To coincide with the release of Moonfall, Rafaela Sales Ross looks back on the CG-obsessed director's explosive canon...
Known to many as the “master of disaster,” German director Roland Emmerich has built a long-lasting career out of giant, CG-heavy blockbusters, all delivered with the heavy hand of somebody who simply likes watching stuff blown up. With an eager eye for production design and an unashamed weakness for nostalgia, the director surfed the wave of big, lavish 90s epics to catapult his career, crafting some of the biggest hits of the decade, including Stargate and Independence Day.
With the release of Emmerich’s latest sci-fi extravaganza, the typically excessive Moonfall, we look back on the director’s career – from his early days as a film student in Germany to his dominance of Green Screen Hollywood – to rank his body of work from worst to best…
18. Moon 44 (1990)
In the year 2038, humans have finally depleted Earth of all its mineral resources and mining companies fight amongst each other to harvest the universe for precious reserves. The premise, somewhat interesting, is muddled entirely by what emerges as an utterly convolute bore-fest, its critique of capitalism earnest in its intent yet pitiful in its delivery. The script manages to be somehow equally labyrinthine and tedious, an unengaging effort that spits out undistinguishable characters whose only motivation is to add bodies to the screen. When one thinks it can’t get much worse, the director throws in an inexplicable shower rape scene to further a revenge plot that leads nowhere. Terrible.
17. 10,000 BC (2008)
If there is one thing Roland Emmerich can do, it's build an entire film solely on a desire to play with CGI. 10,000 BC showcases this tendency at its most shameless. Stampeding mammoths threaten dreadlock sporting humans in a rescue story that could only be half-salvaged if narrated by Sir Richard Attenborough.
16. Stonewall (2015)
To give Emmerich some credit, there are only a handful of directors who could get their hands on an interesting piece of history like this and turn it into something so dull. This coming-of-age film told against the backdrop of the Stonewall riots elicits no emotional connection and, by the time the credits finally roll, half of it has already slipped the mind.
15. Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)
Independence Day: Resurgence should be used as an example to illustrate why a director should never put his most beloved work on the line by risking a shabby, unnecessary sequel. Released twenty years after Independence Day, this half-hearted attempt at tugging the strings of nostalgia is a drab endeavour that not even Judd Hirsch driving a school bus through the desert could save.
14. Hollywood Monster (Ghost Chase) (1987)
The first entry in this list to reference Emmerich’s love of George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and all 80s sci-fi features a cursed knock-off butler Yoda as the spirit who guides a film crew working through a haunted mansion. Despite being unremarkable as a whole, this cheap-looking homage to the golden era of Lucasfilm turns out to be fairly – surprisingly? – entertaining.
13. Anonymous (2011)
The lack of handwritten writings left by William Shakespeare leads Anonymous to wonder: was the most performed playwright of all-time a fake? Set during the succession of Queen Elizabeth I, this period dramedy is competent but mostly lukewarm. Even though it benefits from an array of British talent such as David Thewlis, Vanessa Redgrave and Rhys Ifans, the final result never comes close to doing justice to its stellar cast. It does, however, strike some brilliance by casting the criminally overlooked Rafe Spall as Shakespeare, so not all is lost.
12. The Noah’s Ark Principle (1984)
After gathering twenty times the budget of a typical graduation film, Emmerich set out to direct his first feature while still at university. An achievement in production design, The Noah’s Ark Principle is the blueprint for what the German director’s career would become – an emotionally constipated exercise in sci-fi that threatens to engage in political critique yet never fully commits to its initial musings.
11. Midway (2019)
It’s fitting that Midway stands… well, midway through this list. One of the most expensive independent films ever made with a budget of around $100 million, this retelling of World War II's infamous Battle of Midway is a technical feast that took Emmerich years to get off the ground. Alas, the visuals are pretty much all there is to this pedestrian war flick, its characters so unbearably lifeless one can’t bother too much about their tragic deaths. At least we get a leading performance from the great but often neglected Ed Skrein, not to mention a finger-waving, cigar-smoking Nick Jonas being tossed out of a massive warship.
10. The Patriot (2000)
A film that places Jason Isaacs and Heath Ledger as sword-carrying enemies benefits from quite the head start and The Patriot indubitably makes the most of its macho energy. One more title to be added to the Bad Redcoats Troupe, the film questions the morality of pacifism as citizens gather to fight against the English for their independence during the Revolutionary War. Of course, at the mention of the mighty Brits a flag-waving Mel Gibson à la Braveheart turns up to save the day. While The Patriot delivers a wider emotional range than the vast majority of Emmerich’s work, it is certainly a film that has aged poorly, particularly in its glorification of some of America’s most nefarious traits.
9. 2012 (2009)
Puzzlingly released in the year 2009, this movie about a Mayan doomsday prophecy of the year 2012 is quite the ludicrous potpourri. You have stern John Cusack as a failed sci-fi writer, Woody Harrelson as a mad conspiracy theorist slash radio host, and a purse dog named Caesar with more screen time than Danny Glover. Shamelessly leaning into apocalypse movie parody, what starts as a promising blockbuster pushes its luck by drawing out every single possible cliché to fit its whopping 158 minute runtime. Nevertheless, this over-stretched spectacle is good for giggles and always painstakingly aware of the fact it doesn’t need to take itself too seriously.
8. Moonfall (2022)
The ultimate pastiche, Emmerich’s latest is a regurgitation of the director’s previous work spiked with some of the greatest hits of 2010s sci-fi. There are the panicked NASA agents, the manic conspiracy theorist who likely has a popular profile on Reddit, and a cataclysmic impending disaster ready to destroy the Earth. Here, however, the filmmaker veers into sci-fi’s inherent affair with the existential to create a truly bonkers backstory for the inception of the Moon. With dialogue that makes the eyes roll right to the back of the skull and acting that makes Tommy Wiseau seem like Daniel Day-Lewis, this foolish space fair is at least never tedious and, when all is done and dusted, one could never truly hate a movie in which the words “Fuck the Moon” are spray-painted on the side of a big old rocket.
7. Stargate (1994)
A cryptic ancient portal found in Egypt allows shaggy-haired James Spader and crew-cut army Colonel Kurt Russell to travel through space. At the other end of the wormhole is Abydos, a planet that much resembles early Egyptian society, an indication that – perhaps – extraterrestrial beings were somewhat connected to the establishment of human civilisation. Adventure quest mixed with sci-fi yarn mixed with action thriller, Stargate is often aimless but rarely unambitious, an epic that could have greatly benefited from a merciless chop at the editing room but is not without some flair. Very much a product of the time, the film stumbles upon the cringe here and there and flirts with the outright distasteful but, all in all, it's a sincere blockbuster led by a charming if unfocused Spader performance.
6. Godzilla (1998)
The first instalment of the Godzilla franchise to be entirely produced by a Hollywood studio, Emmerich’s reimagining of the most famous of all big lizards might be condemned by hardcore fans of the Toho original, yet looked upon as a standalone film, it remains a greatly entertaining blockbuster. Drawing inspiration (to put it mildly) from the success of Jurassic Park (once again feeding into the filmmaker’s love of Spielberg), the film focuses more on the beast's reptilian aspects, particularly on how Godzilla's ability to reproduce asexually threatens the human race. Although it heavily banks on the charisma of Matthew Broderick as the geeky leading man, the true laurel of Godzilla lies in Jean Reno as a French Secret Service agent who is even sneakier than the massive lizard. Très magnifique.
5. Joey (Making Contact) (1985)
Joey (also known as Making Contact) is far from Emmerich at his most refined and light-years away from the seemingly bottomless budgets that have given the director the opportunity to destroy entire worlds. Yet, this wholehearted fantasy pays a loving tribute to all of the cinematic institutions that inspire the work of the German filmmaker. Think Spielberg (once again) with a drop of Tobe Hooper by way of George Lucas and you get this earnest tale of a boy who believes he can still communicate with his recently deceased dad when in fact he's speaking to a ventriloquist puppet possessed by a demon. At just 80 minutes long, this Frankenstein of 80s tropes is uncompromising fun, perfect for an easy Sunday afternoon watch.
4. Universal Soldier (1992)
Nothing screams “90s!” like big foreign hunks going through an existential crisis with the aid of military-grade weapons. In that sense, Universal Soldier is the sub-genre at its best. Action icons Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren go head-to-head as the U.S. Army attempts to cover up the titular operation, a secret program that sees dead soldiers killed in Vietnam brought back to life as ruthless puppets. From Van Damme asking “What accent?” in a thick French accent when questioned about his origins to a delightful diner-based brawl, Universal Soldier is unadulterated, batshit crazy fun, encapsulated beautifully by its all-timer of a tagline: “The ultimate weapons of the future have just declared war… on each other.”
3. White House Down (2013)
Channing Tatum blowing the White House to the ground in a sweaty vest is as cool as modern action movies can get and White House Down knows it. A joyful blast of action, this thriller sees Tatum stripping down to fight a group of reckless baddies let loose in the West Wing. Unlike some of Emmerich’s earlier affairs, White House Down is not so much pastiche as a delicious exercise in self-acclaim (an earlier passerby exclaims “Just like in Independence Day!” when the Capitol goes down). Jamie Foxx has the time of his life as the President, Maggie Gyllenhaal takes a charming turn as the Secret Service love interest, and king of supporting roles Richard Jenkins aids the unsurprising plot twist. Tatum, whose innate comedic talents were put on full display the year prior with 21 Jump Street and Magic Mike, is in full gun-swinging-himbo mode and we are all the better for it.
2. Independence Day (1996)
Emmerich’s magnum opus and perhaps the most unabashedly American sci-fi movie of all time, Independence Day marks the apex of “propagaintment.” Extraterrestrials aptly arrive on Earth two days before the 4th of July, leading the U.S. to fight for its independence once more. This time, the combat is conducted through a combination of mass weaponry and strategic coding, embodied by the diagonal opposites Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum, the former a Marine pilot, the latter a satellite engineer. A guileless pageant of epic proportions with little regard for scientific accuracy but a whole lot of love for mindless pleasure, Independence Day rightfully revolutionised the sci-fi action genre, its imagery burnt on the collective consciousness and replicated time and time again by its successors – though rarely as successfully.
1. The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
Disaster movies don’t get much better than this, which sees young Jake Gyllenhaal and Emmy Rossum cuddling for warmth inside a depleted New York Central Library as the world freezes following the catastrophic ripples of climate change. Released two years before Al Gore’s eye-opening documentary An Inconvenient Truth, Emmerich’s greatest achievement is a trailblazer in its exploration of climate-related doomsday and shows an unprecedented penchant for originality from a filmmaker whose career was built on parody. Furthermore, it marks a clear progression in the way the director lays out political critique – still clunky but noticeably more developed as protagonist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) stands up against world leaders’ lethal lethargy over the dangers of rampant capitalism. Flashy visual effects are used not only to enhance tension but also to aid emotional catharsis, the relationships between the characters brought to the forefront as time is properly dedicated to explore their most urgent yearnings and deepest fears. The film is beautiful, too, with whites and blues turning Earth into an amorphous mass that is just as peaceful as it is harrowing. It is, undoubtedly, Emmerich at his best.
Moonfall is in UK cinemas from 4 February.