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The Films Of Roland Emmerich: From Worst To Best

The Films Of Roland Emmerich: From Worst To Best

When it comes to bringing popcorn ready, big screen spectacle to the multiplex, there are few filmmakers (except for maybe Michael Bay) who do it with as much flair as Roland Emmerich. The German-born director has been making theater speakers rumble ever since “Universal Soldier,” but he really made his mark in the ’90s thanks to the White House exploding “Independence Day” (which has a sequel coming in 2015) and the monster movie “Godzilla.” And since then, films like “The Day After Tomorrow” and “2012” have come to define the trademarks most audiences know him for — high concept FX vehicles in which the world is at peril, but rescued by an everyman who saves the day.

This weekend, Roland Emmerich lays waste once again to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with  “White House Down,” starring Channing Tatum as the unemployed, Secret Service wannabe, who is thrust into action to save the President (Jamie Foxx) when terrorists attack. And we thought it would be a good time to revisit Emmerich’s body of work – one in which nuance and thunderous overkill sit side by side, where vulgarity and the auteur’s touch are both very present. It’s also one that contains some interesting outliers such as the historical drama “The Patriot,” the prehistoric “10,000 BC” and the Shakespeare conspiracy theory “Anonymous.” So which of these blow shit up or just blow? Read on…

10,000 BC” (2008)
For everyone who ever wondered how the Egyptian pyramids were built, Emmerich is here to tell you: with the help of wooly mammoths. Playing fast and loose with history, common sense and plausibility (even by the admittedly lax standards of Roland Emmerich movies), “10,000 BC” throws everything into the mix – giant killer birds, the legend of Atlantis, an Aesop’s fable interlude with a saber-toothed tiger – and still comes across as being horribly dull and tedious. An epic mash-up of “Apocalypto” and “Clan of the Cave Bear” should have been a thrilling adventure especially under the direction of Emmerich who seems barely engaged enough to make sure to hair on the computer-generated wooly mammoth looks okay. This is what happens when you let your composer (Harald Kloser) co-author your script. Emmerich specializes in glossy trash, but glossy trash that is rarely this forgettable and bland. [F]

Godzilla” (1998)
A textbook example of it seemed like a good idea at the time: Emmerich and his co-writer/producer/partner-in-crime Dean Devlin, coming off the smash success of “Independence Day,” were given the opportunity to remake the beloved Japanese monster movie “Godzilla,” updating it for modern audiences while Americanizing it at the same time (this remake would be set in Manhattan). Given their efficiency with large-scale mayhem and destroying beloved landmarks, it seemed like a sure bet, and leading up to the summer of 1998, everyone was excited about an Emmerich/Devlin “Godzilla.” (This was especially true thanks to the ingenious marketing campaign by Sony, one that didn’t reveal the creature at all, but instead had banners on buses that said “His foot is this big.”) After some intriguing early scenes documenting the monster’s destruction, the movie soon turns sour: the Emmerich/Devlin formula of a mismatched team (borrowed from Michael Crichton novels and old sci-fi movies) facing down an otherworldly menace feels worn; the computer-generated effects were still rudimentary at the time and far too widely utilized; and baffling decisions like having it rain for the entire movie and indulging in a number of mean-spirited jabs at critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert (notoriously unforgiving of the filmmaking pair), cloak the movie in an oppressively bleak atmosphere, one that doesn’t quite lend itself to fuck-yeah summer movie escapism. There are some mildly enjoyable moments, like a sequence at the end, set in Madison Square Garden and borrowed from Steven Spielberg‘s much-better “The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” with a bunch of little baby Godzillas, but this movie barely lets you crack a smile. The fan blowback was swift and decisive: the new monster was nicknamed GINO (for Godzilla In Name Only) and in Ryhei Kitamur‘s “Godzilla Final Wars,” the “classic” Godzilla actually fought GINO and handily whipped his ass by throwing him into the Sydney Opera House and unleashing a whole bunch of scary dragon breath. [F]

Anonymous” (2011)
The poster for “Anonymous” provocatively asks, “Was Shakespeare a fraud?” The answer, of course, is “no.” But that doesn’t stop Emmerich — that student of history who had wooly mammoths constructing the Egyptian pyramids in “10,000 BC” — from conjuring this rococo historical bore. It starts in present-day England, and then goes back in time, further and further until we reach the end of the Elizabethan era, when the movie goes to great pains to suggest that Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans), the 17th Earl of Oxford, who was forbidden to write (it would bring great shame to his family) but does so anyway, is the true scribe behind the works we attribute to William Shakespeare. After some confusion, the villainous Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) takes credit for de Vere’s plays and (among other things) extorts de Vere to build the famous Globe Theater and kills Christopher Marlowe (Trystan Gravelle), after Marlowe discovers that Shakespeare is a fraud. The whole thing is ridiculous and silly, but not in the escapist sense of Emmerich’s better films. The question about whether or not Shakespeare authored all of this immortal works is a good one, even if the answer is somewhat anticlimactic, and a decent enough movie could be made out of the inquiry. But Emmerich’s more-is-more approach, which leaves subtlety behind and instead insists on a flashback-heavy Russian nesting doll of out-there conspiracy theories, isn’t the right one. Sure, there’s a whole lot of period spectacle to soak in and a touch of Greek tragedy, but since so little of it makes any sense, it’s very hard to ever really engage with the narrative. [D]“Making Contact” (1985)
Also known as “Joey,” this West German fantasy movie is Emmerich going “full Spielberg.” The movie, like many of Emmerich’s best, starts out intriguingly enough, with a young boy mourning his dead father. Soon enough, objects in his room start to levitate and a toy phone beams in an actual conversation from the dearly departed dad. But things start to get significantly weirder: the young boy develops telekinetic powers (it doesn’t go over well at school) and pretty soon a ventriloquist dummy in his room starts to tell him that it’s not his father he’s talking to, but rather the spirit of an evil magician (or something). Pretty soon all sorts of demonic creatures and questionable optical effects show up, with Emmerich borrowing liberally from both “E.T.” (there’s even a moment where the kid is drinking milk from an E.T. glass) and “Poltergeist” (particularly as the movie goes along, with keen attention paid to the lighting in that earlier, better movie). When released stateside by B-movie titan Roger Corman‘s New World Pictures, “Joey” was heavily edited and renamed “Making Contact.” The extensive dubbing and odd grasp of American culture (there seems to be “Star Wars” paraphernalia in almost every shot) make the movie even stranger and more charming, especially when combined with Paul Gilreath‘s soaring, John Williams-esque score. It doesn’t make a lick of sense, and all of the supernatural gobbledygook definitely slows things down. But as an early indicator of the director’s ability to conjure forth wide-eyed wonder, “Making Contact” is a delightful little romp, and at only 79 minutes, it won’t take up too much of your time. [C]

The Patriot” (2000)
The closest Emmerich has ever come to having a genuinely underrated film, “The Patriot” is a lavish historical revenge movie that follows a man (Mel Gibson) and his son (a young Heath Ledger) who fight back against the British after an evil Colonel (Jason Isaacs) kills a young family member (and burns down their house). Large thematic concerns, about the nature of guerilla warfare, slavery, cultural identity and the dynamics of teamwork/family, are threaded throughout “The Patriot.” But mostly it’s a warmhearted, horrifically violent, incredibly kick-ass revenge movie, one whose Emmerich-approved earnestness affects you deeply (even while you’re rolling your eyes). It’s unequivocally the most beautiful-looking Emmerich movie ever (it was shot by the legendary Caleb Deschanel), with painterly compositions that will cause you to stare, mouth agape, at the sheer majesty of it. It’s also the most beautiful-sounding Emmerich movie, thanks to John Williams’ sweeping score. In later movies, Emmerich seems to have lost his mojo when it comes to staging action sequences on the ground (ones that don’t involve massive flyovers of crumbling city-states). But here he’s totally in command of his craft, and each giant action set piece is brilliantly choreographed and easy to follow. Today, it’s worth re-watching for Ledger’s performance, which might not be as brilliant as his later work, but is just as commanding. There have been relatively few movies made about the American Revolutionary War, and it’s a miracle this one turned out as well as it did. In the Story of Emmerich, this is also an important movie, because it marks the last time Emmerich worked with Dean Devlin, his longtime co-writer/producer and general creative other half. [C]

The Day After Tomorrow” (2004)
Three years after 9/11 and Emmerich was back to his old tricks again, destroying Manhattan anew. Maybe it was because he thought that experiencing the devastation, this time in the relatively safe confines of a movie theater, would be a singular cathartic experience for a nation traumatized by large-scale violence that was far, far too real. Or maybe he thought that the movie, which was festooned with a heavy environmental message, spoke for itself: this is what could happen to us if we keep this thoughtless business up. Either way, “The Day After Tomorrow” harkened back to Emmerich’s heyday and the great seventies disaster films of yore, this time concerning a global apocalypse that wasn’t natural but something that we created. Melting polar ice caps lead to a worldwide meltdown that brings about, of all things, a new ice age. Within this context, a scientist (Dennis Quaid) fights to reconnect with his son (Jake Gyllenhaal) amidst typhoons, tornadoes, devastating snowstorms, and (of course) wolves. There is a spooky vibe to “The Day After Tomorrow,” which is only undercut by the bursts of Emmerich-sized silliness that often get in the way of the actual human drama (the director wisely telescopes in on a handful of characters instead of the dozens that usually populate his movies). Clearly audiences weren’t as offended as some critics claimed to be, with a gross of nearly $600 million. “The Day After Tomorrow” is also noteworthy in that it was the first “carbon neutral” Hollywood production, meaning that the production offset its horrible energy usage by planting trees and contributing to environmental causes. [C]

2012” (2009)
Remember when 2012 was going to come and the Mayan calendar was going to be right and we were all going to die? Me neither. But Emmerich sure does! “2012” is kind of like the “Love Actually” of disaster movies, with Los Angeles falling into a giant hole, the Vatican’s domed towers crushing believers, and a massive volcano erupting in Yellowstone National Park (it shoots out clumps of liquid hot magma that, in the filmmakers’ imagination, look more like tiny meteors). Oh and a giant tidal wave forms that allows an aircraft carrier to destroy the White House (again). “2012” conversely feels like Emmerich’s “mission statement” and also like he’s totally on autopilot. His love of seventies disaster movies, with their expansive casts and fractured narratives, is both a blessing and a curse – it occasionally adds some dynamism to sequences where entire cities aren’t destroyed in a fiery cataclysm. But just as often they reinforce the leaden dialogue and often laughable scenarios that Emmerich puts his characters (led by John Cusack) in, again and again. (We still remember the screening we attended in 2009, in which the audience erupted in laughter on multiple occasions.) There is often a sense of gee-whiz wonder that breaks through the elaborate visual effects, even if those same effects lack the nuance and artistic integrity of the extensive model work that Emmerich used to do for his movies. Still, it’s hard not to love a movie in which Woody Harrelson plays a nut job survivalist conspiracy theorist who turns out to be right (and is then promptly killed). For goofy apocalyptic one-stop-shop overkill, it’s hard to beat “2012.” [C+]

Universal Soldier” (1992)
Man this movie rules. The introduction of the Emmerich/Devlin double-team, this high concept, moderately budgeted sci-fi action movie is a bouillabaisse of clichés that somehow manages to be a charming, funny, often positively thrilling B-grade treat. In the opening sequence, a kind of “Casualties of War” prologue, an American soldier (Jean-Claude Van Damme) discovers that one of his own (Dolph Lundgren) has gone all Colonel Kurtz on his ass – he’s wearing a string of Vietnamese ears around his neck and has a young Vietnamese boy held hostage. The two soldiers kill each other in spectacularly violent fashion and the movie then cuts to present day, when a bunch of soldiers are sent into resolve a terrorist situation at the Hoover Dam. The shocking part? Two of those soldiers are Van Damme and Lundgren! Say what!?! So they’re part of a super-soldier program where they’ve been genetically modified to be the most killingest soldiers they can be. The problem is that these two start to recover their memories and start a war against each other. There a number of tropes that are trotted out in “Universal Soldier,” mostly the gag about these guys being borderline “Terminator“-type robots, plus there’s elements of fish-out-of-water comedies, not to mention a bit of time travel thrown in there since they’ve been temporally displaced. The two leads are dynamite – JCVD is weirdly hilarious as the “good” soldier while Lundgren is gleefully over-the-top as the “bad” one (there’s a great moment where he outstretches his arms and almost hugs the widescreen frame). Sure, there’s tons of silly bullshit (the soldiers have to cool off so they’re constantly riding around in trunks full of ice), it hasn’t aged very well, and the movie’s dusty Southwestern locations sometimes give away its low budget edge. But for pure movie-going pleasure, it’s hard to top. If you see this playing on some cable channel late at night, you’re not going to keep flipping. [B-]

White House Down” (2013)
Emmerich’s latest is also one of his best, with Emmerich becoming so self-aware about his proclivity in destroying the White House that a character in the movie actually mentions “Independence Day” (and yet it doesn’t come off as smug or self-congratulatory). Following the template of John McTiernan‘s “Die Hard,” the movie concerns a young father (Channing Tatum) who goes to the White House to interview for a position within the President’s Secret Service detail, and ends up thwarting a major terrorist attack. Yeah boyee. Jamie Foxx plays The President and he and Tatum have unbelievable chemistry together, with the bloody, kill-’em-all mentality of this spring’s similar (but noticeably more hardcore) “Olympus Has Fallen” replaced by moments of big spectacle that are played against small human drama (Tatum’s daughter is somewhere in the White House too). Oftentimes the movie comes across as slightly too earnest, like “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington With An Automatic Weapon,” but this is inherently part of who Emmerich is. Even when he’s killing people and destroying the world, he’s feeling optimistic about things. And his earnestness is only matched by his camp sensibilities which include a computer nerd listening to classical music while he crashes the economy and the President of the United States telling a terrorist goon to get his hands off of his Jordans. Oddly confrontational in its politics, the terrorists might be a ragtag band of mercenaries, but many of them are characterized right wing loons – Tea Party members gone slightly too far. There is so much happening at all times in “White House Down,” that it’s hard to keep up, something that isn’t aided by the fact that Emmerich, in the years since “Universal Soldier,” has slightly lost his grasp of hand-to-hand combat and the staging of shootouts. But still, as artless as it might be, in terms of wink-wink, nudge-nudge summertime action fun, “White House Down” is hard to top. [B]

Stargate” (1994)
Combining two of his biggest obsessions, apocalyptic futurism and distant history, Emmerich crafted a nifty little sci-fi yarn about a ring dug up in the desert that transports a scientist (James Spader) and a bunch of soldiers (led by Kurt Russell) to a far away planet that resembles ancient Egypt. It’s a concept that is so undeniably cool; it makes you feel like an 11-year-old kid again. And that’s before you even watch the movie, which is full of David Lean-ian vistas (courtesy of cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub), “Star Wars“-esque creatures and out-of-this-world characters (literally). Emmerich has always had a knack for casting, but few things have topped his decision to cast Jaye Davidson, the androgynous star of “The Crying Game,” as the sun god Ra, is nothing short of absolute genius. By combining ancient mythology with new myths of their own, they created something that has left a lasting impression on popular culture (it spawned three long-running television series, for crying out loud). Some of the typical Emmerich shortcomings are present in “Stargate” (it’s too long and takes far too much time to get going), but it’s also one of their most marvelous, in terms of wide-eyed awe. The moment they stick their faces into the Stargate, and its shimmery, reflective, silvery surface, and get whisked to the planet — it’s utter magic.Russell and Spader embody, for the first time, the science vs. military dynamic that would come to define many Emmerich features, and both are wonderful. Plus, David Arnold‘s score is totally unforgettable – there’s a reason why it’s still used in one out of every four trailers for big science fiction spectacles. “Stargate” is wonderful in the purest sense of the word – it’s chock full of wonder. [B+]

Independence Day” (1996)
Was there any question? In terms of late-nineties summer movie spectacle, “Independence Day” isn’t just essential, it’s definitive. So much of “Independence Day” has been burned into an entire generation’s collective consciousness: the giant spaceships hovering above major cities, inspiring both hushed awe and genuine dread; the way that Will Smith, as a cocky fighter pilot, punched an evil alien that had crash-landed on earth; the White House being blown to smithereens; the final dogfight between human and alien forces; the sensation that, as the R.E.M. song (quoted in the movie) stated, it’s the end of the world as we know it, and we feel fine. It’s all there. Between the impeccable cast (led by Jeff Goldblum and Smith), the groundbreaking special effects that combined beautiful old school models with cutting edge computer-generated effects, and its plucky earnestness (a hallmark of Emmerich’s, obviously), “Independence Day” was a big dumb studio blockbuster that almost instantly became a nutzo classic (keep in mind that a large swath of the movie takes place at Area 51, where it’s lorded over by a deranged version of Data from “Star Trek: The Next Generation“). There’s a reason that there are countless YouTube videos, every year, of people reciting Bill Pullman‘s rousing speech from the climax of “Independence Day,” on Independence Day. It’s a yearly tradition for most to watch “Independence Day” on or around July 4th and it’s not a tradition that people aren’t looking forward to, either. It’s endurance is truly staggering. The fact that concrete plans have been set down for a sequel, to be released in 2015, is cause for both excitement and worry. After all, how could anything, even a sequel, hope to out-dazzle the original “Independence Day?” That seems like an almost cosmic challenge. But with Emmerich and Devlin re-teaming for the first time in almost a decade, it sounds like they’re up for it. Hopefully the new “Independence Day” will be one worth celebrating, too. [B+]

There are a couple of early Emmerich movies that we couldn’t get our hands on in time for this lengthy retrospective – “Moon 44,” a satirical post-apocalyptic thriller from 1990 starring Michael Pare and “Ghost Chase” from 1987, which has the greatest name for anything ever, but not much else (it’s supposedly on DVD though). And how do you rank your Emmerich movies? Is “Independence Day” truly at the top of the heap, or do you think another title deserves the top spot? Let us know below.

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