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The Films Of Roland Emmerich: From Worst To Best

Photo of Drew Taylor By Drew Taylor | The Playlist June 26, 2013 at 12:02PM

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.
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Making Contact

"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

"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)

"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, John Cusack

"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+]

This article is related to: Roland Emmerich, White House Down, Features, Feature, Retrospective, Independence Day, Anonymous, Godzilla


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