Skepticism and Roland Emmerich Movies

Have you given any thought yet as to what you’ll be doing on December 21st, 2012? I’ll probably be getting together with a bunch of friends to enjoy Roland Emmerich’s disaster film 2012 (coming to theatres in a couple weeks). The movie’s premise is based on the idea that the doom-sayers were right about 2012, and the end of the world actually happens! The movie hasn’t been released yet, and therefore I haven’t seen it, but if it’s anything like Emmerich’s last few films it’s probably going to consist of a ridiculous script, stiff acting, and over the top scenes of massive destruction. Fortunately for me, I’ll be enjoying this future Razzie contender from the safety of my couch. Unfortunately, there will be some people out there that will be cowering in fear, certain that the end of the world will be imminent. Thinking that the end of the world is nigh, they may have sold off all their belongings, joined a dangerous cult, or even worse. Can a skeptic enjoy a movie that is based on such nonsense?

2012 isn’t Emmerich’s first movie to have a premise base on what skeptics would regard as pseudoscience. His first Hollywood hit, Stargate, is clearly based on the debunked hypothesis that ancient astronauts (aliens) had contact with ancient humans. In fact, on the movie’s DVD that I own it includes a totally credulous mini-documentary about Erich von Däniken’s book Chariots of the Gods. At the time I first saw that movie in theatres in 1994 I had no knowledge of Däniken’s crazy theories. I just enjoyed the movie for what it was up on screen. Watching it again recently, I could clearly see the influence the ancient astronaut theory played. In one of the opening scenes, our hero archaeologist is trying to explain to a bunch of “closed minded” scientists that it’s really strange that there are no hieroglyphs inside the pyramids of Giza. This interesting piece of trivia is in fact true, and is often offered as evidence that aliens built the pyramids but this is just an anomaly and doesn’t mean that aliens built them. To me, the concept of extra-terrestrials assissting ancient humans to build their great achievements is deplorable. Woody Harrelson’s character from 2012 explains why in this ironic fake video blog.

Emmerich’s later film 10,000 BC is clearly based on Graham Hancock‘s equally kooky and debunked theories about a lost master civilization of humans., with strong hints that it’s the fabled Atlantis. Again, a credulous mini-documentary is included on the DVD but this time it focuses on this supposed lost master civilization and Hancock’s infamous Orion Correlation Theory. The constellation of Orion plays a big part in the movie, just like with Hancock’s theories. Also, the main villains are said to have come “from the seas”, i.e. Atlantis. 

Considering that the premises behind Stargate and 10,000 BC contradict each other, it’s safe to assume that the film director doesn’t believe both theories of human origins are true (I’d love to see a debate between Hancock and Däniken). My guess is that he doesn’t believe in either, but thought they’d make for a good movie. My next guess is that he is just continuing this trend with 2012. If he really thought the world was going to end in a few years, I doubt he’d waste his time on another soulless blockbuster. Especially since the studio probably expects to continue to earn from it well after the year 2012 comes to a close.

So clearly the studios, and even the director, behind 2012 don’t believe the world will end in a few years. Despite this, the advertising of the film plays up a lot of the debunked myths surrounding this date as if they were fact. One of the movie’s taglines is “Never has a date in history been so significant to so many civilizations.” There’s even a conspiracy cartoon voiced by one of the film’s actor’s Woody Harrelson. I realize that this advertising is done with a wink and a nod (especially that cartoon), but there are people out there that are seriously scared to death that the world will end on 12/21/2012. On the other hand, is there a better way to discredit an idea than for it to be featured in a Roland Emmerich film? Maybe we should have been upset that The Day After Tomorrow featured climate change.

This is not a new debate. Whenever a movie comes out featuring the paranormal or some form of debunked pseudoscience the debate rages about where the line should be drawn. Should skeptics condemn, ignore, or enjoy the film? I think it’s safe to say that if a movie is presented as fiction, it can show all the ghosts and pseudoscience as it wants. Drag Me to Hell featured psychics, Gypsy curses, and seances but was still damn fun. On the other hand, it’s disappointing when a film’s marketing makes bold claims that the movie is based on a true story when it is actually inspired by debunked myths. With 2012‘s marketing transgressions in mind, will I pay to see Emmerich’s latest ode to pseudoscience? Maybe in a few years.

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  • Jonathan Abrams

    Jonathan Abrams is the latest founder and president of the Ottawa Skeptics. He organizes local events, makes media appearances as the token skeptic, and is one of the website maintainers. He is the host of the skepticism podcast The Reality Check. When he’s not thinking about science and skepticism, he’s working as a computer engineer, playing pinball, or doing the dishes.