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Roland Emmerich Is the True King of Explosions

The director of ‘Independence Day’ hasn’t been memed as much as Michael Bay, but his films are just as absurd

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2020’s summer blockbuster season has been put on hold because of the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the movies from the past that we flocked out of the sun and into air conditioning for. Welcome to The Ringer’s Return to Summer Blockbuster Season, where we’ll feature different summer classics each week.

It can be hard to square why I hate Michael Bay movies so much, but somehow don’t feel anywhere near the same level of disdain for the work of Roland Emmerich. The filmmakers are, for better or worse—well, mostly worse—two sides of the same coin as Hollywood’s preeminent orchestrators of destruction. Alfonso Cuarón might be a master of the tracking shot, but no one blows shit up quite like Bay and Emmerich. If they had calling cards, they’d be made out of C4; it should come as no surprise they’ve both tackled Pearl Harbor.

When directly comparing the two, it doesn’t help that Bay’s movies often look like they’ve been edited by a sentient Adderall pill—nor that the director is a certifiable creep. (It’s instructive that the best films in the Transformers and Bad Boys franchises just so happen to be the ones he didn’t direct and that the closest Bay has ever gotten to making something outside his usual wheelhouse is ... Pain & Gain.) Meanwhile, Emmerich has achieved notoriety for the many ways he’s imagined our planet getting reamed: climate change, alien invasion (twice!), ancient Mayan prophecies, Godzilla. All that’s missing is good, old-fashioned nuclear armageddon, though I don’t want to give him any more ideas.

Emmerich has certainly earned the reputation as a dude who can’t stop watching the world burn, but his blockbusters didn’t always strike the same chord too many times. Independence Day might deservedly be the gold standard of disaster epics, but it’s Emmerich’s two films that preceded it in the ’90s—Universal Soldier and Stargate—that highlight his capacity to entertain on a more self-aware and slightly less apocalyptic scale, and being all the better for it.

My introduction to 1992’s Universal Soldier was a vague description from a colleague of Jean-Claude Van Damme eating a bunch of mashed potatoes and inadvertently starting a huge brawl in a diner—a setup that, honestly, sells itself. Thankfully, the rest of Universal Soldier carries that energy from an admirably batshit premise: The U.S. government has a secret military program to create super-soldiers from veterans deemed to be missing in action from previous wars whose corpses were cryogenically frozen and genetically modified. Two of these soldiers, private Luc Deveraux (Van Damme) and sergeant Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren), shot up one another in the Vietnam War after Scott went full Colonel Kurtz, slaughtering his own men and wearing chopped off ears around his neck.

As grisly of a setup as that sounds, Universal Soldier is all B-movie nonsense. After Deveraux escapes the military program alongside a journalist, Emmerich’s film basically turns into a fish-out-of-water comedy. The robotic Deveraux doesn’t grasp social cues so he ends up walking around butt naked, is unaware you might have to pay for all the food you eat (see: the mashed potato diner incident), and since his super-soldier body is liable to overheating he constantly has to dump himself in a bunch of ice to recharge. Van Damme’s appeal as a star was never, with all due respect, his acting, but here he excels at physical comedy and deadpan line readings like, “I just want to eat.” (And, of course, he’s good at kicking people in the face.)

Universal Soldier was Emmerich’s proper introduction to American audiences after starting out in his native Germany, and the franchise has now found a second life with some genuinely excellent VOD sequels that look like they’ve been tossed into an arthouse blender. But there’s a lot to love about the filmmaker’s winking Terminator-esque knockoff. It would be easy to dismiss Universal Soldier as dumb blockbuster cheese, but it knows what it is: Frankly, the choice to turn muscly action stars with limited range like Van Damme and Lundgren into, effectively, robots is nothing short of genius.

Emmerich’s follow-up, 1994’s Stargate, is endearingly silly in a much different way. An early screening of the film was such a mess that test audiences hated it and didn’t know what the hell was going on. (What I would give to get my hands on a copy of that cut.) That sentiment still applies to the final version if you give Stargate’s premise more than a few seconds of scrutiny—after all, it’s a film about [deep breath, puts down bong] the U.S. government opening an intergalactic portal to another world where you find out an ancient alien was responsible for helping human civilization create the pyramids of Egypt and then worshipped as the sun god, Ra. (James Spader signed onto the film, in part, because he couldn’t believe how awful yet intriguing the script was.)

You can point to several blockbusters from the ’90s and lament that Hollywood doesn’t make ’em like they used to, but Stargate’s bonkers worldbuilding has endured. Stargate has been properly franchised with additional films, three TV shows, a web series, an animated series, and even video games. All born out of “what if aliens helped us build the pyramids?” which itself has been memed into oblivion thanks to the Ancient Aliens guy. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the Stargate empire is that Emmerich has yet to return to the intergalactic sandbox he helped create—then again, that’s when the filmmaker got a proper taste for the apocalyptic.

Going from Stargate to Independence Day, and from a single alien posing as an Egyptian deity on another planet to an entire species blowing up the White House, was Emmerich reaching his apex. I could never write a single bad thing about Independence Day: It’s an iconographic masterpiece of chaos, playful self-awareness, and an all-time great movie speech from President Bill Pullman. But at what cost?

Emmerich’s post–Independence Day filmography is, ironically, a disaster: a series of destructive misfires (Godzilla; The Day After Tomorrow; 2012; White House Down, the Independence Day sequel we hope to forget), bland historical epics (The Patriot, 10,000 BC, Midway), and box office flops (Anonymous, Stonewall). Emmerich has more ambitious failures on his résumé than most good directors have total films, a legendarily bad streak of ignominy. Stonewall, which whitewashed a historical moment for LGBTQ rights, is a particularly damning failure.

There is at least some glimmer of self-awareness from Emmerich about his work: He made 2012 in part because he realized audiences were getting more cynical about humanity’s self-destructive nature. (It’s certainly a less triumphant film than Independence Day, less about saving the day than mere survival.) But understanding what’s appealing about his disaster movies doesn’t excuse the lack of imagination Emmerich has shown in the 21st century. Emmerich would do well to acknowledge his own privilege this century: An impressive string of bad films has yet to land him in Director Jail, where more talented (and frequently nonwhite or female) filmmakers have been tossed for far fewer critical or commercial failures. And if Emmerich is going to keep this kind of output going into the 2020s, the least he could do is return to what put him on the map in the first place: objectively silly films that care about a winking sense of humor as much as blowing shit up. Besides, there are plenty of movies out there copping his destructive style, not all of which are directed by Michael Bay.

If this chaotic auteur is ever going to get his groove back, I know where to start. The ’90s trio of Universal Soldier, Stargate, and Independence Day isn’t exactly going to find itself in the Criterion Collection, but as gleeful displays of B-movie cheese and blockbuster showmanship, it’s a reminder that the future of Emmerich’s career wouldn’t be a total lost cause if he went back into his own vault. Someone get the mashed potatoes.