Not since Irwin Allen has a filmmaker occupied himself more consistently, and passionately, with the destruction of the human race than Roland Emmerich. The director of Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, 10,000 B.C., 2012, and Independence Day: Resurgence, Emmerich’s creativity has frequently throughout his career focused upon cataclysm and calamity, portraying mankind’s aptitude for global disaster - frequently self-inflicted - and then, shrewdly capitalized on audiences’ appetite for watching these doomsday scenarios play out. But on the eve of the home video release of Midway, his chronicle of the various forces battling for supremacy of the Pacific Ocean during World War II, Emmerich insists that destroying large portions of the world’s population over and over again demonstrates not a fatalistic viewpoint about our collective future, but an inspirational exploration of how people overcome enormous, and yeah, life-threatening challenges.
“I'm an eternal optimist, even when I’m not,” Emmerich tells Birth.Movies.Death. “I don't want to put a message out there that’s pessimistic - why would that be good? I mean, whatever you do in a movie is some sort of escapist fun. But I want to go out there and teach people something which they do not already know.”
“When you have a disaster scenario or when you have an alien invasion, or a global climate crisis, climate shift or a global flood, you always can show how normal people overcome these obstacles and are better people,” he says. “And that's why I like these kind of stories.”
Midway marks Emmerich’s first effort at depicting real-life events on the scale of his biggest successes, where global power structures hang in the balance. (He told the story of the Stonewall riots that catalyzed the gay rights movement in 1969, but critics found his depiction of events as cartoonish as those in his alien-invasion films.) The filmmaker acknowledges that he and his collaborators have cultivated a reputation for stretching plausibility, but insists that they always start from a place that could be believed, even if the end result isn’t. “We always joke that we will always win the award for most unscientific movie of the year,” Emmerich says. “Whatever you do, it has to have the aura of credibility - or possibility. When it doesn't have that, you're dead in the water - but then you can do whatever you want.”
“Look, for example, at a movie like 2012, we had found this obscure theory, which actually had a foreword written by Albert Einstein, if you would believe it,” he says. “There was this guy, Professor Hapgood, and he developed the theory of Earth's crust displacement. That means at one point every 12, 13, 14,000 years, the whole Earth's crust is moving. And I thought immediately, this is a great way to make a Noah's Ark film in a modern way.”
After portraying so many wildly outlandish scenarios, Emmerich has discovered a formula - or at least a handful of necessary elements - that allow him to test the boundaries of believability and convince audiences to follow him no matter how silly things become. “When we were writing 2012, we invented a character played by Woody Harrelson who creates a YouTube feed, which gives you the gist of the whole theory, and in a comedic way. And because of that, you buy into it.” Suffice it to say that including a crackpot conspiracy theorist in a movie about a WWII conflict is less helpful - hence the absence of a character like that in Midway.
“That's something you don't need because people know it happened,” he says. “But in sci-fi or fantastic stories, you need that. But then also you cannot pile these things onto each other - to have ten amazing, out-there ideas in one film. It never works. It has to be one idea. And then when people buy into that, you have a chance.”
Even after creating sequences where armies of alien ships descend upon Earth, obliterating international monuments and laying waste to iconic cities across the globe, Midway presented Emmerich with a unique challenge he hadn’t dealt with before - namely, ensuring that every single detail looked good enough on screen for audiences to buy. “They cannot look like visual effects,” he observes. “That was probably the biggest challenge in the whole movie, because say, ‘I don't like digital effects in war movies,’ and I’d say, ‘well then you cannot make a movie called Midway, because nothing exists from that time anymore’.”
“It's one thing where in a science fiction movie, it’s all invented,” he says. “So once in a while a shot doesn't look so real, and you get away with it. But in a movie like this, we had at the very end only one shot which we couldn't get right - and so I cut it out.”
Midway taught Emmerich that storyboards amount to an unnecessary step - a wild revelation for a filmmaker whose movies come together with so much careful planning throughout shooting and then post-production. But as he returns to another piece of speculative fiction for his next project Moonfall, which is about exactly what you think (the moon gets knocked on a collision course with Earth), Emmerich says he’s thrilled at the team he found on Midway who help create iterations of his ideas to finish later at outside effects houses. “Moonfall is a lot about gravity. So we'll say, how does a gravity wave look? And you should have seen the first iteration. It was silly.”
“When I saw that, I said it's not going to work,” he says. “So now what we're doing is developing an anti-gravity wave. We have like a visual effects supervisor who studied engineering. So we create certain things on a computer totally by the laws of physics, and that impacts our storytelling too, because we sometimes rewrite everything because of that. But in my last movie, I storyboarded pretty much every scene, and it was pretty much unnecessary. Because I realized it's great when you have a couple of images, so you can talk to the person and say, this is a good first step - let's do this. You just go in baby steps and slowly lead them to it. It's hard work, but it's fun.”
Juggling and juxtaposing what’s real, or possible, with flights of pure fancy has steadily become Emmerich’s m.o., which may explain why he considers the most crucial characters to the success of his films to be the dreamers who take chances and risk embarrassment in order to get their message heard. “That's the basis of all my movies,” he says. “It's always somebody, mostly not in the mainstream beliefs. For example, the lead character in The Day After Tomorrow is a climatologist. Nobody believes him, and he's right. Or nobody believed Jeff Goldblum in Independence Day when he said, why is there a hidden countdown in that signal? I think they’re coordinating themselves.”
“When people believe these guys, they survive, but if they don't, they don't,” he observes. “When you look our culture and our world, that's happening a lot. Just look at politics. It's not the most obvious that always gets voted into power. You should always believe the guy who thinks outside the box. Because if we keep going as we’re going, we as a human race will not survive. I totally believe that, if we don’t wake up and learn.”
Midway is available now everywhere digitally, and on 4K UHD, Blu-ray and DVD.