Roland Emmerich Lays Waste to New York City

I marked the post-Independence Day weekend by watching three movies in which director Emmerich visits destruction on the Big Apple, and the rest of the US/World as well.

Godzilla (1998)

The giant lizard of Japanese popular culture becomes an American problem in this film, wading ashore in New York and attempting to turn Central into Jurassic Park, and it’s all the fault of the French. There’s a daring young scientist (Matthew Broderick), who has all the answers and is ignored by the people in charge; there’s a love interest from his past (Maria Pitillo), a woman who wants a career but learns that true romance is more desirable, albeit in the end it seems she can have both; there’s a feisty French secret service agent (Jean Reno), who is going to put things right no matter who or what he has to blow up in the process.

The attempt to have the audience empathise with Godzilla, along similar lines to the feelings we had for Kong, is half-hearted and falls way short of success, mainly because monkeys are cute but lizards aren’t (apologies to any herpetophiles reading this), and while the monster might be the result of man’s atomic tampering with nature any message about the dangers of unfettered scientific research is on the back boiler. Nope, this is a movie about having a big old lizard tear up the city that never sleeps, the halfway house between Jurassic Park, to which its debt is obvious with the ‘raptor’ scenes, and Cloverfield, which owes an obvious debt to it. If you can ignore the cliched attempts at adding human interest and dumb plot elements, such as having a creature big as a skyscraper go AWOL, then it can be enjoyed as the pure spectacle that it is, a series of sfx set pieces, each one bigger than the one before, culminating in the scene with the giant lizard trapped on a suspension bridge, a sitting target for the USAF’s missiles. Go go Godzilla.

Independence Day (1996)

I caught this at the cinema, but couldn’t recall much beyond a vague dissatisfaction and equally vague pleasure. I expected to dislike it, because of the American jingoism (their Independence Day gets to be Independence Day for everyone) and it stars Will Smith, an actor who always seems to be playing himself, a character so in your face affable that I instinctively dislike him. In fact I liked it rather a lot.

A big old alien spacecraft sails in from outside the Solar System, and smaller (relatively) craft hive off from the mother ship and descend on Earth to lay the planet waste. It seems that we have a race of high-tech locusts, turning each world they visit into energy before moving on somewhere else (big bad Galactus had a similar game plan). After appropriate waste has been laid, scientist under achiever Jeff Goldblum, whose ex-wife (whom he still loves) has the ear of the President, develops a computer virus that will make the aliens vulnerable and superstar pilot Smith is on hand to fly him to ground zero. Weave in a slew of human interest stories and fling a plethora of sfx at the screen and you have a winning combination.

Yes, a lot of this is silly, not least that Goldblum knows where to plant his virus on a mother ship he hasn’t visited previously or even looked at a schematic of, and it’s amazing that the aliens have crossed deep space and have force fields, but no anti-virus technology or the simple nous to check who is flying one of their craft. But none of that really matters. At bottom it’s a feel good movie, mankind trouncing the bad guys through determination, guts, willpower and all the other right stuff, but not before they’ve blown the fuck out of plenty of tourist traps (I remember reading that when it was originally shown in cinemas some audiences cheered as the White House came tumbling down, but nothing about the reaction when the HOLLYWOOD sign got zapped), in an impressive display of sfx savagery. The aliens look really icky, but their technology takes the breath away, with giant craft that fill the sky. Billions are killed, but it all looks so darn pretty. A popcorn movie, where you put your critical faculties on hold and just enjoy the thrill of this roller coaster ride.

The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

My first time with this, so I didn’t know what to expect. All told it’s rather a grim movie with none of the moments of humour or ‘quaint’ characterisation that lightened the mood of the other two films, and no triumphalism at the end. There is however another scientist who is right while everyone else is wrong, Dennis Quaid taking the Broderick/Goldblum role. The agency of destruction is an Ice Age, something I usually think of as taking place over many years, but here enveloping the whole northern hemisphere in a couple of days. Aliens and giant lizards we can conquer, but there is no fighting an Ice Age, and so personal drama provides viewer interest, the ‘real’ story wrapped neatly within the doomsday scenario, Quaid trekking through a frozen landscape to reach New York and save his stranded teenage son (Jake Gyllenhaal) while the world adapts to changing conditions and humans do their best to survive.

Just like the other two films, it was impressive visually, with images such as the ship floating through the streets of New York, that will haunt me for a long time to come, but also limited as the director was working with a visual palette that was predominantly white. And, exciting as attacks by wolves, sudden freezing and collapsing surfaces all were it didn’t have the same scope for action as its predecessors, as sitting around feeling really, really cold isn’t particularly cinematic, no matter how much we identify with the characters (and I didn’t really). It had about it the feeling of a ‘message’ film, dramatising climate change by way of a warning of the possible consequences should we not choose to change our energy extravagant ways, with an extra poignant touch in the sight of Americans fleeing to ‘safety’ in Mexico, a ‘shoe on the other foot’ moment that reminded me of Bradbury’s story “And the Rock Cried Out”. In the end I think that the message got in the way of the story just a little too much, that it juggled too many balls to succeed, or maybe I’m just an ostrich who wants to keep his head in the sand. Either way, I enjoyed it, but not as much as the other two films.

So, what’s your favourite ‘destroy New York’ film?

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2 Responses to Roland Emmerich Lays Waste to New York City

  1. “…a character so in your face affable that I instinctively dislike him.” The type of line I wish I had written myself, Pete.

    Even though it also stars Will Smith, and the CGI isn’t that good (nor the adaptation itself), I’d have to say the most recent I Am Legend, just for its early scenes of Smith wandering around the deserted city, with its overgrown weeds, and a deer suddenly leaping in front of him. Not that good a movie, but a beautiful scene.

    • petertennant says:

      Yeah, Rob, the deserted cityscape made a strong visual impression in that one. I agree with your other reservations about the film as a whole though, and I was particularly ‘infuriated’ by the white picket fence ending.

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