Let us talk about filmmaker Roland Emmerich. Born in Germany, but with the bulk of his career spent in the USA, he is the director of numerous big-budget films including Independence Day (1996), Godzilla (1997), and The Patriot (2000).
Emmerich is big on visual effects-driven spectacle, and over the decades has developed a reputation for huge, explosive disaster movies. While he demolished New York in Godzilla and blew up the White House in Independence Day, Emmerich really hit his destructive stride with a string of epic apocalypses in The Day After Tomorrow (2007), 2012 (2012), and his upcoming Moonfall (2022). In the past decade or so he has also started to dabble in smaller scale, more intimate projects like Anonymous (2011) and Stonewall (2015).
And here’s the thing. A quick Google search tells me that Emmerich has directed 17 feature films between 1984 and 2019. Of the 11 that I have personally seen I have really enjoyed six of them, and of the remaining five I only actively disliked Independence Day. Despite this I honestly believe Roland Emmerich is a terrible filmmaker. So why do I – and, it must be said, millions of filmgoers around the world – find it so easy to enjoy his work? Isn’t that a clear signal that I am wrong? I don’t believe so, and here is why.
Let’s focus on Stargate (1994), Emmerich’s unexpectedly successful science fiction adventure, written and co-produced with his former creative partner Dean Devlin. It follows Colonel Jack O’Neil (Kurt Russell) and archaeologist Daniel Jackson (James Spader) as they pass through a mysterious ‘stargate’ to find a colony of ancient Egyptians still living under the thrall of the mysterious alien despot Ra (Jaye Davidson). While its success never led to a sequel, it did inspire a 350-episode television franchise led by the 10-season Stargate SG-1.
I have an awful lot of fun whenever I watch Stargate (the film; I never warmed to the TV stuff). At the same time I can never quite shake the feeling that there is something not quite right about it. I have never really put time into thinking about it until now, but there has always been a slight dissatisfaction at the back of my mind. Here’s what I think it is: Emmerich doesn’t direct good films. What he directs are good impressions of films.
It is mostly about plot structure, to be honest, in that Stargate sort of doesn’t have one. There is a traditional three-act narrative there – unlocking the Stargate, exploring the other side of the gate, fighting Ra to get back through to Earth – but the problem is that the opening act on Earth feels too brief to fulfil its structural purpose, and what is supposed to be the end of that act – entering the Stargate – instinctively feels more like an inciting incident. What does all of this mean? For me, at least, it means that Stargate feels like a two-act film. O’Neil’s team arrive through the Stargate, leave back to Earth again, and the credits roll. There’s a strange lack of complexity throughout.
Then there is the lack of characterisation: people in the film tend to act in particular ways not because they suit a defined personality but because that it what other characters in similar movies do. O’Neil begins the film suicidally depressed, until the plot requires him not to be. Similarly, he is fully planning to follow his orders and detonate a nuclear weapon on the other side of the gate – until the plot requires him to not follow those orders at all. James Spader is stuck playing ‘bookish nerd’ as an archetype; the only reason Jackson and O’Neil have much appeal at all is because they’re played by such strong actors. Elsewhere in the cast, the characters are not quite so lucky. Ra, played by The Crying Game‘s stunningly attractive Jaye Davidson, is essentially an angry prop.
The action is directed effectively, but not exceptionally. The design work is very attractive and stylish, and David Arnold foreshadow a long and successful career with his old-fashioned, bombastic musical score. It is simply all bundled together atop a critically weak foundation.
This is Emmerich’s work in a nutshell. His disaster films are wonderful exercises in devastating eye candy, but they are filled with A-list actors covering up for D-list characters. The films always seem either half an hour too short – like Stargate – or a solid half-hour too long. The stories are never dictated by their characters, but rather the characters act however they need to in order to motivate the story. They seem like the Hollywood equivalent of Diet Coke; except in this case drinking the full sugar kind every time isn’t going to give you diabetes, and you may as well step past the Emmerich versions and stick to full strength.
By all means enjoy Stargate. I certainly do, as I do The Day After Tomorrow, Godzilla, and even his incredibly flawed historical epic The Patriot. Do not fall into the trap of thinking it is something that it’s not, and remember to always balance your movie diet between sawdust pulp and the real thing. Emmerich’s unsteady brand of easy commercial routines has its place, but it is never going to move beyond it.