No Movie for Old Men

2012 is an awful movie. I knew this when I added it to my Netflix queue, but I wanted to stay up to date on the latest in computer-generated apocalyptic destruction. I’m a fan of special effects in general and stories about the end of the world in particular.

All the boxes were ticked: absurd “science,” impossible escapes, a nonsensical plan to save humanity, familial and romantic problems resolved during the crisis, unintentionally slapstick character deaths, etc. What I didn’t expect was how upsetting it would be—which is to say, that it was upsetting at all.

The most heartless, lizard-brained humans are pre-teen boys. Teens and young adult men have usually built up a tough emotional core, but are generally too distracted by puberty to ever match the hardness of their unenlightened, toad-exploding youths. As men age, they become progressively more sensitive. The biggest spike (or dip?) in the graph occurs when a man becomes a father.

In my experience, this manifests itself most noticeably in a reduced ability to enjoy any story where children are in peril. And so it was for me with 2012. As bad as the movie was, I was still bothered by the repeated use of children in danger as a dramatic device. This, despite the fact that there is never any mystery about who will live and who will die in any given scene. My brain understood, but my body still twinged.

So let this be a lesson to you, young men. You may feel tough now, and you may remain rational and intelligent your entire lives. But you will age, and someday you may even become a father. When you do, watch out. You too—yes, even you, you, and you—will someday become an unintentional victim of your own emotions. (A “mush,” as I’ve heard it called.)

It’s Not You, It’s Me

I always ponder this situation when I see a movie or read a book. It seems to me that our ability to enjoy a story depends on our personal experiences to a degree that people don’t want to consider. For example, a common occurrence on this Internet of ours is to encounter an impassioned screed condemning some work of fiction as offensive. Like clockwork, this is followed by a retaliatory condemnation of the offended party as “too sensitive” or “crazy.” The phrase “give me a break” is featured.

The overall point that the inherent worth of a work of art is not determined by the bad reactions of a few people is pretty solid. But the glib denigration of the offended party is definitely on shaky ground. The unfortunate truth is that, through no fault of the artist or the viewer, entire avenues of entertainment can be closed off by life experiences.

If your wife died in a car accident, you may find yourself unable to enjoy movies that feature car crashes. If you had an abusive parent, you may be upset by any scene where a parent yells at a child. And yes, if you simply have one or more happy, healthy children, you may not even be able to smirk your way through a comically bad disaster movie which happens to feature children.

None of this has to reach the level of trauma (e.g., a veteran being unable to watch war movies). In fact, it’s most insidious when it’s much less dramatic, just a mild pin-prick of discomfort happening entirely outside—and often in opposition to—your conscious mind.

And is this the fault of the artist? Is the comedy actually less funny because there’s a gag involving turbulence on an airplane? And on the other side, can you really blame the viewer? I say no on all counts, as long as everyone involved has a clear head about the situation. For the viewer, that means no blanket denunciation of a work of art based solely on your own unexamined emotional reaction. For the artist, that means understanding that some people will be legitimately upset by your creation for reasons beyond your ability to predict or control.

So yeah, thumbs down on 2012, but not because I’m a father of two and a giant mush. It’s bad for all the usual reasons a movie is bad: script, story, characters, etc. Maybe if you don’t have kids, you can appreciate it as a "good ‘bad movie.’" Maybe.

Finally, lest you young men get depressed about your inevitable futures as wussy old(er) men, there is actually an upside. A good movie that happens to intersect with your newly altered emotional landscape can be made all the more better by the interaction. For example, I enjoyed reading The Road, which is a much more intense story of the apocalypse and a child in danger than 2012. Here’s hoping the movie adaptation doesn’t suck.