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Posts Tagged ‘Roland Emmerich destroys the world again’

Some time around 7am, July 3rd, 1996: and I struggled back to consciousness after what was probably the heaviest night of my life, falling-down-water-wise. Not normally greeting the world until well after nine in the morning, seeing this time of day was a bit of a novelty, regardless of my debilitated condition, and so I popped on the TV just to see what sort of things got shown while I was asleep. The big entertainment news was of a film opening in the USA – big, grinning crowds emerging, vast queues forming. A young boy was asked what he was hoping to see in the new movie. ‘Lots of blowing up,’ he said excitedly.

The movie, needless to say, was Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day, which I had never heard of prior to this point. Still, a big SF movie with lots of blowing up was definitely my sort of thing, and my interest was particularly piqued by a UK-specific radio prequel in which Nicky Campbell, Sir Patrick Moore, Toyah Wilcox and Colin Baker did their bit to repel the alien hordes. I loved Independence Day from the first time I saw it and eventually ended up going back to see it at least three more times. At the back of my mind I was aware that any film which ends up making $800m is more likely than not going to be assessed for sequel potential, but at the same time I honestly couldn’t see how the trick could be turned in this case.

Well, it’s taken an unusually long time – I’ve been racking my brains trying to think of another instance of it taking 20 years for a film to get a direct sequel – but here it is, Independence Day: Resurgence, directed as before by Roland Emmerich. Which, needless to say, also features lots of blowing up.

independence_day_resurgence

In this latest instalment… um… well… more aliens arrive and have another go at taking over the world. Pretending there’s much more to the actual story than that is fairly pointless, but then I suppose you could say something quite similar about the original film. All right: united by their struggle in the original film (explicitly dated to 1996, which is moderately curious if you’re as retentive as me, but never mind), the nations of the world have spent the last two decades preparing for a fresh wave of alien attackers. President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) is now a cranky old man paranoid about the coming menace. David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) is now top boffin in charge of defending the Earth. Steve Hiller (Will Smith) has managed to get himself excused sequel duties by dying in a plane crash, in what may be a rare recent instance of Smith making a smart career move. However, his stepson is still around, along with a bunch of other young characters: one consequence of the failed alien invasion appears to be that everyone under 30 now looks like a model.

Well, anyway: there are worrying signals from deep space, people who came into psychic contact with the invaders get rather agitated, and the alien POWs being held in Area 51 also start exhibiting strange behaviour. Sure enough, another whopping alien craft turns up, its occupants intent on interplanetary gittery, and it’s up to our heroes to try and save the human race before the visual effects budget runs out…

When you think of Independence Day, what springs to mind? Well, if you’re anything like me, it’s huge, iconic, arresting images – the White House blown to pieces, a vast alien ship appearing out of a wall of fire above New York City – engaging performances from the ensemble cast, a truly magnificent score by David Arnold, and an infectious sense of exhilaration and fun – that of a couple of fairly little-known film-makers discovering one of the great old stories (for Independence Day is largely The War of the Worlds with the details only moderately altered) and having a whale of a time telling it to a new audience.

It’s partly that sense of originality and fun which I thought any sequel would struggle to recapture, but above all I was dubious about the very premise. Watching the world as we know it get blown to hell is one of those things which people never seem to get tired of watching, it’s the dark impulse which has kept horror stories and disaster movies as viable propositions all these years. It’s central to the plot of Resurgence that this is very much not the world as we know it, and, perhaps as a result, the film backs off from blowing it to hell with quite as much gusto. Instead we have a story where some people are expecting aliens to arrive and give them a hard time. Aliens duly arrive and give them a hard time before the conclusion. The rest is mostly small print.

The writers attempt to give the film some interest by raising the stakes to a slightly absurd degree: or perhaps I mean increasing the scale. Ships the size of cities are replaced by ships the size of continents, weapons capable of vaporising buildings are replaced by ones able to drill out the core of the planet, and so on. It certainly allows for the CGI wizards to do their stuff at length, but it doesn’t actually make for a more interesting story.

It doesn’t really help that most of the new characters are a dull and one-dimensional bunch, even the ones who appeared as children in the original movie. It’s also painfully clear that one of them, a hot female Chinese pilot, is a cipher who has only been inserted on the orders of the marketing department to make it easier to sell the movie in Asia. The deal given to the returning characters isn’t necessary better – at least one of them gets killed off after very little more than a cameo, others get shuffled about the place quite perfunctorily. The only real beneficiary is Brent Spiner (yes, it’s him, though he is quite difficult to recognise), who gets much more to do this time around than he did in the first film.

Oddly, I didn’t find myself missing Will Smith at all, but then I always thought the other two leads were more interesting characters, and had he come back Smith might even have been able to inject a little vitality into what too often feels like a laborious and mechanical succession of set pieces. The contributor I really did miss was David Arnold: elements of the original soundtrack are used, but the new music is rather drab and forgettable compared to the themes from the first movie.

There’s a strange way in which most of Independence Day: Resurgence feels like it was only made as a contractual obligation, even though I’m pretty sure this wasn’t the case – but it would be remiss of me to suggest I took no pleasure from it whatsoever. The towering, grandiose absurdity of the whole thing did make me laugh towards the end, together with the preposterousness of some of the plotting – Judd Hirsch spends most of the movie on what looks like a pointless road-trip across devastated America with some orphans, and then you realise it has just been organised so the film can get away with having a bus full of children in jeopardy during its climax. It is as brazen and silly as that, and this is before we even get to the bit when it starts turning into a very peculiar Japanese kaiju movie, not a genre Emmerich and Devlin have exactly distinguished themselves with in the past.

The key thing, though, is that during the original film I was having such a good time all the way through that I was quite happy to laugh along with its cheesy jokes and tongue-in-cheek jingoism. This time around the jokes are nowhere near as good, the characters are nowhere near as engaging, the plot is highly forgettable, and I spent the climax laughing at the film rather than with it. The conclusion makes it very clear that this movie is not so much continuing a story as setting down a marker to extend a brand, with future episodes clearly planned. Nothing is allowed to be special, unique, its own thing anymore, it seems. I went along to Independence Day: Resurgence with very strictly limited expectations, but even so I was shocked by how little of the old magic it managed to retain. A major disappointment.

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I like cheese. I just had a pizza covered in cheese. Mmm mmm mmm. Cheese cheese cheese. Give me some more of that cheese, please – on a pizza or a burger, as you wish, either will suit me fine. Yes, cheese is great. You may feel I am labouring a point here, but sometimes I think cheese gets a bad rap which it doesn’t entirely deserve. I bet you have never referred to something as ‘cheesy’ and meant it in a good way.

I feel moved to talk about this, having recently enjoyed (again) Roland Emmerich’s 1996 film Independence Day, which basks in the reputation of being one of the cheesiest films ever made. Maybe this is true. There are many moments in this movie which are impossible to take seriously. It is by no means a ‘serious’ SF or action movie. Nevertheless, the first time I saw it I thought it was a masterpiece of entertainment, and many subsequent viewings have done little to modify this opinion.

independence-day-poster

The plot goes like this. Everyday life on planet Earth, which according to this film mainly consists of the USA, is disturbed by the arrival from deep space of yet another load of belligerent extraterrestrial gits, aboard a fleet of massive flying saucers. Said vehicles assume positions hovering over major cities around the world, causing global panic. Things only get worse as the aliens prove to be hostile, simultaneously obliterating population centres and sweeping aside the world’s attempts at a military response. The extermination of the human race is only a matter of days away – and, even worse, with the Fourth of July holiday weekend looming, all the shops have sold out of party essentials…

Emmerich and co-writer Dean Devlin tell the story from the perspective of a bunch of different characters, amongst them the US President (Bill Pullman), a quirky boffin (Jeff Goldblum), a fighter pilot (Will Smith), and an alcoholic former abductee (Randy Quaid) – as you can see, this is a bit of a boy’s film. It’s not that there aren’t women in it (Mary McDonnell, Margaret Colin and Vivica Fox appear) but they’re all cast as wives and girlfriends. This is really just the tip of the iceberg: this is a film with numerous plot strands going on, and a commensurately large cast of characters.

This is a clue to the type of film Emmerich and Devlin are looking to make. On the face of it, Independence Day is a straight-down-the-line alien invasion B-movie, albeit done with a massive budget and state-of-the-art special effects (there are considerable parallels with The War of the Worlds, in particular). Indeed, you could argue that in terms of the treatment of this particular theme, Independence Day is the definitive modern version – anyone else doing an alien invasion movie has had to come up with their own plot gimmick or else make a distinctive tonal choice just in order to differentiate it. (I suppose the dogfighting sequences owe a lot to Star Wars, too.)

But that’s not all that’s going on here. The multi-stranded narrative and the structure of the plot – the aliens remain an implacable, faceless force for much of the movie – also recall the 70s boom in all-star disaster movies, which this also sort of resembles. Both sci-fi B-pictures and disaster movies are essentially mainstream, schlock entertainment, and so it isn’t really a surprise that mashing them together on this scale works so well on a conceptual level.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt at all that the film is so well made. I’m not just talking about the special effects, which have aged well for the most part, but the deft and confident way in which Emmerich marshals a big and complex narrative with clarity and a sense of innocent fun (imagine the nightmare of an Independence Day directed by Michael Bay – or, alternatively, just watch one of his Transformers films). The overall pacing and structure are immaculate, as are the two big sequences of the film’s first act – the alien ships’ arrival over Washington DC, New York, and Los Angeles, and later their destruction by honest-to-goodness death ray. These are superbly assembled, but also helped immeasurably by David Arnold’s score (possibly the composer’s best work).

It’s still never really been cool to like Independence Day, though. At the time one friend complained to me that he didn’t like jingoistic American movies, and while it is true that the rest of the world is reduced to walk-on parts, it’s a little hard to argue that a film the money shot of which is the White House going boom is entirely rabid in its American nationalism. The whole film has its tongue in its cheek at least half the time, anyway.

Which brings us to those accusations of wilful and premeditated cheesiness. Well, maybe the critics have a point here, because there are a lot of outrageously hokey moments in this film. The much-derided climax in which the US President climbs into an F-15 and personally leads the final assault on the alien invaders is, perhaps, excusable from a cultural history point of view – this film was made at the height of the Clinton era, after all, and it’s rare for the occupant of the White House not to be depicted in a somewhat fawning manner in any film of this period. But a lot of the rest of it is just, well, cheesy. I still find it tremendously enjoyable, though – it seems to me to be deliberately and knowingly cheesy, which just adds to the fun (this is a notably funny film, especially given the subject matter).

And yet it remains less of a genre favourite than many films I find much less engaging – Emmerich and Devlin’s Stargate, for example, probably has more of a following (though this may be down to the TV franchise). Perhaps this is just down to the dairy-product factor, or perhaps it’s because the film is so grounded in the mid-90s zeitgeist, with not much sense of a wider mythos or universe going on. Whatever the reason, I was fairly cool with that – but I must admit that the news of a couple of pending sequels doesn’t fill me with joy. If ever a blockbuster was complete in and of itself, it’s Independence Day, and as any cholesterol specialist will tell you, too much of a good thing can only make you sick.

 

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 10th June 2004: 

In any kind of extended artistic career, there is bound to come a moment when one runs the risk of repeating oneself. This is not to say that there isn’t merit in choosing to explore the same themes in slightly different ways: but when you’re the director of blockbuster science fiction films, this sort of behaviour is a bit more noticeable.

And so it proves the case with Roland Emmerich, whose personal antipathy towards New York seems to border on a psychotic vendetta. So much so, in fact, that he seems to be running out of ways of devastating the city. Having demolished it with an alien death ray in Independence Day, and inflicted a giant irradiated iguana on the population in Godzilla, he’s now reduced to basically just clobbering the city that never sleeps with really rotten weather.

Such is the core of Emmerich’s latest offering, The Day After Tomorrow, a slightly oddball event movie which mixes terribly earnest ecological didacticism with good old-fashioned Hollywood carnage and destruction. The importance of the former can be deduced from the fact that this is the only summer blockbuster – in fact the only film – I can think of where the plot is powered by desalinisation. Basically, western civilisation has caused global warming to the extent where great big chunks of Antarctica are falling off into the sea (says the film), and this vast influx of fresh water makes the Gulf Stream and other warm-water currents pack up. This in turn (told you it was didactic) deprives us here in the northern hemisphere of our lovely mild climate – and being an Emmerich movie, this is demonstrated by hail the size of grapefruit mowing down salarimen on the Tokyo ginza, downtown LA being wrecked by giant tornadoes, and the British Royal family freezing to death in Balmoral. But it’s not all good news, as it looks like the world is headed for a new ice age. As soon as the news breaks, Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck are launched into space – not because this will help avert the catastrophe, but at least it’ll cheer everyone up a bit. Seriously, though, folks, this is a film with the potential to be really rather bleak and depressing, no matter how cheering the sight of mass death and destruction is: the tone throughout is of futility and despair, with only the faintest (and implausible) glimmerings of hope near the end.

But, this being a studio movie, the film-makers break the glass on the ‘In case of emergency’ script box and pull out that trusty old plotline, the troubled father-son relationship. This is the human story going on in the foreground as millions meet agonising deaths somewhere off in the distance, and it’s all about Jack (played by Dennis ‘Like Harrison Ford only cheaper’ Quaid), a maverick palaeo-climatologist (yes, another movie about one of those), who predicts the whole disaster but is wilfully ignored by the wicked and greedy American government (any resemblance to the current administration is, of course, entirely amusing). But Jack has more important problems to worry about than the collapse of civilisation as we know it. He has to see about fixing up his relationship with his teenage son Sam (played, rather somnolently, by Jake Gyllenhaal from City Slickers). As this could prove tricky if Sam turns into a corpsicle, off Jack treks to the frozen wastes of New York, where Sam is trapped with his geeky friends, his girlfriend (Emily Rossum), and a few other appropriately socially-and-ethnically-diverse survivors. The film doesn’t really go into details about why Jack bothers going in person, as all he does on arrival is radio for help – something I doubt you need to be a maverick palaeo-climatologist to do.

Yes, sorry, I’ve sort of given the end away there, but this isn’t a deep or challenging narrative in any way. Not to put too fine a point on it, the script of this movie stinks in all sorts of ways. It is, for one thing, toe-curlingly sentimental in the most obvious and glutinous way: there’s even a little boy with leukaemia, included for no apparent reason except to try and coax an ‘Ahhhh’ out of the audience. Fine actors like Ian Holm and Adrian Lester (Mickey Bricks from Hustle) stumble unwittingly into this stuff, thrash around helplessly for a while, and then vanish despairingly out of sight. (The script also clearly can’t decide whether burning books in order to survive is justified or not.)

It’s very clear that this is a film with A Message About Global Warming but it’s caught between its desire to be ecologically aware and the requirements of a big summer movie. As a result its credibility suffers – the meteorology seems incredibly suspect to me, and I’m usually so oblivious to the weather I can’t even tell when to bring the washing in. And even then the film really struggles to provide the small-scale action and excitement that’s the meat of this sort of adventure, eventually reduced to contriving sequences where characters are chased down corridors by wolves or nasty low-pressure fronts. The special effects are undeniably spectacular, but nearly all the big moments happen in the first half of the movie, and even then they’re impressive rather than actually exciting. (And you can’t help but suspect that if only the writers could have thought of a way for global warming to cause volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, we’d have those in the movie too!)

But the film shows flashes of wit on occasion, and it’s novel to see a summer movie that so clearly wants to be socially aware, even if it goes about articulating this in such a stunningly crass and obvious way. I can’t honestly claim to have been swept off my feet by The Day After Tomorrow, it’s too stolid, clichéd and silly for that. But if you like watching catastrophes it will hold your attention. And, as I said, as blockbusters go this is something a bit different – but different isn’t necessarily better, as this movie proves.

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John Cusack spends a very long time running away from earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis, using a wider variety of vehicles than one would have believed possible, in Roland Emmerich’s latest unleashing of the SF storyteller’s darkest desires, 2012. You tend to forgive him, and the film, the silliness of this, simply because – hey. It’s John Cusack. And this in a nutshell reveals the cleverness of the movie.

Having run the gamut of alien invaders, giant monsters, and – er – really bad weather, Emmerich’s latest assault on civilisation (not to mention your eardrums) is triggered by a once-in-every-64,000 years astronomical alignment, which causes solar flares, which in turn cause the core of the Earth to swell up, with unfortunate results for nearly anyone you care to mention. (My initial reaction on hearing this was ‘Bugger, does this mean I have to start taking Russell Grant seriously?’) Luckily noble young boffin Adrian (hard-to-spell but reliable Chiwetel Ejiofor) is on the case and tips off the US Government. Many scenes of earnest young aides sticking secret dossiers in front of incredulous politicos and saying ‘Sir, you need to read this now‘ ensue.  

Luckily for Cusack’s character, Jackson Curtis (who must spend all his time when not fleeing the apocalypse being mistaken for a rapper with a speech impediment), and his slightly dysfunctional family (shades of Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, but less irksome here), he is tipped off to the situation by a deranged hippy (Woody Harrelson) while on a camping trip. Hey, go with it. He learns of a government plan to ensure the survival of the race by building ginormous ships somewhere secret. Inevitably, these arks are being paid for by rich people in return for a place on the passenger list, which guarantees that the only survivors will be the biggest bunch of sociopathic bastards you could possibly imagine (yes, the Duke of Edinburgh’s on the list).

(I was rather reminded of Ben Elton’s Stark, which has a very similar plot – the punchline here being that, having survived the end of the world, the assembled rich bastards find each others’ company so horrific that half of them get murdered and the other half commit suicide. No such poetic justice here, alas.)

It’s all a little bit familiar from Emmerich’s previous oeuvre, not to mention things like Deep Impact – a constipated-looking Danny Glover pops up as a very un-Obama-ish Prez, presumably because Morgan Freeman’s already played this part and didn’t want to do it again.  But once the laying-in of plot is all done, Emmerich lets rip with the SFX budget with jaw-dropping results: Los Angeles flops into the ocean as the San Andreas fault goes berserk, Yellowstone goes off like a nuke, Hawaii drowns under molten lava, and so on and so on. This kind of movie is solely about the effects work – it stands or falls by it, no matter how good the plot, dialogue, and acting is – and here 2012 delivers in spades. I am a jaded viewer of too many popcorn effects movies, but the visuals here are astonishing, and pleasingly have the kind of almost absurd quality I suspect the end of days will probably possess.

'Aaargh! There's no escape! We're going to be playing one-dimensional characters for the entire movie!'

It’s easy to overlook that Emmerich is simply very, very good at this kind of movie – of course the characters are shallow, of course you know from the start who’s going to live and die, and of course a lot of the non-FX scenes are mawkish (there’s a particularly grim ‘I’ve had a helluva life… I love you, son’  bit in this one), but it’s involving, not without some good jokes, and the pacing and intercutting of the plot strands is excellent.

Neither is it entirely bereft of depth and poignancy – some may think I’m overstating this, but after a summer comprised of aberrations like G.I Joe with all the depth of a shadow on a cloudy day, the merest nod in this direction is more than welcome. To be fair, the film awkwardly skirts round the ‘most of the survivors are money-grabbing scumbags’ issue in a fairly contemptible fashion, but none of them get many lines except Oliver Platt as the Heartless Man in a Suit who so often pops up in this sort of movie and is shouted down in the climax by the Voice of Humanity characters (Ejiofor and Thandie Newton in this case).

It does outstay its welcome a bit, and the climax is terribly overwrought and more than a little contrived, but in this movie I was able to relax and enjoy polished and reliable storytelling on the most lavish and epic scale. It doesn’t have the brain or heart or wit of something like District 9, but it does everything you’d expect it to do from seeing the publicity, and does it very well too. I wait with bated breath to see what variety of horrors Emmerich lets loose in his next outing – giant mutant sun-eating star goats, anyone?

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