No one has destroyed the world quite as often as Roland Emmerich. The German director’s over-egged depictions of global disaster may be short on science, but his depictions of an annihilated planet still have the power to make viewers go green with enviro
ONE OF the tinier outrages of the appalling Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 was the visible frustration displayed by rolling-news anchors when confronted with footage of the advancing waves. “Send us in your own film of the disaster,” they said plaintively after shrugging their shoulders at the insufficiently terrifying images.
The implication was clear: we know what the end of the world looks like and it doesn’t look like this. A wave capable of such ghastly destruction would surely block out the sun and send plumes of foam streaming halfway across the planet. This surging, modestly dramatic swell may well have killed hundreds of thousands, but it just wasn’t what we were promised by the movies.
After all, only six months earlier, Roland Emmerich had shown us how the world was really supposed to end: not with a whimper, but with several thousand bangs of ever escalating volume followed by a roaring that could heard on Venus. In The Day After Tomorrow, the boringly steady advance of climate change was discarded for a catastrophic meteorological realignment that sent typhoons racing through Los Angeles and turned the waters round New York into a glacier.
“When we made that film we immediately thought: what’s the best way to represent that disaster?” Emmerich says. “There was no question. We had to show the Statue of Liberty covered in ice. That was the only thing that would work.”
For all the sober pontificating of Al Gore, the most stubbornly resonant images of the end of the world come from big, bold main- stream movies. Why bother worrying about green issues? Well, look what happens in The Day After Tomorrow, Mad Max, Soylent Green and Silent Running. Later this weekend, The Road, John Hillcoat’s unremittingly sombre adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, closes the Corona Cork Film Festival. Is this how you want the world to look? No? Well, you’d better start separating your used bottles from your discarded plastics then.
The science may be dubious in these films – never more so than in The Day After Tomorrow – but one glimpse of an annihilated planet may still have the power to make viewers ponder their responsibilities as consumers.
So, Roland Emmerich must, in some small way, be regarded as an accidental hero of the green movement. Nobody has destroyed the world quite so often. Nobody has done a better job of showing what might happen if we keep driving around in jeeps and feeding mercury to dolphins (or whatever).
The apocalyptophile is back with another amusing calamity next week. Thirteen years after he orchestrated the levelling of the White House in Independence Day and just five since he helmed The Day After Tomorrow, the German now offers us “a displacement of the Earth’s crust” for the epically destructive 2012. About as long as winter and as noisy as a war, the film, which draws its inspiration from a supposed warning in the Mayan calendar, once again lays waste to LA, New York, Paris and London.
This is beginning to look like a minor psychosis. What is it with Emmerich? Why does he feel the need to keep destroying a perfectly good planet?
“I was very reluctant to take this on after The Day After Tomorrow,” he says. “That was it for me and disaster movies. What won me over was that it is a moral retelling of the Noah’s Ark myth. That story of a flood is some- thing that appears not just in the bible, but in any number of major religions.”
Sure enough, after the likes of John Cusack and Chiwetel Ejiofor evade the hurtling boulders and advancing oceans, they set about trying to shepherd representative groups of the earth’s citizens into modern-day arks. Though the film is most notable for the creative way it demolishes popular urban landmarks, there are, it is true, moments when we encounter something a little like a moral dilemma.
“I think so. Elements of 2012 ask questions about what’s worth saving in such a situation. Those are very serious dilemmas, I think.”
So what sort of man is this serial destroyer of worlds? Now 53, neat with closely cropped grey hair, Roland Emmerich was born and raised in the vicinity of Stuttgart. Do the sums and you realise that he is just a decade or so younger than compatriots such as Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog, who reinvented German cinema in the 1970s. Yet Emmerich’s work could not be less like that of those experimentalists.
Root through his CV and you find no dark, avant-garde treatises on the meaning of the Baader-Meinhof gang or the emptiness of the German economic miracle. Born a safe distance from the war, Emmerich has always been an unapologetic populist with a taste for mainstream American bombast. Foreshadowing adventures to come in 2012, his first movie was a modestly budgeted German science fiction flick called The Noah’s Ark Principle.
So he was never tempted to join the highfalutin art-house boys?
“I was the one who said I don’t like those movies and I was attacked when I said so openly. They are boring. They just don’t entertain me. My German hero is a guy called Alfred Vohrer, who made all these adaptations of Edgar Wallace thrillers. I said that to provoke in a way. But I was serious and, though we didn’t have much money, I continued to make those exciting films that looked more expensive than they were. That’s why Hollywood hired me.”
The big, noisy films that Emmerich makes are very often producer-driven. To survive in those waters you must either learn to co-operate or, if you do decide to defy authority, develop the strength to stand your ground without
“You have to hand it to Roland Emmerich. You may find his films as bombastic, but he does exhibit a certain kind of stubborn integrity. Nobody tells him what to blow up and what not to blow up”