it won’t even end when it ends, which reminds us of David St. Hubbins’ Big Speech about ‘The End’ in ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ and whether we really know it is the end. Even as these films come to an end, they finish off with a new dawn for humanity – complete with the formation of family motifs shoved down the gullet like so much stuffing for the Thanksgiving turkey. And in some weird way, that simile is exactly what we are getting in these films.

In the 1970s, disaster movies used to be about airplanes and airports or single buildings going up in a towering inferno. This side of 9/11 we seem to be a bit more obsessed with a high definition kind of special effects movie where the world gets wiped out. I sort of wonder about these more and more as the memory of 9/11 haunts even more with each passing year. I’m haunted by the memories of those people jumping out of the burning World Trade Center. Having a movie that exalts in that kind of disaster magnified to a million doesn’t actually speak well of us as humans. I guess you could call these films a progressively guilty pleasure.

The image of the USS John F. Kennedy flipping over and on top of the black President played by Danny Glover was more than enough heavy-handed symbolism, I thought this was a strange kind of indulgence on the part of Roland Emmerich.

Even the notion of wandering around a post-nuclear holocaust landscape in ‘The Road’ seems like a misplaced kind of indulgent entertainment. How sick are we as an audience if we’re enjoying this stuff? It’s almost as if we want it to happen. The thing is, some people really do.

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