The Films Of Roland Emmerich: From Worst To Best

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by Drew Taylor
June 26, 2013 12:02 PM
19 Comments
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"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+]

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19 Comments

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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?

    Lazy.

  • GaryB | June 26, 2013 5:10 PMReply

    WTF?!!! Independence Day and Stargate are you 1 top 2? Really??
    They are horrible movies....in 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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