The end of our future has already begun.
Years before he and frequent collaborator Dean Devlin were regularly throwing unconscionable sums of studio money down the rathole of wretched excess (see Independence Day, Godzilla, The Patriot), Roland Emmerich was a lowly film student at the Academy for Television and Film in Munich, Germany. The Noah's Ark Principle, a sophisticated "class project" with a million-deutschmark price tag, marked Emmerich's debut on the international movie scene, premiering at the 1984 Berlin Film Festival. (Or so I hear—I was busy that week.) I'd like to tell you it bears all the hallmarks of future greatness.
I'd like to. Really.
Facts of the Case
Astronauts Billy Hayes (Richy Müller, bearing no resemblance to Brad Davis in Midnight Express) and Max Marek (Franz Buchreiser) circle the Earth in a space station dubiously dubbed Florida Arklab, keeping a watchful eye on weather patterns around the world. From time to time, Billy and Max use Florida Arklab's radiation-generating capabilities to alter climate conditions for the benefit of humankind down below.
When not imitating the Weather Wizard from the old Flash comics, Max plays with his reptile and amphibian collection, and trades increasingly terse videograms with his significant other Eva (Aviva Joel) about the crumbling state of their relationship. Meanwhile, Billy shadow-boxes, rifles through the abandoned personal effects of the previous crew members (doesn't anyone ever take his stuff home?), and scuttles about acting on secret instructions from Mission Control boss Felix (Matthias Fuchs) while trying to keep Max from noticing he's up to something. Everyone smokes an alarming number of cigarettes.
Florida Arklab soon (not soon enough to keep most of the audience awake, but soon) becomes a pawn in an international chess game involving American hostages in Riyadh. The suits on the ground have stumbled on the notion of employing the space station's radiation blasters as weapons of mass destruction (funny how no one thought about that before the thing went up). Will Billy and Max carry out their new orders to wreak havoc on behalf of the American government, or will they remain true to their peaceful humanitarian mission? And what measures will their project directors downstairs take to ensure the astronauts' compliance?
As a student film, one has to be impressed by the ambition of The Noah's Ark Principle. As a movie, there's not a lot to spark enthusiasm. Granted, director Emmerich wrings every last deutschmark out of his production budget, with creditable miniature effects and set designs. Unfortunately, these technical merits serve a visual approach that plunders everything from 2001: A Space Odyssey (the Florida Arklab's onboard computer is nicknamed H.A.R.V.E.Y.) to Alien, with no compelling story and few inventive ideas to show for the trouble.
Emmerich the screenwriter crafts a circuitous plot that takes an eternity to kick into gear, and it still doesn't make much sense once the action starts. There are a few interesting touches; for example, the subplot about Max and his girlfriend pays off in a way that we don't expect. But Emmerich sabotages himself with the amateurish device of telling the story in flashback—we know from the outset of the film who will survive the events on the Arklab, and who will not, and more or less what the outcome of those events will be.
The acting barely reaches the median level of your local community theater. Ferret-faced Richy Müller makes the least convincing astronaut in the history of science-fiction cinema (or at least since O.J. Simpson and Sam Waterston in Capricorn One), and you won't buy him as an American military officer either. On the other hand, when you're a student filmmaker operating on the cheap, you take whomever you can get for scale.
Anchor Bay's DVD presentation of The Noah's Ark Principle consists of a reasonably clean anamorphic transfer accompanied by both the original German stereo soundtrack and an mono English dub. Quality of both the video and audio is quite decent, considering that the source material probably didn't afford much with which to work. The lone extra is a horribly edited trailer, but to be frank, I don't know what more you'd want.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Is it just me, or does Richy Müller look like Dean Devlin's Aryan cousin? Sometimes, Life really does imitate Art. (Mostly Art Garfunkel. But don't get me started.)
I suppose it's inevitable that once a filmmaker becomes a big-time industry name, as Roland Emmerich has (for reasons that elude me completely, given the derivative hackwork that comprises his oeuvre), every frame of celluloid he or she ever produced is destined to show up on the market sooner or later. I'm sure Emmerich is proud of The Noah's Ark Principle, which doubtless opened a number of doors for him to direct the expensive dreck for which he is now famous. But that doesn't mean we have to share his nostalgia. Take a pass on this classroom souvenir.
The Berlin Film Festival staff of 1984 is convicted of criminal negligence, in that their promotion of Roland Emmerich's student film encouraged him to make more (and bigger, and more expensive) bad movies. Emmerich himself is found guilty of not quitting while he was ahead. The Noah's Ark Principle is given an "A-" for effort and released on its own recognizance. Court is in recess.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Theatrical Trailer
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