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The Films Of Roland Emmerich: From Worst To Best

by Drew Taylor
June 26, 2013 12:02 PM
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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]

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  • Simon Paiva | July 4, 2013 6:33 PMReply

    When I first watched Independence Day back in 1996, I found it to be quite enjoyable, but I was 11 years old, today as an adult I have no fondness whatsoever for his types of films ( end of the world survival stories filled with horrible cliches). Now the Patriot is a whole different case, I first watched it in my teens, must've been 16 or 17, and to this day I consider it a beautiful film, it's such a powerfull, grand, moving story with so many layered characters. With beautiful cinematography and score and great performances. It's as if all of Emmerich's movies he's attempting to be Michael Bay or some similar piece of crap director, but with the Patriot it feels like he's folowing the footsteps of Steven Spielberg, I would give it an A-

  • Mark | June 30, 2013 11:30 AMReply

    Good try, but the problem with Emmerich is that every single one of his films is garbage. They're all 'F's.

    When your best film steals the premise of 'V' and then does nothing interesting with it you know you're in trouble.

  • James | July 1, 2013 5:14 PM

    Ah, responding to the conversation by adding nuance and specific examples. How useful.

  • nightgoat72 | June 28, 2013 9:04 PMReply

    I strongly disagree with this ranking (except for 10,000 BC being last). For my money, Emmerich is one of the finest blockbuster craftsman out there. Godzilla is one of my favorite movies, and I'm a big fan of 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow is well.

  • Jeff Heise | June 28, 2013 2:32 PMReply

    I probably would move THE PATRIOT to first position and ID4 down one-I think the Gibson film has more earnestness than any of Emmerich's other films, plus I think it has one of Gibson's most vulnerable characters, along with Jeremy Isaac's truly loathsome villain (although Isaacs does allow a sliver of compassion for a soldier wounded by Gibson) who goes so far as to slaughter an entire village by locking them in their church and burning them alive. It is one of those rare films about the American Revolution but it also shows that it was not all just men and muskets-it had its moments of savagery both up close (Gibson's taking out of the soldiers holding his son prisoner is both thrilling yet it shows how monstrous such a task could be by showing his sons seeing their father in a different light during and afterwards) and far away (the aforementioned torching of the church).

    I will have to check out UNIVERSAL SOLDIER, MOON 44, GHOST CHASE and MAKING CONTACT-they all sound intriguing.

  • Leon Miller | June 27, 2013 3:33 PMReply

    I generally agree but think you should reconsider "Anonymous." I thought it was a great movie that handled complicated Elizabethan politics very well (and it was a political, not literary, movie). And, it was visually beautiful, and so worthwhile simply for sinking back into a sofa and letting the images wash over you. Plus, it had an amazing cast. It was an excellent film that deserved a larger audience.

  • Fanzilla | June 26, 2013 8:43 PMReply

    The American Godzilla was only nicknamed "GINO" for a short time, but officially nicknamed "Zilla" by Toho, dropping the "God" because there was nothing god-like about him.

  • FilmWonk | June 26, 2013 7:24 PMReply

    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)

    Lava bombs are totally a real thing. Wiki it, dude.

  • Ignacio | June 26, 2013 5:37 PMReply

    Independence Day is without any shadow of a doubt a cornerstone of 90s pop culture. An absolute classic, with a great cast and awesome set pieces. Stargate is pretty neat too, a nice cult sci-fi flick with it's own little charm. And if features James Spader and Kurt Rusell! I'm downloading it to rewatch it asap.

  • Jesse Hammer | June 26, 2013 5:22 PMReply

    Did you leave out "Moon 44" on purpose because you couldn't be bothered to watch it or because you've never heard of iMDB?


  • GaryB | June 26, 2013 5:10 PMReply

    WTF?!!! Independence Day and Stargate are you 1 top 2? Really??
    They are horrible fact I find that most of his movies are one note drivel. Always tons of action scenes to make up for the lack of good story telling and over-acting. Sorry

  • PeggyAdams05 | June 26, 2013 2:40 PMReply

    Nice piece.

  • James | June 26, 2013 1:46 PMReply

    I've been saying it for a while now, I think Roland Emmerich is this generation's Douglas Sirk. A mad but brilliant German genius with unparalleled technical skills who uses the form of the genre film to explore surprisingly complicated socio-political issues, bringing them to a wide mainstream audience under a veneer of schlock. If he doesn't have the lightness of touch that Sirk did, it's only because he's making summer blockbusters and not women's weepies, but there's the same intelligence behind his work. I'm convinced people will be studying his films in a few decades, amazed at how he was unappreciated in his time.

  • bohmer | June 26, 2013 5:27 PM

    That's interesting. I can see it. He could be the kind of Hollywood "auteur" that Truffaut would probably rave about if he was still around.

  • MAL | June 26, 2013 1:04 PMReply

    Frankly, the only movies of his worth the film have been The Patriot and Moon 44. Beyond those, the level of implausibility and bigger plot holes than the Stargate itself could create sink everything he touches. How you guys could refer to his movies as "high concept" is beyond me. Granted, he's not Uwe Boll, but he doesn't even reach the "heights" of Michael Bay either.

  • James | June 26, 2013 1:48 PM

    I'm bored of people complaining about plot holes. Hitchcock famously didn't care about them. If I'm engaged in the film and I care about the characters, I don't really care if there are gaps in the logic. If I'm noticing them, it means the film has already failed on bigger, more important levels.

  • bohmer | June 26, 2013 1:02 PMReply

    It seems like it's a generational thing to rank them all but it's clear now that Emmerich appeal to every single boy teenager. As a guy in his early 30s like you guys, I have fond memories of both Stargate and Independence Day but my little brother's favorite flick is The Patriot. I felt that teen summer vacation vibe in the trailer of WHD and i'm considering blowing money on that later on.

  • Rihghtt | June 26, 2013 12:21 PMReply

    The Day After Tomorrow is basically a classic for anyone who was a teenager in the mid-2000s, the Patriot, too. Those are both B+'s in my book. I'll take either of those over Independence Day or Universal Soldier

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