Roland Emmerich | Stargate

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Roland Emmerich

Roland Emmerich is a Hollywood film director.


Soldiers, Scientists and the Hero

Emmerich's science fiction spectacular Stargate (1994) reiterates and develops themes and characters from his last two movies, Moon 44 (1990) and Universal Soldier (1992). Emmerich has been deeply interested in exploring varieties of masculinity. In all three films, there are two main types of male characters. One group is more intellectual: in the last two films, these have been "scientists". The other is more macho and brutish; in the two last films these have been "soldiers".

There is also a hero, who has been trained to be part of the more aggressive, "soldier" group, but who is trying to rediscover his feelings, and make connections with other human beings. This is the character played by Michael Pare in Moon 44, Jean-Claude Van Damme in Universal Soldier, and Kurt Russell in Stargate. This character is one of positive ambiguity; he is trying to escape from or broaden predefined roles, and develop into a better human being.

Emmerich clearly has a lot of sympathy with the soldiers. He likes their competence, and their flair for male bonding, and above all, their machismo. The soldiers are always played by musclemen. Even the leads are very well built, but they are always part of a larger group of musclemen, perhaps a dozen. Being part of a team of macho males is very important, although the relationship is often ambiguous and fraught with danger.

Emmerich is clearly impressed with the scientists' technical abilities. He is less impressed with their developing weapons of destruction, and their willing subservience to dictators and authoritative and oppressive regimes of all kinds.

The relations between the scientists and the soldiers in all three films is full of difficulty. In the first two films it is murderous, with the director-endorsed killing of a bullying macho convict by a smaller, scientific one a memorable highlight of Moon 44. But in Stargate a new ability for the two groups to cooperate and learn from each other is developed. This is clearly an interesting new development. Only time will tell if it is a permanent feature of Emmerich's world view, or a one-picture phenomenon.

Also, for the first time there is a hero among the scientists, a character with leading man status in the film: the scientist played by James Spader. Despite some satire and some comic relief, Spader's character is one of a genuine hero. Spader is one of my favorite actors, and here he has one of his best film roles in years. It is also good to see Emmerich getting a chance to work with some real actors in Stargate, after years among the muscle men.

Uniforms: Image and Technology

Emmerich especially likes the soldiers' uniforms, and places a great deal of emphasis on these in the films. Many seem to be custom designed by the inventive Costume Designer Joseph A. Porro: In Stargate, a key scene toward the beginning shows two Air Force officers trying to recruit a scientist; both men are in perfect, absolutely identical Air Force dress uniforms. The men look like twins, or rather robots. (In Universal Soldier, the soldiers are robots: special, technically altered men.) Both men clearly have the power and might of an entire institution behind them: the US. Air Force. Later, Kurt Russell will wear an absolutely identical Air Force uniform. He too will be completely spit and polish, with identical grooming, military hair style, perfectly tied tie, and so on: a projection of the ideal Air Force image of macho robot. But in his case, we will know there is more. Underneath the image of competence and military precision, we know there is a deeply troubled man on the verge of an emotional breakdown. It adds tremendous irony to the military look.

Emmerich's attitude to the "scientists" is filled with ambiguity. For one thing, Emmerich, and his characters, are clearly enamored of high tech. Even in the case of his soldiers' uniforms, there is an emphasis on high technology:

Unlike other recent filmmakers, Emmerich was not interested in the (officer and) gentlemanly US. Navy or in the discipline-oriented US. Marine Corps. Such male stars as Richard Gere, Tom Cruise, Kevin Costner, and Alec Baldwin have had some of their biggest hits wearing the uniforms of US. Naval Officers. All of these actors are major romantic leads. By contrast, the Marine Corps uniforms worn onscreen by action heroes such as Michael Pare, Clint Eastwood, Fred Dyer, and Michael Dudikoff and Stephen James lead to adventure and male bonding, not to romance or marriage. The TV show Magnum, P.I. continued this dichotomy: the marriageable romantic lead Tom Selleck was a former US. Naval Lieutenant, while his working class buddies used to be US. Marine Sergeants. Frequent flashbacks showed them all in uniform.

Gender Ambiguity

Emmerich also broke new ground, for him, in Stargate by including an evil, androgynous villain, played memorably by Jaye Davidson, no less. It is not surprising that to the macho-oriented Emmerich, androgyny appears evil. I suspect, however, that Emmerich is at a stage of just beginning to "digest" androgyny, and that it will reappear in his films in more sympathetic forms in the future. Both the Kurt Russell and James Spader characters had some androgynous characteristics in the film, and more, I suspect, will follow. Also, villainous characters are often used to embody "forbidden" impulses, things the director and his audience find appealing, but which are currently taboo. Eventually, the director and the culture often find socially acceptable ways to enact these feelings. Activities once confined to the villains become part of the hero's behavior.

All in all, Emmerich is deeply interested in "gender", that subject of current academic obsession. Emmerich has a very different take on the subject than many academicians, but a worthwhile one, none the less.