There’s something magical about walking out of the hot summer air and into a cool theater to see a big, dumb special effects spectacle, provided that it isn’t too big or too dumb. While for many Michael Bay rules the roost of disposable summertime entertainment, my heart will always be with Roland Emmerich, a man who makes deeply silly and cheesy movies, yet most of the time doesn’t ask us to forget how silly or cheesy they are. A German-born artist who has carved out a niche for himself as the purveyor of filming (and exploding) pure Americana, Emmerich is a master, in his own special way. But he has made mistakes, and what better way to celebrate the release of his new film, White House Down, than poking fun at some of those choices?
10. Wasting a Great Plot, Universal Soldier (1992)
Emmerich’s first American film (after several German pictures) was Universal Soldier, a movie that plumbs the depths of American post-Vietnam guilt, albeit only briefly. The setup is that two soldiers (Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren) in Vietnam become bitter rivals when Lundgren goes crazy and murders hostages. The two men tumble to their deaths, only to be revived decades later by a secret government program that outfits corpses with cybernetic implants (think Robocop). Awakened and now slowly remembering pieces of their former lives, the two cyborgs go to bloody war. It’s a cool hook for an action movie, and for many Universal Soldier is a cult classic. But for me it comes up short, as planting the slow-witted, phonetically challenged Van Damme in the lead essentially gives us no one to root for. Universal Soldier has spawned a small industry of sequels, with hopefully some of them actually following through on this terrific premise.
9. Our Hero is an Idiot, Stargate (1994)
Next up was Stargate, another movie that spawned a huge franchise. The original film, a space opera that makes a show of aspiring to 2001-esque awe before deciding to be an Indiana Jones pastiche, is about a team of marines (and a linguist played by James Spader) who go through a giant metal donut and get stuck in the middle of a planetary slave rebellion against aliens in Egyptian god disguises. It’s a lot of fun, but try this on for size: the Spader character, Dr. Daniel Jackson, is not too bright, is he? Drafted into a government project, he does discover that the markings on the titular “stargate” correspond to star constellations, but then he all too readily agrees that if they send an expedition he can get them home. He presumes the existence of a code key on the other side, doesn’t share his assumptions with anyone, and then he shrugs and effectively strands the marines on the other side when they not-unreasonably suggest it’s time to go home. Sure, exploring an alien planet sounds very exciting, but wasn’t Daniel Jackson ever a boy scout? Be prepared, as they say.
8. How to Defeat an Alien Invasion (Part I), Independence Day (1996)
Emmerich hit it big with the disaster/alien epic Independence Day, which is great fun. It’s also legendary for having one of the silliest plot holes in a big blockbuster movie: Jeff Goldblum, computer nerd, is at his wits’ end until he hits upon the idea of planting a virus in the alien mothership, presuming that this will affect the other ships in orbit, disable their shields and allow the air force a chance to strike. His plan involves flying into the mothership with Will Smith and uploading the virus, then firing a nuke to seal the deal. And he does it all on a MacBook Pro. Yes, the aliens, who have seriously lax security anyway (they let a ship that’s been missing for fifty years into their hangar without a second thought) have an OS that is so understandable and easy to hack that Goldblum can do it on a Mac in sixty seconds. The conceit clearly comes from ID4 being an update of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, where a biological virus undoes the creatures, but it still feels hopelessly unearned. Emmerich has proposed an Independence Day sequel for years, and I hope when it comes the aliens have sprung for the extra $50 to buy some solid malware protection.
7. How to Defeat an Alien Invasion (Part II), Independence Day (1996)
At the conclusion of the seriously very cool dogfight that makes up most of ID4’s third act, drunken loser Randy Quaid redeems himself by piloting a suicide run up the alien destruction laser, essentially lodging himself (and a nuke) in the ship’s sphincter, turning the tables on the aliens who once probed him. Cut to dozens of soldiers manning the telegraphs, the ever-clever USA telling all the idiot other countries how to take down the aliens (uh huh). Then cut to downed alien ships all over the place. How did that happen? While a well-timed nuke into the alien spacecraft is obviously their Achillies heel, wouldn’t the aliens know by that point just to sit tight, don’t fire the laser, and let the air force exhaust themselves? The film establishes that missile detonations on the hull of the ship have little effect; it has to be at their sole vulnerable spot: i.e., the one that they don’t ever need to expose if they don’t want to.
6. The Changing Size of Godzilla (1998)
Godzilla, Emmerich’s follow-up to Independence Day, is a big mess, an update of chintzy monster movies undone by bad acting (Matthew Broderick is the definition of “miscast”) and a seriously dopey script. And the effects, which are weak (rain is used often as a method to obscure the ugly, badly-designed Godzilla), are also wildly inconsistent. How big is Godzilla? He fits in a subway tunnel yet he’s as tall as the Chrysler building. Does he squeeze or shimmy? He goes missing for a good chunk of the movie, as if a giant lizard can just disappear (must have been the rain). Then he reappears with no advance warning, seeming to possess the ability to sneak up on people.
5. Not Even Making a Godzilla Movie At All (1998)
But, of course, there’s an even bigger problem with Godzilla, which is that it’s an ugly reboot of a franchise that many hold dear to their hearts, sapped of any joy. The original Godzilla movies, though pretty silly and cheap-looking, were made with a lot of love, and they dare to have some crazy, off-the-wall ideas. Godzilla ’98 is the big green guy filtered through corporate Hollywood moviemaking: tedious and constructed with an air of superiority over the earlier films, though twice as dumb and half as fun. The film even takes a detour into ripping off Jurassic Park in its last third, so desperate to appeal to “sophisticated” audiences. What a disappointment.
4. Acknowledging Black Slaves But Not Giving Them Anything to Do, The Patriot (2000)
Here’s a thorny one. The Patriot is a Revolutionary War epic told through the sensibilities of a comic book, where a southern Plantation owner (Mel Gibson) becomes the Forrest Gump of the Revolution, essentially making every key choice in the southern conflict against the redcoats while being hunted by an inhuman British general (Jason Isaacs, in honey-baked ham mode). The film takes pains to show the black experience during the war in some token scenes, one stressing that Gibson’s character, a fictional creation, does not own slaves, but treats “his” blacks as free men. He’s so improbably tolerant he even finds refuge at a wholly black camp on a South Carolinian beach. Meanwhile, a slave (Jay Arlen Jones) joins his militia and counts down the days until he is gifted with freedom, earning the ire of a fat white slob before it transmutes into respect, in a seriously trite plotline. The Patriot is an epic that wants to be about everything, leading to an bloated mess. It’s understandable that Emmerich didn’t want to make a film that effectively ignored the uncomfortable subject of African Americans, who often fought in the Revolution for people who still saw them as property. But not bringing it up would have been arguably preferable to giving the topic such insultingly short shrift.
3. No, Seriously, What the Hell Year Is It?, 10,000 B.C. (2008)
Paleontologists and archeologists must look at 10,000 B.C. the way that jet pilots must look at Airplane! Only 10,000 B.C. isn’t a comedy—it’s a serious survival drama about a cavemen in a very very unspecified time period (nope, the title has nothing to do with when this takes place). What I know for sure is that it is reasonably impossible to suggest a prehistoric man encountering a woolly mammoth and sabertooth tiger, and then showing up to rescue his wonderfully-groomed and well-manicured lady love from an Egyptian pharaoh building the pyramids, because while that civilization is ancient, it’s nowhere near that old. The movie, a riff on Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, is as dumb as dumb fun gets, well-photographed but scaling new heights of preposterousness. The only way that 10,000 B.C.’s Egyptian detour makes sense is if it takes place on another planet. Maybe a prequel to Stargate?
2. No More Pull Ups!, 2012 (2009)
The problem with disaster movies, especially global ones, is that no matter how many heroes are saved, you can’t dramatically undo the disaster, leading to an ending that is always bittersweet at best, Pyrrhic and depressing at worst (See Emmerich’s 2002 The Day After Tomorrow for more evidence of that.) In 2012, the entire Earth is buffeted by disaster after disaster, and the last hopes for humanity board arks to survive the nasty storms and find a port somewhere, which they eventually do, in Africa at a higher elevation. In a movie where every character is signified by one sole characteristic, hero John Cusack’s son is a seven-year-old still besieged with bed wetting, so much so that he must wear diapers even on board the ark. As the storm subsides and humanity finds a new place to rebuild, the kid brightly chirps “No more pull-ups, daddy!” as we cut to sunshine and credits, causing one of the most bafflingly off-key final lines in movie history. Perhaps when the Mayans predicted a disaster in 2012, they were actually referring to the last line of the movie 2012.
1. Giving Credence and Making a “Serious” Movie About Complete and Utter Nonsense, Anonymous (2011)
Anonymous, Emmerich’s most recent film, is not a bad movie. But it’s a misguided one, trying to lend sincerity to one of the longest running crackpot theories of all time. It’s a costume drama about how the plays of William Shakespeare were “really” written, an attempt to undermine what most reasonable people believe to be lunacy by suggesting that good Will Shakespeare was a fraud and all his plays were composed by others under pseudonyms. This theory, actually believed by many who call themselves Oxfordians, is attractive because everyone loves a good conspiracy tale, especially one that comforts people by essentially forwarding a classist argument: obviously, Shakespeare, being a man common-born, was way too low in stature to have been a genius at anything (eyeroll). This idea is poppycock, and it depresses one to see Emmerich bring such spit and polish to such a lugubrious motive. It feels like his attempt to tarnish the image of a hero and declare war on the art of writing, which, given the state of many scripts he picks, makes sense.
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