Roland Emmerich is the Anti-Tarantino. There is in this notion a Master’s thesis in film theory for somebody, I’m sure of it. But it isn’t going to be me, so I open it up to anyone who want to take the job on. These two men belong to the same generation, and both could be avatars of postmodern film-making. Having grown up on the genre films of the 70s, they are both in the business of making films which are only comprehensible to audiences who share those same cultural signifiers. Just as Tarantino’s Kill Bill can only be understood and enjoyed in the light of a whole generation of martial arts movies and westerns, Roland Emmerich’s latest work – The Day After Tomorrow – is indigestible without the Pepto-Bismal of a lifetime of disaster science fiction.
Tarantino’s films export poorly to Asian markets precisely because audiences who do not share those references do not understand his work. Even Europeans and North Americans who never saw the genre films that he is echoing fail to appreciate him. Tarantino’s widespread acclaim is a sign that the film world has never really been as sophisticated and elitist as it liked to pretend to be.
In the same way, Emmerich’s Godzilla could never have stood on its own. If you did not already know who Godzilla was, if you have not come into the cinema with those expectations, the film would be unwatchable. Independence Day is a genuinely enjoyable film on several levels, but it can only be enjoyed by people who are receptive to its reconstruction of countless alien invasion stories dating back to H. G. Wells himself. And Emmerich’s new film evokes the 70s disaster movies that he is so clearly fond of, like a faded echo of Tarantino’s homage to the Hong Kong action classics of all those years ago.
Emmerich, however, is the Anti-Tarantino because where Tarantino’s films are witty and unexpected, where they appeal to us intellectually and nostalgically, where they force us to examine the real content of genre fiction, Emmerich simply likes to make disaster porn. He appeals to that well-concealed part of every American that knows, in the marrow of his bones, that one day God will reach down from Heaven and smite Los Angeles and New York off the face of the earth. He appeals to that shameful part of our inner couch potato that, on 9/11, kept expecting Arnold Schwartzeneggar to wipe out an Al Qaeda brigade on CNN and save New York. He appeals to those of us who masochistically like to watch the masses die, helpless in the face of forces beyond any but the most heroic of men, but safe in our own seats in air conditioned theatres.
If you get your kicks from seeing that sort of thing, you’ve probably already decided to go see The Day after Tomorrow and if you do, you will certainly get your destruction fix. If you don’t get off on seeing CGI people swept away like so many ants, you probably don’t much like Emmerich’s films anyway and you won’t like this one. However, if gross film receipts are any measure, us disaster junkies have you outnumbered.
I don’t want to focus on the many things that are deeply wrong with this film. Emmerich can hope to one day be an icon of a genre, to live to see the day when his films are praised for their postmodern tackiness, and where film theory students pour over his work looking for the essence of the big budget special effects action extravaganza. God knows, he won’t be remembered as a good filmmaker. If I were to give you a simple review of this film, I would have to say that Emmerich’s latest is, like most of his work, awful by any traditional normative measure. But so what? In my mind I see Emmerich laughing all the way to the bank, saying “Do you know how much money that piece of shit made me?”
So, instead of giving you a simple thumbs-up/thumbs-down review of the film, I want to expose you to a slightly different idea in this review, something that won’t change whether or not you want to see The Day After Tomorrow, but which might change how you see it.
Roland Emmerich is desperately trying to be a subversive filmmaker, and he’s failing miserably. He’s not failing because he’s too subtle. You will leave The Day after Tomorrow without any doubt about what the native German director thinks of the Bush administration. Rather, he is failing because as obvious as the subversive elements of his films are, his audience will still miss them nine times out of ten because they will never get past the blunt, clich?d, hopelessly overplayed elements and see them. Any content in Emmerich’s films which is more subtle than a baseball bat to the back of the head is virtually imperceptible.
I have searched far and wide for someone else saying these things about Emmerich, and so far, I have found no one. I think the reason this is so obvious to me is that my favorite Emmerich film is not Independence Day, it’s Godzilla. Godzilla was trashed by critics. It had a mediocre performance at the box office. It has a low rating on IMDB. But I like it. I like the notion of the city as a maze for giant monsters. I like the whole way Emmerich handled Godzilla’s arrival in New York. I like the nod he gave to the critics (Mayor Ebert and his assistant Siskel). I liked the thing that I suspect most people hated the most about the film: the lack of a clear bad guy. Godzilla wasn’t evil, he just was. His death is both salvation and tragedy. Godzilla, like all the best comic book characters, is a profoundly ambiguous figure. I think people like Independence Day primarily because, unlike Godzilla, it has clear bad guys, and the bad guys get their comeuppance in the end in a way-cool giant explosion in space.
I like Godzilla enough to have actually seen it several times and after a few screenings I asked myself a question that seems never to have occurred to anyone:
Why is Jean Reno in this movie?
The surface reason is that Reno is French, and he’s reasonably well known in Anglostan as a French action/comedy actor. But that just begs the question, why the French? It certainly didn’t score Emmerich any points at Cannes. It didn’t help sell the film in the francophone market, and even if it would have, the francophone market is small compared to Japan, Germany and Latin America.
Why France? It wasn’t strictly necessary to the plot. Godzilla is the accidental by-product of nuclear testing in the Pacific. That was true even of the original Japanese version of Godzilla, but in those days it was the US doing nuclear testing in the Pacific at Bikini Atoll. France did do nuclear tests in the Pacific in the 90s, but by the late 90s, even France had stopped testing. I imagine that he chose France simply because the anti-testing movement had targeted France much more recently than it had targeted anyone else. It was nearer to the top of his head.
So, nothing too surprising there. Emmerich is a lefty of the German bleeding-heart Green-Socialist kind. Everybody knows that.
However, having been beaten upside the head with an anti-nuclear message in Godzilla, you miss the part of the film that is the most subversive. France is responsible for creating Godzilla. So what does France do? Well, when France makes mistakes, it take responsibility for them. Specifically, France sends Jean Reno to fix things. Matthew Broderick, Emmerich’s icon of science, reason and caution, is ignored by American authorities throughout the film, right up to the point where it’s almost too late. But who listens to him, and who risks life and limb following his advice about Godzilla? The French. Whose lives are sacrificed to stop the lizard hatchlings from escaping Madison Square Garden? French lives. And who, in the end, is instrumental in saving the world from giant lizards? Why, it’s France. And does France demand to be honored for its sacrifices? Does it expect the world to show its gratitude through obedience? No, they cover up their very involvement.
This, of course, bears little or no relationship to the actual France that exists outside of Emmerich’s imagination, but contrast this with the anti-French rhetoric of the recent unpleasantness and Emmerich begins to sound more and more subversive.
We might apply the same analysis to Independence Day. Quite a few critics caught on to the unsubtle subtext of that movie but very few members of the larger public did. Emmerich does not threaten the earth with incomprehensible aliens whose motives are unknown, nor is the enemy some horror movie construct like in the vastly better Alien movies. No, Emmerich’s aliens are interplanetary capitalists, bent on exploiting an entire “Third World”. He is truer to the tradition of H. G. Wells than any of his contemporaries. Wells’ War of the Worlds was a social commentary, a response to the English genocide in Tasmania. He used science fiction to imagine Englishmen placed in the position of the primitive Tasmanians, driven to extinction by incomprehensibly powerful invaders acting without scruples. Emmerich is essentially channeling Wells, showing Americans at the receiving end of a war by an exploitive, technologically advanced power that wants our natural resources.
He even accidentally foreshadows Abu Ghraib by linking his aliens to the sadistic anal probers of the Roswell legends.
The title – Independence Day – makes precious little sense without this subtext. Humans are not declaring their independence from their invaders. They were never dependent on them in the first place. Instead, Emmerich is calling for the global poor to reclaim their independence by throwing off global capitalism. It’s just that Emmerich isn’t doing a very good job of making that point. John Carpenter’s underrated low budget masterpiece, They Live, does a far better job of exploring this notion.
What I want you to do, if you go see The Day After Tomorrow, is to see the film as the third part of a sort of anti-imperialist trilogy that includes Godzilla and Independence Day. In each case, the message is essentially one of role reversal. In Godzilla, man becomes the endangered species that a more powerful animal simply crushes under its feet, and America is saved by the French. In Independence Day, America is colonized by a ruthless and technologically advanced race of capitalists who are ultimately overthrown by state-sponsored terrorists who slaughter countless millions of non-combatants using weapons of mass destruction. And, in The Day After Tomorrow, America is visited by a disaster of its own making, and driven to throw itself upon the mercy of the nations of the third world.
The film has, of course, a bluntly environmentalist message. It is so blunt that I can almost figure out what Emmerich has been reading lately. Clearly, he has been into Mike Davis’ Ecology of Fear, which contains an entire chapter on how LA is regularly visited by tornados. There is also a deeply anti-Bush and especially anti-Cheney message. If he had cast lookalikes in the roles of US president and vice president, he could not have made his intent clearer. We have another Matthew Broderick/Jeff Goldblum figure: the scientist played by Dennis Quaid who tries to warn them, but is ignored until it’s too late. There is also a cheesy family-values subplot involving a divorced couple that hasn’t completely fallen out of love. These elements are becoming Emmerich trademarks.
There is also bad science. The science is hacked together from unrelated bits of climate science coverage in the public press. It is frightfully off-base. But then, anyone going to see a Roland Emmerich film for good scientific extrapolation is too stupid to be worth explaining the real world to. It’s just not that kind of film, and Emmerich does not pretend that it is.
And there are many amazing weather effects. You may well be impressed by them – many of the Belgians I saw in the theatre were – but I have the unusual luck of living through one of the worst hailstorms in US history, with stones the size of baseballs. I’ve been through several tornados, once I even saw one up close. I’ve been in blizzards that would turn most people blue. I’ve not just lived in Canada, I’ve actually lived in the arctic. I’ve even been in a hurricane. Emmerich’s weather effects are a pale reflection, except for the tornados in LA. Those actually looked scarier than the real thing. The symbolic destruction of Hollywood – the annihilation of the famous Hollywood sign – is a clich? of disaster movies.
But, don’t let the blunt, overplayed environmentalist message of this film keep you from seeing the less blunt but unhidden anti-imperialist message. One of the scenes in the film – something I expect is the last shred of a longer movie that didn’t survive the editing process – shows Americans rushing across the Mexican border, immigrating south in droves. He turns illegal immigration on its head by showing images of white folk desperate to cross the Rio Grande. Emmerich’s message here is far subtler and far more interesting than the environmental message: This is what you would look like if you were a refugee. He revisits this theme momentarily at the end of the film, in a cheesy moralistic speech reminiscent of the Bill Pullman’s schlock at the end of Independence Day. In both films, the subtext is revealed at the very end of the movie in a form so abysmally forgettable that the audience usually misses it. I still haven’t decided if Emmerich is having some kind of perverse joke on Americans, or if he just doesn’t realize that this stuff is corny.
I leave to you whether these disparate elements are enough to make you go see this film or to give it a pass. I’ve already said that The Day After Tomorrow is not, in the conventional sense, a good movie. But then, Enter the Dragon is not exactly a classic of cinema either when you look at the writing, the acting or even the martial arts when compared to more recent films. And yet, it is a classic of the genre. The Day After Tomorrow could be a classic of the genre, but if so, it will not reach that status because the director intended for it to be a genre classic. The more interesting question is exactly what genre Emmerich belongs in. Big-budget special-effects action anti-capitalism is almost certainly not what Fox is in business for.