Roland Emmerich’s 2012 (2009) takes place in the impending doomsday as predicted by Charles Hapgood’s Earth Crust Displacement Theory. The narrative follows two lead characters Adrian Helmsley, the chief science adviser to the U.S. government, and Jackson Curtis, a failed writer turned chauffeur. The story primarily revolves around Jackson’s journey across the world to reach the so called ‘Arks’, which have been constructed by the various governments to save people of importance, and carry on humanity’s survival after the doomsday, and eventually culminates in a situation where all the characters of the movie gather at a focal point. Through these characters (in addition to Yuri Karpov, a Russian billionaire), the movie provides a perspective of all the major groups of people present during the apocalypse – The knowing and powerful (government), the average man, and the rich. The tension during the climax of the movie is enhanced by the fact that each of the characters carries out an act of sacrifice in their own terms, contradicting the actions they have carried out in the movie so far.
Redemption through acts of sacrifice tend to have religious connotations (due to the nature of redemption; a concept deeply embedded in Christian ideology), however, this essay will focus on the psychological aspect behind the need for redemption. Redemption of oneself does not come easily, hence the need for a sacrifice on part of the individual. If an individuals desire to be cleansed of his sins is far greater than his attachment to object of sacrifice, it gives rise the process of redemption through sacrifice.
Interestingly enough, there is an observed shift in mindset from one of self-preservation to a more utilitarian one. As a result of this observation, I find it quite interesting how the Emmerich presents a unique perspective on the theme of sacrifice, as compared to other films of a similar genre. A significant portion of the movies I have watched tend to bestow upon its characters the privilege of immediate redemption, a circumstance in which all of a character’s shortcomings are pardoned through the completion of a solitary act of sacrifice. This elementary portrayal of redemption through sacrifice is where Emmerich takes his unique path.
Subsequetly, this discussion leads to me my thesis in which I will explain how Emmerich makes use of the pluralization of sacrifice, which does not restrict the theme of sacrifice to a singular act or character, serves to present a wholly distinctive view of sacrifice in an apocalyptic setting. Another one of Emmerich’s movies, Independence Day, will also be looked at in order to draw parallels, and further support the primary claim of this essay as it encapsulates distinct late 90’s apocalyptic motifs, all the while achieving an identical representation of sacrifice to 2012, which came a decade later.
Jackson Curtis offers the perspective of the average man in an apocalyptic setting. Divorced, a family man, and with the most average of careers, Jackson can be interpreted as the embodiment of a common American man. He is portrayed to have nothing outstanding about him, yet he manages to outrun an earthquake and a volcano eruption with just the help of a few friends and family, and eventually make it onto the Ark and survive into the new world. This does not seem out of the ordinary for a generic apocalyptic movie, however, despite being perceived initially to be singular in his ambitions, in that he has no goal other than to save himself and his family, by the end of the film he undergoes a change in persona and fights for those who are on board the Ark, going so far as to put himself and his family on the line. When the tsunami hits, the Ark’s gates are unable to close, putting the entire ship at risk of sinking. Yet our ordinary hero Jackson risks life and limb to force the gates to shut, saving everyone on board in the process. Here, we can look at our first instance of unfulfilled sacrifice. Curtis willingly puts his life on the line in order to save those of others, yet his sacrifice remains unfulfilled as he is able to survive through the ordeal. A reason why Emmerich decides to let Curtis live is possibly due to the fact that the audience is most likely to be able to relate to him, and thus vouch for his survival. He does after all, represent the masses. Curtis is unique in his depiction as a main character, as he is initially out only to save himself and his family, yet due the changes in circumstances during the films climax, he shows courage and humanity in the face of an adversity and is willing to sacrifice himself for the benefit of others. His sacrifice however, remains unfulfilled and he lives on, much to the audiences’ approval.
Parallels to this scenario can be drawn by looking at Independence Day (1996), in which Steven Miller, a fighter pilot, teams up with scientist David Levinson, to destroy the alien mothership that is invading Earth. Miller is portrayed as a staunch patriot, and his actions can be said to be motivated by his desire to protect his country and fellow countrymen, conveying a strong sense of nationalism in the film. Levinson can be viewed to be more in line with Curtis, in the sense that they are both ordinary people for a majority of the film, but when the stakes are high, they both come into their own, and step up to take responsibility for humanity’s survival. They both display willingness to sacrifice their lives, despite showing disinterest in the greater good of humanity for a larger duration of the films. Another aspect in which the heroes are similar is in the fact that Miller and Levinson are also subject to unfulfilled sacrifice. It can also be argued that Levinson’s primary intention behind his willingness to sacrifice his life is to redeem himself. He is a brilliant scientist; however, he has resigned himself to doing the menial task of a cable technician, and as a result lost his wife to divorce. He accepted the risk associated with carrying out the mission, yet since he returned safely back to earth, his sacrifice remains unfulfilled, and he redeems himself in the eyes of his loved one. Emmerich makes a distinctive use of unfulfilled sacrifices to redeem the characters in his films, without having to disappoint the audience by killing the character in the process.
“The moment we stop fighting for each other, that’s the moment that we lose our humanity”
Scientist Adrian Helmsley offers the perspective of the government insider who is well aware of the imminent apocalypse and can also be seen as a figure of power in 2012. A more intangible form of sacrifice is presented by Emmerich, as people in a position of power have everything to lose while making drastic decisions, just like Helmsley. Being the chief advisor to the president, he has a privileged point of view of the apocalypse throughout the film, as he is viewed as an important asset to humanity. It can be identified that Helmsley’s primary concern is with apocalypse itself, and not of the human consequence if it, as he is shown to be closely following the progression of the apocalypse for much of the movie. But a significant change in his character is observed when he learns that his father dies as a result of the tsunami. This shift is made apparent by the death of his fellow scientist, Satnam Surtani. Helmsley was generally indifferent to the human cost of the apocalypse, as long as those close to him were safe. Yet once he is made aware of their demise, he faces a change of heart on board the Ark, and advocates to let on board the remaining people. When he is made aware of the fact that people are not being allowed to board, he says – “The moment we stop fighting for each other, that’s the moment that we lose our humanity”. This character that has not had any particular impact on the audience or plot so far, abruptly takes a righteous stance with regards to the lives of others during the climax. Helmsley does not necessarily put anything physical, such as his life, on the line while he advocates for the people. He does however, risk losing his position of privilege, authority, and respect in the eyes of his associates.
Similarly, President Thomas J. Whitmore is the embodiment of the state in Independence Day, yet they differ in the fact that Whitmore is Emmerich’s means through which he combines the factions of the government and the common man to offer a unique perspective of sacrifice. It is revealed in the movie that Whitmore is an ex air force pilot, and a comparison can be made with Miller. This revelation conjures the image of the newly elected president as a figure of authority, but with the mindset of a patriot and a voice of the common man. Whitmore being a fierce patriot, initially choses to stay back in the White House to lead the nation and assure citizens that everything is indeed under control. He willingly puts his life on the line to complete his duty as commander in chief and is shown to put the lives of his citizens above his own, a stark contradiction to Helmsley. Whitmore is yet another example of unfulfilled sacrifice, as he not only escapes the White House, but even goes on to survive the final battle with the aliens, in which he participates as a fighter pilot. His decision to do so is significant, as he is prepared to sacrifice not only his position as president, but also his life, as opposed to Helmsley. Although they both give sensational speeches, the audience is more likely to empathize with Whitmore as he does have a point to prove and redeem himself as a newly elected president during difficult times in American politics. In a sense, Emmerich successfully melds the average man and the authority to present a unique example of how the motivation to redeem oneself leads to the acts of sacrifice; fulfilled or unfulfilled.
Lastly, Russian billionaire Yuri Karpov can be seen as representing the rich during an apocalyptic scenario. Governments approached billionaires such as Karpov several years prior to doomsday, granting them a place on board the Ark in exchange for funding. A result of this contact is that it has left most of humanity in the dark about the impending apocalypse and makes clear the discrimination between those with wealth and power compared to the common man. Throughout the film, Karpov is shown to be a selfish person who is only concerned with the survival of himself and his family (similar to Curtis), knowing well in advance that everyone else he knew was going to die. He even goes as far as to betray Curtis, who was the one who helped him get to the Ark in the first place, when he leaves Curtis and his family behind after their plane crashes. Once at the Ark however, he, along with many other people are refused entry on board. Under the threat of the approaching tsunami, the gates are eventually lowered to let the masses through, however Karpov and his sons’ are unable to board before the gates start closing. Knowing that staying behind will lead to his son’s death, Karpov makes the conscious decision to lift his son to safety at the expense of falling to his own death. This character that is despised by the audience throughout the film, is shown to be capable of sacrificing himself for the sake of his children and was indeed capable of selfless actions, despite having committed acts of a selfish nature in the past. In Karpov’s last moments, an allusion to biblical salvation can be observed. Karpov’s aspirations for salvation differ from active sacrifice as salvation can be perceived as a form of deliverance from the sins he has committed in the past. Karpov is also unique in the fact that his salvation is finally recognized, in that he does indeed fulfill the requirement of death. It is not far-fetched to say that Emmerich’s the intention behind and distinctive portrayal of Karpov’s death led to the audience sympathizing with him, and perhaps even redeeming him as a decent human being in their eyes.
All of the discussed characters start from having the generic attributes of a Hollywood apocalyptic hero/villain and evolve into ones with notable personalities; something that the audience can acknowledge. Comparing and contrasting the various lead characters in Emmerich’s 2012 and Independence Day aids in segregating lead characters into their distinctive groups, providing us with the unique perspective on how the characters perceive and carry out their acts of sacrifice in the apocalyptic setting of the film. Both these facets of character development presented by Emmerich help to create a unique outlook in the genre of American apocalyptic films and can potentially be attributed to his background as a German – American director. And although the apocalyptic genre has evolved over the decades, Emmerich successfully maintains his standpoint on the theme of sacrifice and redemption. This observation is potentially significant as it can open doors to explore how other mainstream directors have changed the way apocalyptic films are directed, and also the causes behind those changes.
1. Emmerich, R. (Director)(2009). 2012 [Motion picture on DVD].
2. Emmerich, R. (Director)(1996). INDEPENDENCE DAY[Motion picture on CD].