Independence works | Daily News
Roland Emmerich

Independence works

When I think of July 4, I remember Roland Emmerich. This Stuttgart born West German emigrated to the land of the free and home of the brave in the early 1990s, directing Jean-Claude Van Damme in Universal Soldier a year before I was born. I would have been seven and 10 when I first came across the two big hits for which he’s known today: Godzilla (1998) and The Day After Tomorrow (2002). These were preposterous, much of their plots recycled from far superior productions, but they were utterly delectable.

Very much like Michael Bay, who never dishes out a good film, or story, when a bad one will fare better with audiences, Emmerich has a knack for awful storylines and awesome effects. Independence Day has the most ridiculous setup for a movie about alien invasions on July 4, but it’s fun, in a campy way. Those who haven’t heard of Volker Engel should watch it; born in West Germany like Emmerich was, Engel devised its special effects, repeating his feats in Godzilla two years later. These are Oscar-worthy feats, and they bear comparisons with the best in the industry, even if the storylines they revolve around don’t add much.

The only consolation a Roland Emmerich flick offers in comparison to a Michael Bay flick is that, in some strange, ineffable way, it’s more subtle and more respectful of the audience’s intelligence. There’s a scene in Armageddon, directed by Bay, where a series of meteors and comets devastate New York. The destruction is almost carnal: one by one, building, transit station, and overhanging statues fall down on people, cars, and other buildings. But the fun of it isn’t in the destruction; it’s in the reactions of the people, ordinary folk, to the meteors and comets from hell above. This is not the sort of reaction you get from people when hell’s breaking loose; it’s pure spectacle, and Bay knows how to milk the scenes.

Make-believe invasion

Emmerich devises similar scenes in his destruction scenes too; when he bombs Los Angeles to smithereens in Independence Day, we see ordinary folk fleeing the alien lasers as though they’re figures in a studio set escaping a make-believe invasion from out there. The fakery is evident, and we indulge in it shamelessly. Yet compared with the scenes from Armageddon, there’s a sense of nobility about the people’s desperation here. Barring one obligatory scene involving a dog jumping through cars on fire, a scene so Bay-ish you can see his imprint on it, there’s a sense of exhilaration that demeans neither the expectations nor the intelligence of the audience. You sense this kind of dignity among those fleeing disaster in his other works, including Day After Tomorrow, a film whose merits can only be appreciated by comparisons with Geostorm, which essentially ripped off Emmerich’s film.

Geostorm is so bad it makes Emmerich’s films only a trite clunky in contrast. You sense the same thing when you see Michael Bay’s films today: they’ve gone down a lot, whereas Mr Emmerich, even in a shallow end-of-world disaster flick like 2012, keeps up some restraint. There are certainly times when even the director of Day After Tomorrow loses his touch: witness the scene in 2012, deeply anticlimactic to me, of that giant plant swooping down the icy mountains, pausing by the edge of a cliff, giving a momentary respite to the pilot and his passengers, only to slip and plunge down that cliff. Yet somehow, somehow, he uses all the clichés in the book to evoke a sense of nostalgia for his older films. With Bay, and the director of Geostorm Dean Devlin (who worked as Emmerich’s assistant from Emmerich’s debut), on the other hand, all you get are the husks: there’s nothing much inside.

What makes these movies work, and tick, is the way they resort to the cliché. In Godzilla, we know what’s going to happen at the end: the army wasn’t able to kill the giant lizard in the water, it returns, and it dies a noble death befitting such a noble, yet savage, beast. We also identify well with the characters in such movies because the director deprives them of much complexity, seeing them as types rather than characters: the geeky bespectacled professor with an unpronounceable Greek name (Matthew Broderick), the talkative reporter and her even more talkative cameraman (Maria Pitillo and Hank Azaria), the ruthless reporter-boss (Harry Shearer), the almost-thumb-sucking totally-useless Mayor and his assistant (Michael Lerner and Larry Goldman), and the tough-talking sergeant (Doug Savant).

Stock figures

Yet the effect of turning characters into types, in Emmerich’s case at least, is to make them more relatable to us. We laugh at the lengths to which the scriptwriter and director seems to have gone in turning the hero and his father in Independence Day into Jewish types: the father almost seems to swear by the Talmud, while the son faces a crisis between placating his father and embracing science. But it’s what makes the movie deliciously fun to see and delve through. In Emmerich’s universe, special effects stand out; all other characters tend to live and exist as stereotypes, as stock figures from a book of clichés. This, essentially, makes us concentrate on the effects, while following as minimal, and cliché-ridden, a story you can think of in such a universe. Even in that film where hardly anybody talks, 10,000 BC, you do not really get into the characters’ minds: you see them thinking through their actions, which coupled with the CGI animals and landscapes, boils down to a reductively simple narrative. In Day After Tomorrow, which has a much more fleshed out story in comparison, not even the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal and Dennis Quaid can save a movie about climate change from deteriorating into a series of obligatory fight and love scenes. But it works.

Emmerich’s films, obligatory as they are, suggest a director who spent a relatively privileged and cine-zealous childhood. Emmerich’s father, Hans, let him travel throughout Europe and North America when he was small, funding his vacations and letting him imagine. In 1977 he (Roland) attended film school in Munich, after which he spent the better part of the 1980s trying to be a production designer. Having seen Star Wars (which came out in 1977) though, he changed his mind and set about making his first film. In 1985, he founded a film company called Centropolis Productions (now Centropolis Entertainment) and, together with his sister Ute serving as producer, directed his first real movie, a fantasy flick called Joey. One comedy (Hollywood-Monster, 1987) and sci-fi film (Moon 44, 1988) later, he toyed with the idea of migrating to the US and making films there. The result was Universal Soldier, a film that had initially had Andrew Davis (The Fugitive, 1993), as director.

Both his strengths and limitations can be gleaned, I think, from his debut: not Joey, but the much shorter flick he did as his thesis at university, The Noah’s Ark Principle. A copy of it is not available online. At one level, it’s Cold War pro-peace claptrap: set in a world in which world peace has come (the year, 1997, should make you laugh, given how or how not world peace came that year in reality) and weapons of mass destruction dismantled, it centres in on a space station that can control the weather in any part of the world. There’s more than a hint of Geostorm (also about a super device that can control the weather) here, given that like the Devlin film, Emmerich’s short flick also ponders the possibility of such innocent, civil projects being abused by strong geopolitical powers for their ends.

It also predicts the later Emmerich in how it contrasts awesome special effects (with a budget so big for such a short production the director probably had to go to his father) with an essentially empty, hollow storyline, bereft of characters and indeed characterisation. The man’s strong point has always been effects; his weak point has always been characters and stories. From the word go, then – from his debut – we see this dualism emerge in his career, a dualism so repugnant to critics who constantly badmouth his movies, but so receptive to popular audiences that, whatever the critics will say of his work, it will always win big at the box-office. Therein lies Emmerich’s charm: he just doesn’t care about the critics.

In Godzilla, he based the thumbs-upping Mayor and his aide on America’s top two movie Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. Their names suggest their inspiration: Mayor Ebert and Gene. It’s the funniest cliché in the movie: the director unleashing his anger at critics by casting them. When Gene, leaving the Mayor, gives him a thumbs-down (which to the Mayor seems much worse than the middle-finger), the joke is on the critics. It’s a hilarious moment, and to Emmerich’s credit, he does what he can to milk the laughs well.


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