2012, the movie we love to hate

The second in a guest series about the “Mayan Apocalypse” predicted for Dec. 21, 2012.  The first post is here.

Last summer, I traveled to Philadelphia to visit the Penn Museum exhibit “Maya: the Lords of Time.” It was, as one might expect given the museum collection and the scholars involved, fantastic.  I want to comment on just the beginning of the exhibit, however. On entering, one is immediately greeted by a wall crowded with TV screens, all showing different clips of predicted disasters and people talking fearfully about the end of the world. The destruction, paranoia, and cacophony create a ambiance of chaos and uncertainty. Turning the corner, these images are replaced by widely spaced Mayan artifacts and stela. The effect is striking.  One moves from media-induced insanity to serenity, from endless disturbing jump-cuts to the well-lit, quiet contemplation of beautiful art.

Among these images were scenes from Director Roland Emmerich’s blockbuster film 2012 (2009). This over-the-top disaster film is well used in that context.  Still, it is interesting how often 2012 is mentioned by academics and other debunkers — almost as often as they mention serious alternative thinkers about the Mayan calendar, such as Jose Arguelles (although the film receives less in-depth coverage than he does).

I find this interesting because 2012 is clearly not trying to convince us to stockpile canned goods or build boats to prepare for the end of the Maya Long Count, any more than Emmerich’s previous films were meant to prepare us for alien invasion (Independence Day, 1996) or the effects of global climate change (The Day After Tomorrow, 2004).  Like Emmerich’s previous films, 2012 is a chance to watch the urban industrialized world burn (in that way, it has much in common with the currently popular zombie film genre). If you want to see John Cusack survive increasingly implausible crumbling urban landscapes, this film is for you.

The Maya, however, are barely mentioned in 2012. There are no Mayan characters, no one travels to Mesoamerica, there is no mention of the Long Count.  Emmerich’s goal for 2012 was, in his own words (here and here), “a modern retelling of Noah’s Ark.” In fact, he claims that the movie originally had nothing to do with the 2012 phenomenon at all.  Instead, he was convinced – reluctantly – to include the concept because of public interest in the Maya calendar.

This explains why the Maya only receive two passing mentions in 2012 — one is a brief comment that even “they” had been able to predict the end of the world, the other a short news report on a cult suicide in Tikal. The marketing aspect of the film emphasized these Maya themes (all of the film footage about the Maya is in the trailer, the movie website starts with a rotating image of the Maya calendar, and there are related extras on the DVD), but the movie itself had basically nothing to do with the Maya, the Mayan Long Count, or Dec 21.

Nevertheless, this film’s impact on public interest in Dec 21 is measurable.  Google Trends, which gives data on the number of times particular search terms are used, gives us a sense of the impact of this $200,000,000  film. I looked at a number of related terms, but have picked the ones that show the general pattern: There is a spike of interest in 2012 apocalyptic ideas when the 2012 marketing campaign starts (November 2008), a huge spike when the film is released (November 2009), and a higher baseline of interest from then until now. Since January, interest in the Mayan calendar/apocalypse has been steadily climbing (and in fact, is higher every time I check this link; it automatically updates). In other words, the 2012 movie both responded to, and reinforced, public interest in the 2012 phenomenon.

Here I return to Michael D. Gordin’s The Pseudoscience Wars (2012).  This delightful book deals with the scientific response to Velikovsky, who believed that the miracles of the Old Testament and other ancient myths documented the emergence of a comet from Jupiter, its traumatic interactions with Earth, and its eventual settling into the role of the planet Venus. (The final chapter also discusses the 2012 situation.)  Gordin’s main focus is understanding why Velikovsky — unlike others labeled “crackpots” before him — stirred the public ire of astronomers and physicists. Academics’ real concern was not Velikovsky’s ideas per se, but how much attention he received by being published by MacMillan — a major publisher of science textbooks — which implied the book had scientific legitimacy. Velikovsky’s “Worlds in Collision” was a major bestseller when it was released in 1950, and academics felt the ideas had to be addressed so that the public would not be misled.

With the Mayan Apocalypse, no major academic publisher is lending legitimacy to these theories.   Books about expected events of 2012 (mainly TAE ideas) are published by specialty presses that focus on the spiritual counterculture, such as Evolver Editions, Inner Traditions/Bear & Company, Shambhala, and John Hunt Publishing.  Instead, film media has become the battleground for public attention (perhaps because reading is declining?). The immense amount of money put into movies, documentaries, and TV shows about the Mayan Apocalypse is creating public interest today, and in some ways this parallels what Macmillan did for Velikovsky in the 1950s.

One example of this is the viral marketing campaign for 2012 conducted in November 2008.   Columbia pictures created webpages that were not clearly marked as advertising (these no longer appear to be available), promoting the idea that scientists really did know the world would end and were preparing.  This type of advertising was not unique to this film, but in this case it reinforced already existing fears that the end really was nigh.  NASA began responding to public fears about 2012 as a result of this marketing campaign, and many of the academics interested in addressing these concerns also published after this time.

Academics are caught in something of a bind here.  Do we respond to public fears, in the hopes of debunking them, but no doubt also increasing the public interest in the very ideas we wish to discredit?  Should we respond in the hopes of selling a few more books or receiving a few more citations, thus generating interest in the rest of what our discipline does?  As anthropologists we are not immune to the desires of public interest, certainly (obviously I’m not — here I am, blogging away), nor should we be.  Perhaps something good can come of the non-end-of-the-world.  I’ll turn to this question next time.


Clare A. Sammells is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Bucknell University. She has conducted research on archaeological tourism in Tiwanaku, Bolivia and on foodways among Bolivian migrants living in Madrid, Spain.

6 thoughts on “2012, the movie we love to hate

  1. Thank you so much for this link – I assumed these must be somewhere (that is the amazing and terrifying thing about the internet), but certainly they are no longer linked to the official movie website. I find the IHC anthropologist video particularly interesting, and it shows why so many unsuspecting non-specialists might be confused by this professional-looking, unlabeled viral marketing website. A lot of the information given is accurate (the names of the codices, the destruction of the Spanish conquest, etc), which might make it more difficult for many to sort out truth from fiction.

    Also, I find it interesting that they claim this “Fifth Mayan Codex” was found in a Guatemalan cave. There is almost no chance a paper document could survive more than 500 years in a cave in Central America, but this is playing on the famous discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in desert caves where preservation would be less problematic. Public knowledge about specific archaeological finds of ancient texts is being utilized to create a fiction that might appear believable.

  2. Just want to add a compliment on this post, lots of interesting information elegantly presented. Currently more concerned about the probability of another Great Kanto Earthquake; but that comes from living in Japan.

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