German director Roland Emmerich made "The Noah's Ark Principle" in Germany in 1984 — a student film with a budget of over a million Deutschmarks — and never looked back. He quickly helmed two English-language family films, followed by a move into the worlds of action and science fiction in the 1990s. The peak Emmerich movie is probably still "Independence Day," although his other action and disaster movies — "The Day After Tomorrow," "2012," "White House Down," and "Moonfall" — are the connoisseur's choices.
Emmerich (both wisely and unwisely) stretches himself into other genres — such as the war movies "The Patriot" and "Midway," and the historical dramas "Anonymous" and "Stonewall." It's good to see him pushing himself, taking risks, and experimenting, even if the end results are mixed, to say the least. But he excels at big-budget action movies, and if he's given actors blessed with the necessary star quality to build his beautiful disasters around, he should be allowed to make many more like 2022's underrated "Moonfall." We should be so lucky. Join us on a tour of all of Emmerich's English-language movies to date.
17. Stonewall (2015)
Two movies really stand out in Emmerich's filmography as ones that will make you ask, "Really?! Emmerich made this?!" They are his Shakespeare movie "Anonymous," and "Stonewall," both historical dramas, a genre with which few typically associate the director. While "Anonymous" is an interesting and (crucially) well-cast experiment, "Stonewall" embarrasses on about every level. Casting Jeremy Irvine as the lead — and having him throw the first brick at Stonewall — is such a bad fumbling of the real-life event which was spearheaded by transwomen of color. It's unsurprisingly considered grossly offensive by the LGBTQ+ community.
Real-life figures such as Marsha P. Johnson and the butch lesbian who ignited the violence of the Stonewall riots (believed to have been Storme DeLarverie) are reduced to background characters. Jonny Beauchamp does an admirable job as the fictional character Ray, but it's unfortunately not enough to salvage the movie. Christopher Street is so obviously a set, it gives the entire thing a fake veneer, which clearly extends to the script and casting. Irvine's Danny has a backstory littered with cliches — he comes from a small town, gets caught with a boy (played by Karl Glusman, who would have been of more use in the NYC scenes), and has to flee. The documentaries "The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson will serve you far better regarding Stonewall and the gay rights movement of the 60s and 70s. Emmerich should have steered well clear.
16. 10,000 BC (2008)
Emmerich's forays into the past have certainly yielded mixed results. This attempt at a pre-historical epic is both bewildering and massively boring, as "10,000 BC" doesn't make a lick of sense historically or geographically. That could be forgiven if we were at least entertained, but this is ploddingly dull. There isn't a single compelling actor or character onscreen to hold our attention, with the possible exception of Cliff Curtis, but even he cannot shine through this dirge.
You'd think that a movie containing mammoths and sabertooth tigers would offer interest on some level, but there's none to be found here. By the time the mammoths crash their way around the great pyramids (?!), you will have had your brain numbed to the point where you cannot summon the energy to be either outraged or engaged. At least when "Stargate" uses Ancient Egypt, it has the decency to go over-the-top and ridiculous with it. Emmerich tried to be serious and profound here, but it doesn't work.
Emmerich deliberately hired lesser-known actors, but his casting (as is often the case) massively backfires. Steven Strait and Camilla Belle don't possess the charisma to build this vast, inexplicably globetrotting plot around. The depiction of race is highly questionable, with a "blue-eyed savior" as part of the plot. The mystical elements also muddy the waters; present it as realistic and serious or be fully silly, not both. Emmerich needs to stick to disaster movies, and avoid movies that are just … disasters.
15. Moon 44 (1990)
Emmerich started transitioning into science fiction and action filmmaking as early as 1990, before breaking through with "Universal Solider" in 1992. 1990's "Moon 44" is unfortunately pretty bland and boring, but it boasts a few early hallmarks of the filmmaker that Emmerich would become. The initial concept — an undercover agent travels to a moon mined for its valuable resources to investigate the disappearance of mining shuttles — is cool, but it devolves into a convoluted plot that fails to hold attention. A prison population exploited as slave labor and sent on what is tantamount to suicide missions also provides a setting that should have made for a thrilling movie, but doesn't.
One of the major flaws is that the sets are all the same generic black and grey colors; no variety. We don't explore new, strange planets or see any unique aliens. Hardly any characters stick out as memorable personalities either, although Dean Devlin's Tyler is among the better ones. This kicked off a beautiful and long-lasting partnership between Devlin (shifting from actor to writer-producer) and Emmerich, of course. "Moon 44" isn't cheesy or fun enough to register as a rewatchable favorite of the era, and it lacks the star power of Van Damme or Kurt Russell.
14. Independence Day Resurgence (2016)
If one movie retroactively makes 1996's "Independence Day" look like a masterpiece, this is it. A surprising number of original cast members returned 20 years later for the ill-advised sequel, including Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, and Vivica A. Fox. New leading man Liam Hemsworth possesses not one ounce of Will Smith's charisma, and Jessie T. Usher, who plays the stepson of Smith's character, also struggles to make an impression. Maika Monroe plays the president's daughter (Mae Whitman's role in the first movie) and she looks lost amongst all the CGI, when she's more used to low-budget horror movies.
While you might've hoped for a bit more sci-fi in the 1996 movie, "Resurgence" goes too far in the other direction. Earth is barely recognizable due to alien technology, meaning that nothing is grounded in reality or feels relatable. By the time you watch beloved veteran actor (and fellow "ID4" returnee) Judd Hirsch on a boat attempting to outrun a horrific CGI explosion, you'll be begging Emmerich to stop the ride. Among the few highlights of "Resurgence" is Hirsch's connection with a young family that includes Emmerich regular Joey King and McKenna Grace. Another is Brent Spiner, returning as the Area 51 scientist from the first movie. His backstory is expanded with a male partner, and his scenes are some of the few with any genuine emotion or stakes. A real shame.
13. Godzilla (1998)
Godzilla has appeared in many movies since the 1950s, with some much better than others. Unfortunately, Emmerich's take on the classic monster ranks on the lower end of the spectrum. The casting is weak overall, with Matthew Broderick not suited as a leading man for such a big movie. Hank Azaria, Harry Shearer, and Jean Reno (of all people) are welcome additions, but it's not enough to salvage the clumsy and sluggish plot. Criminally, Godzilla himself is forgettable. Emmerich wanted the creature to blend into an urban environment, but that means he doesn't stand out in the murky night scenes. The ending takes place around a nest, which also rates as a mistake, with lots of mini Godzillas lessening the impact of the main dude.
A decade after the release of Emmerich's "Godzilla," "Cloverfield" proved that you could leverage a similar concept (and a much lower budget) for a far greater impact. The characters in "Cloverfield" are relatable people that you actually care to spend time with, the creature design is innovative, and you have the unbeatable moment of Lady Liberty's head being yeeted uptown. In contrast, "Godzilla" is a slog, with underwritten characters, leaden plot, and uninspired visuals. The recent Godzilla movies look like Renaissance paintings by comparison, with their gorgeous use of a neon-colored palette. Emmerich usually rules at disaster movies, but his foray into the monster movie was a Godzilla-sized mistake.
12. Midway (2019)
Michael Bay's "Pearl Harbor" took a critical drubbing, but its first two-thirds (which includes the actual attack) is a spectacular experience. Unfortunately, there's a whole hour of movie left afterward, which comprises the Doolittle raid on the Japanese mainland. While Emmerich should have learned some lessons from Bay, for his version of the same events, he chops things up even more. "Midway" is not just a film about the Battle of Midway; it also depicts Pearl Harbor, the Doolittle raid, and the battle of the Coral Sea, with Midway comprising the final act. Emmerich attempts to focus on far, far too much, and that's the biggest downfall here.
"Midway" is also a prime example of where Emmerich's movies frequently falter due to poor casting choices. The slightly older actors — Patrick Wilson, Aaron Eckhart, Dennis Quaid, and Woody Harrelson — hold down the fort well in their roles as admirals and other high-ranking officials. The younger cast (who have more screen time) of Ed Skrein, Luke Evans, Nick Jonas, and Darren Criss don't exactly get the blood pumping with excitement, and Mandy Moore's totally wasted in a supportive wife role.
You can also tell that "Midway" had a lower budget than "Pearl Harbor" even though it's 20 years later. The CGI isn't great, and spread too thin, resulting in ugly-looking battle sequences. This was a largely self-funded passion project for Emmerich, and it's a shame that the execution doesn't fulfill his ambition.
11. The Patriot (2000)
Before "Midway," Emmerich's only war film was made in 2000, and set during the American Revolutionary War. While casting, as noted, is not usually Emmerich's strong suit, at least in "The Patriot" he had the secret weapon of Heath Ledger, who elevates things considerably. This was also produced when Mel Gibson was still able to elicit some emotion in his acting roles, and he's effective here as Benjamin Martin, a widowed father of seven reluctantly drawn into war when it comes to his door (not unlike Jimmy Stewart in "Shenandoah"). Joely Richardson unfortunately isn't in many scenes, but she is a highlight — as Benjamin's sister-in-law.
On the British side, there is Tom Wilkinson as Cornwallis, a general with good military tactics, but of course, Benjamin still manages to get the better of him. And there's Jason Isaacs, in full scenery-chewing villain mode. His tactics of shooting children in the back and setting fire to churches full of people were criticized upon release as not historically accurate, but let's face it, these scenes create a character you love to hate, and for over-the-top entertainment, which is what you come to Emmerich for. As with "Midway," this war movie covers many years and a lot of ground, with the passage of time from one event to the next not being very clear. It would have benefitted from focusing on fewer key events in Benjamin's guerrilla warfare campaign against the British. Nevertheless, "The Patriot" is a solid, well-acted drama with a fantastic villain in Isaacs, and a lovely Ledger performance.
10. Ghost Chase (1987)
Emmerich followed up "Making Contact" with another fun American movie that was suitable for family audiences. "Ghost Chase" also goes by the name "Hollywood Monster" — and both are apt titles. The two young protagonists seem like teenage brothers but are living on their own, so are possibly in their early 20s. They are aspiring filmmakers, but are foiled by Warren (Jason Lively) hitting on their lead actress. A complicated plot ensues surrounding a villainous Hollywood producer, Warren's inheritance, a haunted clock, and an animatronic puppet-type thing possessed by the ghost of a dead butler.
If you were a kid in the 80s and watched this at the same time as other gems such as "Gremlins," or "Short Circuit" it's likely that you'd feel huge nostalgic affection for it. The 80s were the golden era of the family-friendly live-action movie, and "Ghost Chase" seamlessly slots in with the many others now considered beloved classics. The little butler puppet is a fun character, a blend of Yoda and ET, and is a benevolent counterpoint to the evil ventriloquist's dummy in "Making Contact." Emmerich emulating Spielberg/Dante in his two kid-friendly 80s movies is fun to witness with hindsight. He was clearly aping their style but did it well. If you experienced "Ghost Chase" as a kid, count yourself lucky, because it's hard to replicate that sense of joy and wonder watching it as a grizzled grown-up.
9. 2012 (2009)
In 2009, Emmerich went full-tilt apocalyptic conspiracy theorist and took the Mayan calendar ending in 2012 to the nth degree. Like Matthew Broderick, John Cusack isn't the most compelling leading man for this kind of balls-to-wall blockbuster, but thankfully Chiwetel Ejiofor is here to have someone to really root for. Emmerich once again utilizes the classic "divorced dad trying to save his kids at the center of the end-of-the-world" trope. The entirety of Earth's crust displaces, causing massive earthquakes and tidal waves — which is exactly what we want from a disaster movie. Also, the Yellowstone caldera erupts, which is something that many of us have been longing to see onscreen. Woody Harrelson gamely takes on the Randy Quaid conspiracy nut role, and Oliver Platt's government stooge is willing to kill to cover up the impending apocalypse and sacrifice the many for the few.
One thing that "2012" definitely gets right is that billionaires manage to buy a place on the 'arks' which are designed to save humanity's chosen few. Although once the action moves to these arks for the final act, the movie slumps somewhat. Before that, we've had Cusack, Amanda Peet, and Tom McCarthy using various different kinds of planes to get to China — an entertaining journey that takes the audience along for the ride. It's interesting comparing "2012" to "The Day After Tomorrow" because it shows that a fairly simple concept and the right cast make all the difference.
8. Making Contact (1985)
Emmerich's debut Hollywood movie was a family-friendly horror movie that holds up well against others during the genre's heyday. "Making Contact" also goes by the title "Joey" and the villain is the most terrifying option available — a ventriloquist's dummy. Joshua Merrell plays Joey, a young boy who believes he can talk to his deceased father on the telephone, and who starts to develop telekinesis. Various demons start tormenting him, using the dummy (named Fletcher) as their chief weapon. Joey's mother and teacher team up to try to support Joey, despite not really understanding what is happening and eventually Joey teams up with his former bullies to take on the spirit world.
A gifted child actor, Merrell carries the entire movie on his back, and Eva Kryll as his mother has a Dee Wallace (Elliott's mother in "ET") quality about her. Fletcher the dummy is a fantastic creation, and it's incredibly easy to buy into him being possessed and evil, thanks to the voice work of Jack Angel. As with "Ghost Chase," your experience with this movie will very much depend on whether you watched it as a kid at the time or not. This is well-made, with some nifty effects that convey that Joey's closet is a portal to a realm of evil demons, and the acting makes you care about the characters. A fun family movie that shows a very different side to the typical Emmerich movies we're familiar with.
7. Independence Day (1996)
Emmerich famously directed one of the biggest blockbusters of the 1990s, which was the fourth highest-grossing of the decade after "Jurassic Park," "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace," and "Titanic." "Independence Day" is peak bombastic and jingoistic filmmaking and probably the movie that Emmerich is best known for. While the alien invasion is obviously a global event threatening the entire world, we of course only see the American point-of-view of the story, as they coordinate a counter-attack. Bill Pullman ranks among the best (and most handsome) onscreen presidents ever, with the added bonus that he's an ex-fighter pilot who gets back into a cockpit to take on the aliens personally toward the end of the movie.
Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith are a great mismatched double-act, and Randy Quaid chews that scenery as the drunk conspiracy theorist who has all his suspicions confirmed. Goldblum also has fantastic and believable chemistry with Judd Hirsch, who plays his father. Vivica A. Fox and Mary McDonnell's shared scenes are a surprising highlight, which up the emotional stakes. The Area 51 scenes with Brent Spiner's eccentric scientist are wonderful and bordering on something we'd see in "Men in Black." While the action scenes of this disaster movie are fun, of course, when it leans into sci-fi and we get to see some actual aliens and their ships, "Independence Day" really comes alive and is more intriguing. The dialogue can easily be criticized, of course, but the actors are invested enough to sell it, and there's still plenty to enjoy in this cheesy, explosive spectacle.
6. Stargate (1994)
Emmerich's space-based or space-related action movies have often been grounded in reality, but in the mid-90s he let his science fiction juices fully flow. "Stargate" blends Ancient Egypt with alien planets, forming a wild visual display. It stars James Spader as an academic and Kurt Russell as a colonel in the military, who team up to travel through the mysterious stargate portal — not knowing where it will lead them. They are transported to a desert planet with an enslaved people that have a strong connection to Ancient Egypt on Earth. "Stargate" is notable for being one of only two movie roles for the striking and charismatic Jaye Davidson, who preferred the fashion industry to moviemaking, despite an Academy Award nomination for "The Crying Game."
Looking back on it now, of course, "Stargate" is now a fascinating time capsule of 90s special effects, which were groundbreaking for the time. It also offers a brief glimpse of some "Star Wars"-like creature design, but there's unfortunately not enough of this. "Stargate" is one of the few Emmerich movies with a memorable score, thanks to David Arnold. Spader and Russell are a good odd couple, who must reluctantly join forces as the full nature of the evil lurking on the planet is revealed. "Stargate" has some colorful world-building from Emmerich, resulting in something more visually appealing than many of his movies. It's exciting to see Emmerich fully let off the leash as far as sci-fi goes, and it would've been a treat to have seen where his planned sequels would have gone.
5. Moonfall (2022)
Disaster movies are few and far between these days, so when we get a properly bonkers one, it's to be relished. "Moonfall" was an absolute joy for fans of the genre. Emmerich delivers here, with the moon falling out of its orbit and gradually approaching Earth. The plot moves at breakneck speed for the first two acts, and we don't even have time for people to be persuaded that the impending disaster is real. But, it's great to see Endeavour pulled out of retirement and taking off in the most extreme possible circumstances. Patrick Wilson is fantastic as a divorced dad at the center of the story, and Halle Berry and John Bradley join him to form a winning central trio.
"Moonfall" goes somewhat off the rails in the final act, when it shifts from disaster movie to full-blown sci-fi. The plot of the moon as a megastructure that malevolent aliens are trying to destroy (or something, it's hard to follow) is not as compelling as the effects of the moon's proximity to Earth. Something new to the disaster movie genre is the gravitational pull of the moon gradually getting stronger. Charlie Plummer as Wilson's kid, and Michael Pena as his stepdad are a team that we're invested in back on Earth. The dialogue improves on previous Emmerich movies, with him leaning into the humor that's inherent to these ridiculous scenarios. We should be very grateful that we got a fun blockbuster such as this in 2022, and it deserved far greater critical and commercial success.
4. Anonymous (2011)
You'd be forgiven for thinking that both of Emmerich's forays into historical drama movies must be equally bad, but that couldn't be further from the truth. While "Stonewall" is an travesty from beginning to end, Emmerich was more experimental in "Anonymous," the Elizabethan alternative history he made shortly before. Taking the conspiracy theory that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford was the real author of Shakespeare's plays as its starting point, Emmerich weaves an ambitious film full of political intrigue. We jump between two main timelines — one where Jamie Campbell Bower plays young de Vere and Joely Richardson plays young Queen Elizabeth, and one where Rhys Ifans plays de Vere and Richardson's mother Vanessa Redgrave plays Queen Elizabeth.
Again, casting has frequently been a weakness of Emmerich's oeuvre, but in "Anonymous," it's a triumph. Rafe Spall plays a weaselly Shakespeare who soaks in his ill-gotten fame, and Alex Hassell and Mark Rylance brilliantly portray actors in thrilling scenes which involve performances of 'de Vere's' plays. Ben Jonson and Kit Marlowe also feature, and while the plot is ridiculous, an impressive level of research went into the people of the time. David Thewlis and Edward Hogg, as well as Sam Reid and Vicky Krieps (in early roles) play various members of court and nobles — some loyal to the Queen, some traitors. Derek Jacobi also provides a prologue and epilogue, in the best Shakespearean tradition. Shakespearean veterans like Jacobi and Rylance do add credibility, but this is overall a very entertaining and entirely fictional story told by a phenomenal cast.
3. White House Down (2013)
Coincidentally released in the same year as the similarly-themed "Olympus Has Fallen," Emmerich's take on a president-rescue scenario pipped its rival at the box office, but has been largely forgotten since due to its lack of sequels. Channing Tatum is perfectly cast as Cale, a police officer who wants to work for the Secret Service. He brings his teenage daughter Emily (Joey King) with him to his job interview at the White House. Right then, a terrorist attack occurs and the president (Jamie Foxx) is taken hostage.
The plot grows increasingly unhinged as the movie goes along, of course, with the thrills and action ramping up to ridiculous levels. By the time Cale and the president are driving around in a limo on the White House front lawn with rocket launchers aimed at stopping the terrorists, you'll be squealing with delight. A very solid ensemble surrounds the central duo, including Maggie Gyllenhaal, Richard Jenkins, Jason Clarke, and an interestingly cast James Woods. There's definitely much fun to be had, seeing historically important rooms and priceless artifacts within the White House being set on fire or blown up. Emmerich famously destroyed the White House in "Independence Day," but he really goes to town on it here. "White House Down" is a thrillingly old-fashioned dumb action movie, built around two actual movie stars at its center — something that's increasingly hard to find these days.
2. Universal Soldier (1992)
The first of many collaborations between Emmerich and writer-producer Dean Devlin was an early 90s movie that featured the biggest action movie stars of the day — Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren. "Universal Soldier" has a great concept — two Vietnam War soldiers, who are arch-enemies, kill each other and are reanimated in the 90s as genetically-augmented super soldiers with their memories erased. Van Damme's Devereaux starts experiencing flashbacks and resisting his programming. He goes on the run with Ally Walker's Veronica Roberts, an investigative journalist. "Universal Soldier" delivers a great mash-up of high-tech labs with seedy motels and gas stations.
Van Damme's acting is often much-maligned, but he's terrific here. He creates a compelling central character that we care about and expresses his character's confusion well. We also see a lot of his perfectly sculpted butt, which is no bad thing. Lundgren is in fantastic over-the-top villain form. We are introduced to Lundgren's character as he fashions a necklace made of ears, and things only get more unhinged from there. The road trip cat-and-mouse chase that forms much of the movie is a really entertaining journey and we can't wait for Lundgren's Scott to be dispatched with the same spectacular violence he's inflicted on others. "Universal Soldier" was Emmerich's first proper Hollywood action movie, and its fans surely wanted to see a few more on this scale before he turned to the sci-fi CGI-heavy blockbusters "Stargate" and "Independence Day."
1. The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
If you're seeking the quintessential natural disaster movie, look no further than Emmerich's mid-2000s triumph. "The Day After Tomorrow" has it all: super-sized hail, tsunamis, tornadoes, and polar vortexes that immediately freeze everything in the vicinity. Oh, and wolves. Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal), Laura (Emmy Rossum), and Brian (Arjay Smith) are in New York for an academic decathlon when the climate apocalypse strikes. Sam's Dad just so happens to be Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid), a leading climatologist who tried to warn the government that this disaster was coming, to no avail. Jack tells Sam to shelter in place at the New York Public Library and promises to rescue him. Much humor comes from burning books to stay warm, leading to arguments over which ones to save.
"The Day After Tomorrow" ticks so many boxes of classic disaster movies, and that's why it's such a pleasure. The scientist no one believes, the estranged dad determined to prove he is worthy of his kid's respect, the Statue of Liberty coming to an unfortunate end. Check, check, check. The New York City tsunami achieves spectacle level (with the impressive CGI holding up to this day), and Ian Holm and Adrian Lester in a remote Scottish research station provide much of the heart-tugging. It helps that an actor as good as Gyllenhaal (in an early role) anchors the story, and that's one of many reasons why "The Day After Tomorrow" is arguably the most rewatchable and entertaining disaster movie of all time.
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