Judge William Lee has been waiting for a second chance to party like it's 1999.
"This is a very important moment. Take account of this and realize that you live in a time of change and a time of transition."
Not since the Y2K panic has a calendar date invited so much speculation and anxiety. 2012: Science or Superstition looks at the end date of the Maya Long Count Calendar—Dec. 21, 2012—and hears views from more than a dozen authors and researchers. How much weight should we grant an ancient prophecy that was predicted by a civilization that disappeared eons ago? While there are differing opinions among the various experts interviewed for this documentary, none of them suggests changing your 2013 vacation plans.
The opening narration tells us that there are two camps of 2012 experts: those who interpret a prophecy of apocalypse and those who see it as a time of rebirth. Yet, even those who believe the Maya predicted the end of the world aren't themselves ready to say our days are numbered. Dr. Alberto Villoldo, a psychologist and author (Shaman, Healer, Sage) says the prophecies speak of "a culling of humanity, a harvesting of souls and a beginning of a millennium of gold." Still, he doesn't think it works to take this prediction and appropriate it to contemporary civilization.
Natural disasters are commonly viewed as evidence that the earth is undergoing significant change. Some will attribute the environmental change to global warming and others might argue there is something happening at a greater, cosmic level. John Major Jenkins (author, Maya Cosmogenesis 2012), Graham Hancock (author, Finger Prints of the Gods) and Lawrence E. Joseph (author, Apocalypse 2012) go to great lengths to explain Precession of the Equinoxes and other astronomic theories and how they coincide with the Maya calendar. The Mayans calculated, and contemporary experts have corroborated, that on the day of the 2012 winter solstice the sun will rise in the center of the Milky Way (seen from our perspective on earth). Scientists also expect that 2012 will see a climax of sun spot activity. If a huge solar flare doesn't destroy the Earth—a possibility if the planet's magnetic field were weakened or disappeared, apparently—it might cause havoc with our technology that relies on the fragile satellites in orbit. Dr. Anthony F. Aveni, professor of astronomy and anthropology at Colgate University, provides the dissenting opinion that there is no proof that the Mayan stargazers were that accurate.
Director Nimrod Erez and writer-producer Gary Baddelay (The Real McCain) have the challenge of presenting some very big ideas in a coherent manner and they are just modestly successful. It isn't always clear where one theory ends and another begins. And how does a theory of a 26,000-year galactic cycle relate to a 5,000-year calendar? The free form lecture that emerges might have benefited from some more formal categorizations. For example, I found the DVD chapter titles very useful for segmenting and framing the main ideas, but the titles aren't actually employed in the program itself. Most of the interview subjects prefer the renewal and rebirth theory regarding the Maya calendar end date and the filmmakers wisely back off from sounding the end of the world trumpets early on. Doing so makes the documentary feel more like a science lecture than a breathless doomsday warning, but at least no one is going to look silly when 2013 rolls around.
Though it takes some time before we actually see the Mayan objects being interpreted, the examination of the artifacts provides some of the most interesting information. I found it especially satisfying that explanations of the Mayan cosmology offered here actually shed much light on the symbolism used in Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain.
The documentary is mainly talking head interviews of passable video quality. The lighting is workable but a few settings have the backgrounds overexposed. News footage of storms is of lesser quality. The shots of Mayan ruins provide a logical change of scenery but it gets repetitive after a while. Computer animation is used sparingly to illustrate the galactic cycles and other astronomical ideas and they are very helpful. The video image suffers from harsh edge details throughout the program, but the picture is clean and the full frame presentation works fine. The soundtrack doesn't try to do anything special, leaving the dialogue to be heard clearly over the subdued background music.
There are two extras included on the DVD. The first is a "Tour of Palenque" (four minutes), where a resident expert talks about the significant features of the archeological site in southern Mexico. The second is "2012 and Terence McKenna" (seven minutes), which looks at the work of the ethnobotanist and "psychonaut" who discovered a time pattern that mirrored the Maya calendar after he experimented with psychedelic drugs. This looks like footage that didn't easily fit in the finished feature and without some background on McKenna's work, the information here, such as his "Time Wave: Zero Point" theory, is really hard to grasp. Putting this material in a separate chapter makes sense.
The best thing about 2012: Science or Superstition is that a lot of research has been distilled into a program that's pretty easy to follow. Some ideas are easier to understand on second viewing, but that's not entirely the fault of the presentation. To the filmmakers' credit, the documentary is packed with information and not sensationalism. It's worth a look as an antidote to the doomsday mania that will accompany the Hollywood interpretation of the date.
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