The disaster film has changed a great deal since Roland Emmerich first blew up the White House in Independence Day more than 25 years ago. Back then the genre had fallen relatively dormant following the glory days of Irwin Allen’s own golden age for cinematic mass destruction. But from the moment Emmerich’s on-screen aliens gleefully detonated the White House during a Super Bowl commercial in 1996, American and global audiences alike were ready for a new breed of spectacle.
Since that defining summer movie, Emmerich’s seen the genre ebb and flow, soar with humor and, in later years, reach for something a little more somber and sensitive. Yet when we sit down with him to discuss his latest bid in the format—this month’s high-concept sci-fi action-adventure, Moonfall—he’s reflective on just how hard it is to even make such a crowd-pleasing event that’s not based on a comic book in the age of Marvel Studios, DC Entertainment, and Lucasfilm dominating multiplexes during the summer… and all other seasons.
“Oh yes,” Emmerich tells Den of Geek when asked if the disaster genre has changed in recent years. “Because naturally Marvel and DC Comics, and Star Wars, have pretty much taken over. It’s ruining our industry a little bit, because nobody does anything original anymore.”
The comment is not necessarily surprising for Emmerich, who’s spoken in the past about his ambivalence toward superhero movies, particularly Marvel ones which he once said he likes to watch on planes in order to fall asleep. When we talk to him in 2022, he admits that part of that skepticism for the genre stems from the fact that he grew up in Germany many years before the concept of superheroes were successfully transplanted to that market—mostly by Marvel movies.
Says Emmerich, “There were [The Adventures of Tintin comics], but they were very childish and there were no superheroes. So that’s why at the very beginning, superheroes didn’t work in Germany. They needed 10 or 15 years [of movies] to get to the same level as the rest of the world…. But I just have never found any interest in that kind of movie.”
However, Emmerich’s larger point about superhero movies, as well as Star Wars, harming the industry is a new one for the filmmaker, pulling from the popular argument that the repetitious and constant deluge of films all based on the same intellectual property—Marvel has reached the point where they are releasing four movies a year, not including Disney+ series—has conditioned audiences to primarily favor films and formulaic storylines that they’re already familiar with at the expense of everything else. For instance, Jodie Foster said in 2018 superhero movies are like fracking where “[shareholders] get the best return right now but you wreck the earth…. ruining the viewing habits of the American population and the rest of the world.”
And after the fall 2021 movie season, the fruits of that argument are difficult to dismiss when Spider-Man: No Way Home can gross $1.7 billion (and counting), becoming the sixth highest grossing movie of all time during the pandemic, while original films from beloved directors like Steven Spielberg with West Side Story or Ridley Scott in his ancient period piece sweet spot via The Last Duel can infamously flop.
Emmerich including Star Wars is also interesting since he’s previously said George Lucas’ original 1977 movie was one of the key inspirations that led him to become a director. You can see its influence on the many sci-fi dogfight sequences in Independence Day, for example. But now, he admits, unless you’re making a film based on an IP as popular and saturated as Star Wars has become in the last seven years, it’s difficult to get financing for an original project—even a disaster movie like Moonfall from the director of ID4 and The Day After Tomorrow.
“You should make bold new movies, you know?” Emmerich tells us. “And I think, actually, Christopher Nolan is the master of that. He is someone who can make movies about whatever he wants. I have it a little bit harder, but I still have a big enough name—especially when it’s a disaster [movie] or has some sort of disaster theme.”
It’s how Emmerich got the funding for an original idea he had for Moonfall: What if the moon was not a natural object but a “megastructure,” as some conspiracy theorists happily suggest? And what if that megastructure actually started to fall to the Earth? It’s a concept Emmerich’s been trying to get off the ground for years, and it finally arrives in theaters later this week. We’ll have more on that film, and our full interview with the director, in the next few days.