Back Off, Jerk: ‘Are You Not Entertained?’ – In Defense of Roland Emmerich

There’s a fine line between camp and class, between low-brow and high-brow. Have you ever been that person who’s constantly defending a movie or TV show or album that everybody else seems to despise? With “Back Off, Jerk,” Hidden Track writers tell the rest of the universe to wake up and stop hatin’.

This week, John Graeber defends the often-panned work of action-adventure film director Roland Emmerich.
Few things are as quintessentially American as Will Smith punching an alien.

Movies can be art, for sure, but they’re also made to entertain. I enjoy thoughtful, artful movies as much as anyone, but I don’t want to wade through Citizen Kane every time I click on the television. Sometimes I want to settle into a comfortable chair and turn my brain off for a couple of hours.

And few directors’ movies are as wildly entertaining as those made by Roland Emmerich, purveyor of city-swallowing waves and Jake Gylenhaal outrunning the cold.

I’m sure the acclaimed French drama Amour, released the same fall as Emmerich’s end of the world extravaganza 2012, was a phenomenal silent film, but I just didn’t want to see it. Maybe that makes me a rube. Maybe it just makes me a person who appreciates microphones.

Emmerich’s movies are formulaic, sure. But formulas exist for a reason — because, sometimes, they work. They reach fundamental parts of our humanity that everyone experiences. The “estranged husband and irresponsible father trying to reunite his family” storyline Emmerich uses repeatedly works because even the best men want to be better dads and husbands. Emmerich just plays this out against a backdrop of global apocalypse.

And admit it — no matter how good a guy your ex-wife’s new husband is, you still don’t feel all that bad when he gets crushed to death in a boat’s giant gears. (Poor Gordon.)

In the previously mentioned Independence Day, we identify so closely with Steven Hiller, Will Smith’s character, because, confronted with an alien race armed with superior technology, Hiller understands all he needs are two fists to defeat his enemy, extraterrestrial or not.

But, most importantly, Emmerich’s movies entertain — they’re fun.

It’s a simple concept but not necessarily an easy one to pull off. There are more than a few duds that clutter the local cineplex each year. Emmerich himself has his own fair share of misses (10,000 BC anyone?)

But when Emmerich is on, few do it better.

Movies like this must be fun. It’s the cardinal sin that can lead even the best director to fail — think Spielberg’s War of the Worlds.

Emmerich, on the other hand, is clearly having the time of his life writing scripts straight out of Al Gore’s nightmares. He understands that people sitting down in a theater to watch a movie about the end of the world have long since checked their incredulity at the door, and he runs with it.

His delight in upping the ante is almost childlike. Most popcorn flicks are satisfied with one ridiculously impossible airplane escape; 2012 gives us four, the first immediately preceded by a limo driven through a building while it’s collapsing.

We cheer as our heroes escape from yet one more near-death experience despite — quite literally — millions of people dying in the background. We feel relief as John Cusack wings away with his family, dodging suddenly airborne subway trains, while Los Angeles slides into the Pacific Ocean.

And the special effects Emmerich uses allow viewers to feel the visceral thrill of seeing natural disasters up close, or aliens hovering over major metropolitan areas.

A discussion of Emmerich isn’t complete without a brief mention of his obsession with destroying the White House.

These are brief scenes in his prior movies, but his latest disregards all the other plot formalities to give the audience two solid hours of White House destroying.

The singular focus in 2013’s White House Down feels positively small-scale after the global reach of The Day After Tomorrow and 2012. But Emmerich didn’t really have anywhere to go in the planet-wide catastrophe genre.

And I give Emmerich the benefit of the doubt that he’s merely using the potent iconography of the White House as yet one more scene to emphasize the sheer magnitude of the catastrophe that’s taking place. Still, if this guy isn’t on a watch list somewhere at the FBI, someone is seriously remiss in their duties.

So do yourself a favor. Pop in 2012 or The Day After Tomorrow and willingly suspend your disbelief. Don’t complain about how ridiculous it is that the Earth’s crust just happened to shift exactly where it needed to for Cusack’s family to survive, or that Jake Gylenhaal is somehow able to outrun a temperature drop that flash froze a helicopter.

Accept the movies on their own terms. You might still hate them, and if you do, that’s okay. But you might just find yourself laughing uncontrollably at their delightful absurdity. Despite your best efforts, you might find yourself entertained.

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2 Responses

  1. great article…

    i’ve worked with roland on many of these movies. let me assure you he’s a true intellectual in his private life.

    kindest regards,

    harald kloser

    1. Thanks for commenting! I’m glad you liked the article. And I really can’t say enough how much I like these movies. I’ve watched each of them several times.

      John Graeber

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