Oh, Roland Emmerich. The much-maligned writer/director is so much better than his critics give him credit for. His successful career should give aspiring filmmakers hope that anyone can make it big in Hollywood. Seriously, the man tries so hard to create great entertainment, and he usually succeeds, but there’s never any subtext or deep meaning behind his movies. What you see is what you get, and that’s actually kind of refreshing.
As you can tell from the title of this article, I’m going to give a bit of a back-handed compliment to Emmerich. If you’re at all familiar with his filmography, you’re in for a treat. So sit back and enjoy some chuckles as we explore all the things that are profoundly wrong (and right) with Roland Emmerich.
1. Universal Soldier Is an Unwatchable Travesty
Universal Soldier is one of the most unpleasant movie-watching experiences I’ve ever had. I couldn’t watch it in one sitting because I kept getting so frustrated with it. Didn’t anyone in pre-production think it was a bad idea to cast two expressionless, English-challenged macho actors in the roles of U.S. soldiers who have to say a lot of dialogue and make the audience care about their plights? I guess not. Jean-Claude Van Damme barely gets to use his martial-arts skills, and Dolph Lundgren is over the top and disgusting as the villain, and the female lead doesn’t know how to emote. The results are horrendous. The acting in this movie is so profoundly bad that I had to watch Ernest Goes to Camp right after to remind myself that subtle performances still exist. There’s really nothing to recommend about this film. The action sequences are boring and the climax is sloppily executed. This movie burns, and unfortunately it’s very difficult to forget, unlike most bad movies I’ve seen.
And yet somehow Universal Soldier managed to earn $101 million worldwide back in 1992, providing a much-needed hit for director Roland Emmerich. I don’t know why this movie made so much money because it didn’t deserve to at all. But even though I hate it with a passion, I’m glad it was a success because it enabled Emmerich to move forward with great ideas he and Dean Devlin had. Those ideas would result in Stargate and Independence Day, two of my favorite popcorn movies of all time. So… thank you, Universal Soldier, for existing. I guess. You are one of the most loathsome things I’ve ever sat through, but at least Emmerich got you out of his system early in his career and he learned from his mistakes.
2. He Never Uses the Same Stars Twice
It seems like every director has an actor he feels comfortable working with in most of his films. For example, Tim Burton has Johnny Depp, Christopher Nolan has Michael Caine, and George Lucas has CGI. It’s like comfort food. We like to see consistency in filmmakers’ work and the people they work with. But Roland Emmerich walks a whole different path. To the best of my knowledge, the only actor he has worked with more than once played the village elder in Stargate and the SETI scientist in one scene at the start of Independence Day. Other than that, he has never worked with the same actor twice. That’s quite a feat. It’s not like he’s working with an army of Val Kilmers. Why doesn’t he ever want to work with them again?
I think the reason is that Emmerich doesn’t want to repeat himself. He can only do the End of the World story in so many ways before it gets stale, so he has to keep switching actors and trying variations on a theme. It’s great to see a filmmaker who’s brave enough to not worry about building franchises. He just tells one story and moves on to something else. Michael Bay could learn a thing or two from this man.
3. He Always Has a Nerdy Hero to Root for
In all of Roland Emmerich’s disaster-ish movies, he can’t help including a nerdy-but-lovable character. In Stargate, it’s James Spader. In Independence Day, it’s Jeff Goldblum. In Godzilla, it’s Matthew Broderick. In The Day After Tomorrow, it’s Jake Gyllenhaal. In 2012, let’s face it, it’s pretty much the entire cast. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. The consistency that is missing because of Emmerich’s commitment to never casting the same actors is filled in with similar characters. Often, these characters are divorced, separated and/or looking for love, and they find it by the end. Their character arcs are as predictable as a Yo-Yo, but that’s why they’re so great. With the whole world falling apart around us, at least we have something we can count on.
4. He Tries So Hard to Make Us Feel Bad for Doomed Characters, But We Cheer Anyway When They Die
I’ll never forget Christmas 1994. My brothers and I went to see Stargate, and we pretty much had the whole theater to ourselves. There’s one moment where a big-toothed dopey-type character starts running in slow motion, trying to get to safety in the midst of a big firefight. Unfortunately, he has been a fairly goofy and annoying character up to that point, and my brothers and I (heartless kids that we were) were cheering for him to meet his demise right then and there. And it seemed like the filmmakers were reading our minds because suddenly he got blown to bits by an enemy laser blast. And we laughed and celebrated because it was such a hilarious moment in the film.
I know it’s supposed to be dramatic when a supporting character gets killed, like when Obi-Wan sacrifices himself on the Death Star. But sometimes it completely backfires and produces an astonishing amount of comedy. Like when Randy Quaid sacrifices himself in Independence Day, or when the Russian billionaire throws his son into the Ark in 2012. Both of those moments are trying to be great and climactic, but I’ve been waiting the whole film to see how those characters will kick the bucket and I can’t help enjoying their untimely demise rather than feeling sorry for them. Roland Emmerich, I salute your ability to produce such contradictory emotions in your audience.
5. The First Half of The Patriot (2000)
The first action sequence in The Patriot, when Mel Gibson goes after his son, played by the late Heath Ledger, is well worth the price of admission. In fact, if you just watch that scene and nothing else in the movie, you’ll get pretty much the entire point of the film without the depressing second half. Seeing Gibson and his two young sons work together to take down a British platoon (or whatever the correct military term is) with a half-dozen muskets and an axe is by far the highlight of the movie and one of the best action sequences ever put to film, period.
The rest of the movie is pretty good and it definitely has other great moments, but it’s impossible to top that initial taste of Revolutionary War fighting. Hats off to Roland Emmerich for turning what could have been a predictable turning point into something gripping and memorable. Gibson’s transformation from a peaceful farmer to a vengeful warrior is shockingly effective, and it sets up the conflict of the rest of the movie perfectly. Don’t miss it.
6. He Doesn’t Care About Logical Problems
A spaceship that’s a quarter of the size of the moon couldn’t orbit the earth without causing catastrophic tidal waves and irreparably damaging the earth’s rotational axis. A nuclear bomb exploding right above a planet would probably cause serious atmospheric problems for the inhabitants of that planet. A giant lizard is highly unlikely to disappear in New York City multiple times without someone seeing where it went. If the Earth’s crust shifted so fast that China is now where Hawaii should be, that would likely result in earth-ending quakes and windstorms that would devastate life as we know it. Melting polar icecaps can’t create a giant tornado/tunnel into space.
But does any of that matter to Roland Emmerich? Of course not! These are minor details that are easily brushed over in his films. It’s usually only after watching one of his movies that I stop and think about the logical fallacies contained in them. It’s easy to get swept up in the story and push rational thinking aside for a mere two hours of exquisite joy and entertainment. It’s not that I turn my brain off to enjoy Emmerich’s films, but I just don’t sweat the details. He never lets me down with pure spectacle and goofy fun.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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