Aliens, amphibians and action: German director Roland Emmerich turns 65 | Film | DW | 10.11.2020

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Aliens, amphibians and action: German director Roland Emmerich turns 65

The German-born film director of "Independence Day" is known as the "master of disaster," but Roland Emmerich has also addressed gay rights in "Stonewall."

Retirement age in Germany is 65, but there are no signs that German-born film director Roland Emmerich will be calling the quits any time soon.

Emmerich has long become a household name for action-driven works such as Independence Day (1996), Godzilla (1998) and The Day after Tomorrow (2004), and continues to be a driving force behind cutting-edge special effects in the film industry.

Film still Godzilla

Emmerich's 1998 remake of 'Godzilla'

More science fiction than science

Born in the southern German city of Stuttgart in 1955, Emmerich attended the University of Television and Film Munich, launching into his signature genre of science fiction straight upon graduation.

After completing a number of productions in Germany, Emmerich directed his first US action film in 1992: Universal Soldier, featuring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren. 

In 1994, Stargate cemented the German director's reputation in Hollywood, setting the stage for the 1996 movie which probably remains his most famous: Independence Day. The storyline spans an ambitious arc in which alien spaceships descend on Earth to annihilate all humans in a bid to take over the planet's natural resources, before they move on to another galactic civilization to rinse and repeat the same wave of destruction. This takes place, of course, on the Fourth of July, as luck would have it.

Roland Emmerich next to a poster of 'Independence Day: Resurgence'

The sequel of 'Independence Day' in 2017 was less successful than the 1996 original

The movie is, however, as much a commentary on the human condition with its seemingly insatiable desire to exploit the Earth as it is a trope about good versus evil. In the end, humanity prevails — even though the kind of (pseudo-)science explained in the film would certainly condemn mankind to its own doom, if it were actually applied in the real world.

Read more: Return of the Aliens on Independence Day

The end is nigh

In hindsight, many of the special effects in Independence Day and Stargate appear almost whimsical from today's perspective. But Roland Emmerich tends to treat such details as mere afterthoughts at the time of production. His mission is to thrill audiences, and there is no doubt that he succeeds in doing so, always using the latest technology available to the industry.

Emmerich improves on the high standards he sets for himself with each production. In 2004, he brought the disaster film genre to a new level with The Day After Tomorrow, which casts the planet under the spell of a new Ice Age emerging overnight.

Five years later, he highlighted the end-of-times prophecy of the Mayan Calendar in 2012, chasing his protagonists from one natural disaster to the next.

Looking at the effects of climate change is, however, not just an on-screen passion of the German director; he makes sure that his productions are carbon-neutral — while remaining cost-effective.

Film still: Anonymous

Some Emmerich films like 'Anonymous' (2011) flopped at the box office

A sensitive perspective on social issues

But it's not all doom and gloom with Roland Emmerich. In fact, the director has also been trying to move away from his moniker, "the master of disaster." Even in the flattest of storylines, Emmerich attempts to inject some social commentary, for example by featuring interracial couples in his narratives or casting people of color in leading roles — giving sleepless nights to Hollywood executives who love to apply tried-and-tested formulas to produce box office blockbusters.

Film still: The Day After Tomorrow

Baby, it's cold outside: New York City gets flooded in 'The Day After Tomorrow'

In 2015, Emmerich directed a film about the beginnings of the Gay Rights movement on Christopher Street in New York in the late 1960s: the openly gay director, who married his partner Omar de Soto in 2017, said that Stonewall was a project that was near and dear to his heart. Unfortunately, it failed at the box office.

In 2019, Emmerich opted for another historical project, setting his eyes on the Pacific Theater of World War II with Midway. The action-filled war drama focuses on the decisive Battle of Midway that opposed the United States and Japan in 1942.

Under the moon

But Roland Emmerich can't seem to entirely depart from science fiction after all: His next film, Moonfall, is based on the premise that the moon stops rotating around the Earth and begins to tumble toward the planet. Actors Donald Sutherland, Halle Berry, Patrick Wilson and Stanley Tucci have all signed on to the production.

How will his protagonists solve this existential problem? Who will die in due course? And what love stories find their happy ending against this background?

We will have to wait until at least 2022 to find out how Emmerich's latest work pans out. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the launch date of the production is yet to be determined, but with a budget of $130 million (€110 million), fans can be certain that there will be no skimping on special effects.

For today, however, there are no major floods, explosives or fires planned for Roland Emmerich's birthday — only 65 candles to blow out.

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