Roland Emmerich has a problem. A very gay problem. You may know Emmerich as the guy that directs ridiculous summer blockbusters where all sorts of landmarks get all sorts of blowed up. Independency Day, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012. He specializes in wholesale destruction. You might even call it apocalypse-porn.
What you might not know is the Emmerich himself is gay, a fact that’s only really been talked about for the last 10 years or so, and even then not so much. He’s made a few donations to gay film organizations, but apart from that the closest thing he’d ever done as any kind of gay advocacy in his films was back in 1992, when gay men everywhere got thrilled by the sight of Jean Claude Van Damme’s sweaty, naked, pumped-up, bubble-butt during one of the only memorable scenes in Universal Soldier.
That all changed in 2015 with the release of Stonewall, Emmerich’s rather… shall we say… particular interpretation of the events leading up to and around the 1969 Stonewall Riots that set off the modern queer rights movement. While it’s been widely established that the riots were mostly started by drag queens, trans women, butch lesbians, and people of color in all of those categories, Emmerich decided that he knew better than decades of historical research and the riot in his film was instigated by a young, blond, white twunk in a tight white t-shirt and too much hair product.
Reactions to Stonewall were swift and vicious starting from the release of the first trailer, especially from the people who were actually part of the riot itself. Critics (including us) eviscerated the film for its offensive whitewashing of queer history, its horrendously sex-negative vibe, and Emmerich’s characteristic shallowness and artifice. Emmerich responded to the criticism by doubling-down, planting his foot firmly in his privilege, refusing to budge and proclaiming Stonewall as a “white event”; then he redirected the question by pointing out that his new film, Independence Day: Resurgence, had a gay couple in the supporting cast.
So now that ID:R has been released, how about that gay couple? Are they hot, young fighter pilots? No-nonsense military officers? A nice couple from the suburbs who get swept up in the chaos and help the main characters save the day?
No. It’s a crazy, hippy scientist and his partner, whose twin obsessions seem to be flowers and knitting. And on its own that could be interesting. If only.
WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD
One half of the couple is played by Brent Spiner, best known as Lieutenant Commander Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Here, he’s reprising his role as the inexplicably-named Brackish Okun, a scientist at Area 51 who was mind-raped by the aliens in the first film and left in a coma as a result. About 20 years later, he wakes up when the aliens return. In the interim, he’s been watched over by his partner Dr. Isaac, played by John Storey, a frequent Emmerich collaborator whose part in the first ID film was so small as to be barely noticeable.
What starts out with good intentions soon leads to the place where all good intentions end. The two men are not conventionally fit or attractive, and they honestly have a very easy, gentle chemistry. Aside from a few references of “baby” or “honey” in their conversations, it would be easy to mistake their rapport for very good, lifelong friends. While they do actually factor into the “plot” of the film (as much as this film has one in the first place), their relationship does seem to be given undue weight due to their relevance in the hierarchy of the cast, and they are mostly played off as comic relief (but usually due to their personalities and not their sexualities). It’s almost as if Emmerich is saying “Look! Gay people in a big-budget sci-fi film! Aren’t I great! Give me another GLAAD award!”
The whole thing comes completely undone, however, during the climax when Dr. Isaac is gunned down by an alien invader in front of his partner. Spiner has a very nice, organic moment of genuine emotion during Isaac’s death scene, but it doesn’t remove the fact that Emmerich finally put a happy, well-adjusted gay couple in one of his films and felt the need to kill one of them before the end credits.
An argument could be made in Emmerich’s defense that a good number of characters, some more important than Dr. Isaac — die over the course of the film. In fact, Okun is nearly the only member of the returning cast who manages to make it through the film alive and ready for the inevitable sequel. The human race is facing worldwide extinction, after all and you should expect casualties.
But that ignores the fact that Emmerich didn’t have to kill Dr. Isaac off at all. It doesn’t impact the plot either way. There is a very, very long, tortured history of gay couples meeting horrible ends in film, assuming they even make it to the big screen in the first place, and this is especially true in genre film. Awards only seem to be given to films and actors (almost always cis, straight actors) playing tragic queer characters that inevitably enlighten the straight characters in the film by the virtue of their death. Think Boys Don’t Cry, Brokeback Mountain, and Dallas Buyers Club. Things are much better on television, but cinema still has a long way to go and Emmerich apparently doesn’t want to be the one to help change that.
Emmerich could have made a very big point by letting the gay couple have a happy ending, and he chose not to. He also chose to make the gay couple rather secondary, and to have them serve as the comedic foil for everybody around them. Even though Okun is supposed to be the big expert when it comes to the alien technology, it’s a completely different (and heterosexual) character who ends up quite accidentally discovering how to use the fallen alien deus ex machina that allows the humans to fight back. Okun was just there to open up the container it was held in while his partner sits back looking worried.
At one point in the film, an alien attack takes out the bunker where the President, played by Sela Ward, and her cabinet are hiding out, wiping out the entire line of Presidential succession. The highest ranking military commander left, played by William Fichtner, gets sworn in on the spot. Imagine the message Emmerich could have sent by having the United States’ first female President succeeded by the first gay President? Aside from a line of clunky expository dialogue during Fichtner’s first scene, there’s no reference to his personal life at all. Would it have been so hard for him to talk about his husband instead of his wife?
Or what about the best friend/fellow pilot of the lead character played by Liam Hemsworth? An attractive, charismatic-yet-dorky military officer who’s a highly skilled gunner? Sadly, he’s forced into a ridiculously awkward and inert romantic subplot with a Chinese pilot played by actress/model Angelababy, a character who’s almost completely defined by her sort-of connection with said pilot and with her commanding officer uncle (who dies during an alien attack). Emmerich doesn’t have a great track record with female characters either, as it turns out.
Emmerich will likely respond to criticisms like this with the same arrogant defensiveness that he used when Stonewall was widely and rightfully lambasted. It’s clear that he doesn’t understand exactly why its important to portray positive and successful gay characters in cinema, and it’s pretty clear that he won’t get the message any time soon. Much like the films he makes, the language he commands to convey his ideas never changes. It just gets louder.