"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]
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.