Born in West Germany in 1955, Roland Emmerich tried sculpting and painting before enrolling in film school in Munich. If anyone suspects that his early, German films are better than his Hollywood, for-the-masses disaster films, they're in for a disappointment. The good news is that, ironically, Emmerich's career shows an increasing responsibility toward social issues, as well as a love for the underdog. And even more surprisingly, his newest film Anonymous -- which opens October 28 -- is so far pleasing the critics. Here's a look back at his long, successful, and quasi-prestigious career.
The Noah's Ark Principle (1984)
Emmerich's feature debut -- his student film -- already suggests a preoccupation with science-fiction destruction. The story has a couple of astronauts circling in a space station, killing time and using radiation to alter the weather. Unfortunately they become pawns in a serious war game that could mean the end of Civilization as we know it. Much of the action focuses on the astronauts' boredom, which echoes John Carpenter's similar low-budget debut, Dark Star (1974).
This follow-up veered away from disasters, instead focusing on a nine year-old boy. This horror/fantasy was probably leaning toward E.T. and other, similar movies of its day. When his father dies, the boy suddenly begins acting strange, including talking to his father on his red toy phone. There's also a dummy that walks and talks and a portal to another world. Also known as Making Contact.
Ghost Chase (1987)
Emmerich's third movie was a German-American co-production. The plot has something to do with a spirit that lives inside a grandfather clock in an old Hollywood mansion. When a movie company comes to film, the spirit takes over the body of an alien (?) and tries to resolve its unfinished business on earth. Also known as Hollywood Monster.
Moon 44 (1990)
It's back to outer space, and this time Emmerich cast his first big stars, Michael Pare and Malcolm McDowell. It takes place in 2038, when Earth's natural resources are depleted and mining companies violently compete for the rights to ore-rich moons. One sends convicts into space to help defend the valuable ore. An undercover agent named Felix Stone (Pare) goes along to find evidence against a rival company and solve the mystery of some missing robots.
Universal Soldier (1992)
After four movies, Emmerich received his first Hollywood assignment, directing the all-important, long-awaited team-up between Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren. They play dead Vietnam soldiers who are brought back to life with robot technology and proceed to try to blow each other to smithereens. Ally Walker plays a reporter who accompanies good guy Van Damme on the ride.
Emmerich was still in "B" movie territory here, casting Kurt Russell as his hero, though he did also get to work with future Oscar nominee Djimon Hounsou. It's one of those sci-fi movies that starts with an idea -- a portal that leads to another planet that looks just like ancient Egypt with locals worshipping the sun god Ra (Jaye Davidson) -- and ends with a horrendous battle and lots of explosions.
Independence Day (1996)
Emmerich graduated to the Hollywood "A" list with this one, a $300 million phenomenon whose ad campaign featured an image of the White House exploding. It's your basic all-star alien invasion disaster movie, but bigger, louder and more expensive. It established Will Smith as the box office hero of the summer movie season. Bill Pullman played the very hands-on U.S. president, and Jeff Goldblum is the geeky scientist that helps save the day.
Given carte blanche, Emmerich chose to make a big-budget Hollywood version of the classic Japanese monster, probably spending more money on this one movie than was spent on all the other Gojira movies combined. This time the French (!) are responsible for creating the monster with their nuclear tests.
The Patriot (2000)
Next, Emmerich set out to make a Serious Drama of Historical Importance. Mel Gibson stars as a peaceful South Carolina farmer during the American Revolution. When an evil British officer begins to torment his sons, he takes up arms and forms a new regiment of patriots. Heath Ledger co-stars. Reviews were mixed, but not bad. The film received three Oscar nominations (Cinematography, Score, and Sound).
The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
After a pause to produce Eight Legged Freaks (2002), it was back to big-time disaster movies, although this one with a plea for environmental care. After global warming causes freak weather all over the world, including deadly cold temperatures in New York and Washington D.C., a father (Dennis Quaid) and son (Jake Gyllenhaal) try to survive various setbacks and find each other. Stills from this movie were tweeted during Hurricane Irene last August, goofing on the end of the world.
10,000 BC (2008)
Though this prehistoric effort made $96 million, it did not make back its production costs. It's about an outcast caveman who becomes a hero when he battles an evil tribe -- as well as prehistoric beasties -- and rescues a kidnapped princess (Camilla Belle). The movie did not make a star out of Steven Strait as the lead, hunky caveman.
Another number title... this one goes back to the tried-and-true disaster formula, but based on the real-life Mayan calendar that says the world will end in 2012. Emmerich conjures up terrible things to impede the progress of his ensemble cast (John Cusack, Amanda Peet, etc.) as the world is torn asunder. Then the selfish, short-sighted humans fight over space on the huge rescue arks.
Though the subject matter may not appeal to the masses, critics are lauding Emmerich's latest. This intriguing story of who actually may have written William Shakespeare's oeuvre is filled with backstabbing and betrayal, and some ferocious performances by Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, Rafe Spall, and others.
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