Roland Emmerich's Obsession With Destruction Films

Courtney Coleman


Roland Emmerich made his American directorial debut in 1987 with a sci-fi comedy film called "Ghost Chase". His next two American films, 1992's "Universal Soldier" and 1994's "Stargate" gave Emmerich the blueprint he needed in order to take over the box office. “Stargate” especially was a huge success, eventually becoming one of the biggest science -fiction franchises, leading to sequels, television shows, comic books, and video games.


His early light science-fiction films garnered him much attention in Hollywood, but nothing compared to the 1996 blockbuster "Independence Day" (which also put Will Smith on the map as a blockbuster film star). Two years later, his film "Godzilla" topped the groundbreaking visual effects of "Independence Day", further proving the quality of his films. "The Patriot" (2000), a great historical piece set in the time of the American Revolution, traded widespread terror from aliens and monsters for widespread blood and gore.


Emmerich returned to the science fiction disaster film with "The Day After Tomorrow" in 2004, this time basing the chaos around global warming instead of some supernatural being. Regardless of the minimal subplots surrounding a broken father-son relationship and the son's inability to tell his friend how he really feels about her, most of the film vividly illustrates what most of the world would look like during and after natural disasters of this caliber. In a May 28 2004 critique of the film, Roger Ebert wrote that, "The special effects are on such an awesome scale that the movie works despite its cornball plotting. When tornados rip apart Los Angeles (not sparing the Hollywood sign), when a wall of water roars into New York, when a Russian tanker floats down a Manhattan street, when snow buries skyscrapers, when the crew of a space station can see nothing but violent storm systems -- well, you pay attention."

In 2008, Emmerich steered away from destruction films with the big-budget pre-historic adventure film "10,000 BC", but went right back to catastrophes, this time in the most extravagant way yet, with 2009's disaster film "2012". The visual effects of "Godzilla" were great for its time, and "The Day After Tomorrow" made viewers feel as though they were experiencing it all firsthand, but nothing quite reached the level that "2012" did in creating a more than lifelike display of world destruction largely based off of natural causes. "2012" brought about a fear that was all too real at the time, however. In retrospect, the belief in a Mayan-calculated world demise at the end of the year 2012 was foolish, but at the time of the film, it was widely believed. Combined with the visual effects and the heart-racing action, "2012" made for a terrifying two-and-a-half hours, even with weak subplots and an ending that didn't seem plausible.


In all of Emmerich's disaster films, what saved them were the effects, and the real-life landmarks that were destroyed in the process. In "Independence Day", we saw the White House's annihilation with one beam. In "Godzilla", a large lizard causes Madison Square Garden to be blown up, and the Brooklyn Bridge and much of New York City are torn apart. "The Day After Tomorrow" showed us the White House and the Statue of Liberty buried under snow caused by accelerated global climate changes. "2012" had the audience witnessing the takedown of well-recognized landmarks from across the globe, one by one, caused by everything from massive earthquakes to tsunamis. Emmerich, being German-born, obviously has no fear in destroying American landmarks onscreen, and has even said as much in interviews.


Months before “White House Down” premiered in theaters, another White House-based drama, "Olympus Has Fallen", was released. The similarities are clear: a secret service agent (in "Olympus has Fallen", Gerard Butler; in "White House Down", Channing Tatum) has to save the president (Aaron Eckhart in "Olympus Has Fallen"; Jamie Foxx in "White House Down"), and ultimately his country from a terrorist attack.

What makes "White House Down" unique within Emmerich's more chaotic films is that something beyond human control is not the reason for the destruction. Terrorism, never really explored in a Emmerich film before, is something that is a harsh reality for American viewers. Usually his films, because of the quality of the special effects, can seem very realistic, but with less than realistic forces driving the story. Now, with a human face behind the destruction, a new level of terror arises while watching the film.


Emmerich is obviously obsessed with this category of films, and with good reason, because this genre often equals big numbers at the box office. Regardless of dialogue and plot, people flock to the movies to see these films, as they have with "White House Down.”


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