Roland Emmerich’s movies have a distinct DNA: They unfold on an enormous canvas, there’s some sort of desperate conflict and the planet is almost always in peril. Many film and culture critics credit Emmerich with popularizing a genre built around catastrophe that reflects fears about climate change.
The director acknowledges that he has a penchant for crafting big-screen Armageddon, but he loathes the nickname “master of disaster” that he’s been saddled with ever since aliens atomized most of the world’s major landmarks in 1996’s “Independence Day.”
“I don’t like that,” he says. “But you know how people like to put people in a drawer. They love labels.”
In a recent issue devoted to the climate crisis, Variety explored the ways in which show business is grappling with the eco-issues facing humanity. The publication noted that storytellers often resist narratives that confront audiences with harsh realities and urge them to take action.
Emmerich is a rare exception. His 2003 disaster film “The Day After Tomorrow” centers on a superstorm that rips across the globe, burying New York City in ice as tornadoes destroy the Hollywood sign and level Los Angeles. Emmerich insists there is a “warning shot” at the heart of these films and agrees that content creators need to step up to grapple with the threats posed by a warming planet.
“It’s a little bit of what I hate about Hollywood so much right now,” he says. “They could very easily, in one of the Marvel movies, create a situation which is clearly a climate crisis. But they don’t.”
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“When I did ‘The Day After Tomorrow,’ one or two of the studios who wanted it when I took the movie to auction said, ‘Can you not explode an atomic bomb or break a dam, [so that] everything gets flooded, and it all goes away?’” he continues.
“The moment we walked out, I said to my producer: ‘Yeah, not them. They don’t understand what I’m doing here.’”
Twentieth Century Fox, which at the time was run by Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos, won the rights to the film. Emmerich says that while top brass signed off on the script, the finished film tore through them like a superstorm.
“When they finally saw the movie, they had a little trouble with it,” he recalls. “They said, ‘Oh, my God, there is no real happy ending.’ It was there on the page, but it really hit them when they saw it. I said, ‘Guys, I can’t make this a happy ending because if humanity keeps going like this, there will be no happy ending.’”
The director wants to make another film about extreme weather, but not one that pits action stars against fire and rain. It’s one that would take a brutally honest look at what life will be like if coastal erosion, mass migration, food scarcity and disease outbreak take hold.
“I’m slowly starting to see a possible movie that deals with it,” says Emmerich. “How different would the world look if 200 million, 300 million people become refugees because they cannot live off their land anymore? Brexit is the result of that. Nationalism is a result of that. This could be the biggest crisis in history: Not only will a lot of people die; wars will be created. Life will change.”