Roland Emmerich Is the Ayn Rand of the Disaster Movie

11/12/2009 1:30 PM |

Directed by Roland Emmerich

Roland Emmerich wants to have it both ways. On the one hand, the director of Stargate, Independence Day, Godzilla, The Patriot, The Day After Tomorrow and 10,000 B.C. wants you to know that his movies aren’t meant to be taken seriously. Or as Emmerich put it, in a recent profile in the New York Times, discussing his latest, 2012:

“We have Jesus falling apart in all kinds of forms. The Vatican falls on people’s heads, and we can do that because we’re a free, Western society, but if there would be, like, Mecca destroyed, there would be an outrage. And so you don’t do it. At the end of the thing it’s entertainment.”

And so on the other hand, as you can see from these comments, Emmerich is well aware that his movies are drowning in political subtext—not unlike the Dalai Lama, who in 2012 calmly perishes beneath a killer wave.

Hollywood’s most significant monger of disaster anxieties since Irwin Allen may claim that his movies are apolitical, just dumb, harmless popcorn fare—and who’s to argue? But Emmerich is a savvy enough filmmaker to know that computer graphically destroying the Vatican and the White House (repeatedly) appeals to some kind of cathartic political feeling in his audience, much the way David Fincher appealed to our inner Marxism with the closing scene of Fight Club, where his protagonist blows up the offices of the major credit companies. Fincher’s point was self-explanatory, but what kind of political feeling exactly is Emmerich tapping into?

It is possible, of course, to watch 2012 without asking these questions, though I wouldn’t recommend seeing it for the story, all two hours and forty minutes of it, which involves the Earth’s core heating up, secret spaceships hidden underground in China, and an obscure shitty science fiction novel written by John Cusack’s sadsack chauffeur. Indeed, the only legitimate reason to see the movie is for its special effects, if that’s your kind of thing, or for Woody Harrelson’s out-there performance as a pirate radio conspiracy theorist (which is my kind of thing). Otherwise, 2012 is most notable for its endless similarities with the rest of the Emmerich oeuvre.

As usual, Washington politicians (Oliver Platt’s Machiavellian White House Chief of Staff) are among Emmerich’s primary targets, though, also as usual, there’s a heroic president (Danny Glover) killed in the line of duty. Emmerich’s saviors of the apocalypse are typically from an elite professional class, generals and technocrats, and here it is Chiwetel Ejiofor’s scientist, who gives rousing speeches about human decency when he isn’t contradicting himself with Darwinian pronouncements about who deserves to survive. “Nature will choose for itself from itself,” he says.

In consistently depicting Washington careerists as his villains—and in destroying, time and again, the seat of our government—Emmerich always has some red meat to offer to the Tea Bagger set, even as he’s simultaneously pandering to liberal clichés (climate change!) straight out of Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing. But just because there’s something for everyone, doesn’t mean that Emmerich’s films lack any coherent ideology or politics. Over and over, in these end-of-days scenarios, Emmerich plays out a kind of Ayn Rand fantasy in which a new oligarchy, previously held back by stupid pols and bureaucrats, emerges to lead humanity. These are the people chosen by nature for itself from itself—though an awful lot of them also seem to hold advanced degrees and American citizenship.

Some future. Among 2012‘s running jokes—which aren’t nearly as funny as its dramatic moments—is one about Ejiofor’s Adrian Helmsley being a big fan of Cusack’s book. The novel, as you might have guessed, is about a new civilization arising from the ashes of an old one. Bringing his paperback copy with him when he and some few lucky others—SPOILER—survive a global flood on giant arks, Helmsley declares, in one of 2012‘s final scenes, that this lame pop cultural artifact, presumably one of the only books still around, is going to become a founding document of their new world. This is an arrogant flourish on Emmerich’s part, implying that Independence Day and The Patriot might, given the right circumstances, outlast The Birth of a Nation, Les Vampires, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Maybe he’s only joking, but it’s an idea more unsettling to contemplate than anything we’ve seen before in a Roland Emmerich film.

Opens November 13

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