Roland Emmerich or Michael Bay: Who is Hollywood's true reigning King of Schlock?
In the mid-1990s, Emmerich threw down the gauntlet with the planetary disasteraction spectacle Independence Day, in its day a ranking contender for most the staggeringly overproduced B-movie to date. Two years later, Bay arguably upped the ante with the similarly overproduced planetary disasteraction spectacle Armageddon.
Emmerich's next film was the Revolutionary War cartoon The Patriot, followed a year later by Bay's WWII cartoon Pearl Harbor. After that, both Emmerich and Bay took stabs at dystopian near futures with The Day After Tomorrow and The Island, respectively.
Bay's latest salvo is Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, an over-the-top, overwrought, over-long, would-be apotheosis of every disaster movie and action flick ever made. But Emmerich is not to be outdone: 2012 is his over-the-top, overwrought, over-long would-be apotheosis of every disaster movie and action flick ever made.
By this point in their careers, a few things are clear. Emmerich has a dimmer vision of the future than Bay; his movies offer real apocalypses, while even Bay's Armageddon is about an apocalypse averted. But Bay has a dimmer outlook on mankind. Emmerich seasons his schlock with schmaltz, with cornball speeches about decency, loyalty, family and humanity. Bay likes his trash trashy, with generous dollops of gratuitous sleaze and exploitation.
In Bay's movies, women are sex objects—pinups and playmates if not bimbos, strippers and/or prostitutes—while men are cocky, testosterone-charged studs or else wish they were, by gum. Men and women in Emmerich's movies are no less cartoony, but the women are wives, ex-wives and daughters, while the men struggle with doing right by them.
A typical Emmerich hero earnestly worries about things like the appropriateness of burning the works of Nietzsche for heat in a post-apocalyptic world. If a typical Bay hero is earnestly concerned about anything, it's probably Megan Fox's midriff. Emmerich might be more likely to kill off nine-tenths of the world's population, but Bay is less likely to make you feel like it would matter. Not that you're very likely to care, or care a lot, in an Emmerich film. But at least you feel that Emmerich cares—and that he wants us to care—and that's better than nothing.
2012 is Emmerich at his most existential—and his most laughable. I don't mean only the premise, which blends silly technobabble about solar flares and neutrinos with a few actual science facts (like the volcanic hotspot under Yellowstone) and a concatenation of New Age anxieties around the year 2012 supposedly connected to the ancient Mayan calendar, in roughly the same way that the Heaven's Gate cult's anxieties around the Hale-Bopp comet were "connected" to the Bible.
Nor do I mean the jaw-dropping set pieces, which go way beyond conventional action-movie impossibilities like outrunning fireballs. In two of the movie's best scenes, the heroes race through a disintegrating landscape, literally riding the event horizon of a rolling cataclysm consuming the earth directly under their vehicles' wheels. Crumbling buildings, tumbling vehicles and heaving shelves of rock and earth extend the crisis into four dimensions. Whether action movies should aspire to the condition of theme-park rides is highly debatable, but they do, and the set pieces in 2012 set a new standard for what is possible in this respect.