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]
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]
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]