Directors’ Trademarks: Roland Emmerich

When I think of Roland Emmerich, I think of the man that single-handedly resurrected and then destroyed a lost cinema genre (the disaster film). Emmerich’s most successful film, Independence Day (1996) ignited audience’s thirst for big-budget special-effects-laden blockbusters, and also redefined what a disaster movie could be for the 1990’s. Other film makers followed (Armageddon (1998), Deep Impact (1998), Volcano (1997), The Core (2003)), in an attempt to cash in on audience’s renewed thirst for destruction.  Emmerich has made no attempt to cover up his fondness for such films. He has said that his favorite films include The Poseidon Adventure (1972), and The Towering Inferno (1974). Therefore, he decided to make three more; Godzilla (1998), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), and 2012 (2009) were his attempts at repeating the same formula of making a disaster global in scale and then basing a movie on the results. Unfortunately for Emmerich, audiences’ patience for similar-themed films and minimal plotlines wore thin, and he hasn’t had a hit since.

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Although Emmerich is best known for his penchant for making new-era disaster movies, his career is actually pretty varied. His career started with several German films before he started making low-budget science-fiction and fantasy-themed English language movies, including 1985’s Joey,1987’s Ghost Chase, and 1990’s Moon 44. Emmerich’s budgets increased with each production and he had his first minor hit with 1992’s Universal Soldier. This film showed his aptitude as director towards action-focused films, especially in the realm of science fiction. Therefore, he got another chance and delivered with another small hit in Stargate (1994). He followed with his era of disaster films, pausing in between to film The Patriot (2000), and 10,000 BC (2008). After The Patriot, which received a fair amount of critical appreciation and commercial success, his films just couldn’t get any traction. His latest theatrical release was 2011’s Anonymous, which was a huge box office bust. Up next, Emmerich tries to return to his action-film heyday with White House Down.  

So the question posed is, if you are watching a Emmerich film and you don’t know it, what are the things to look for that would identify it as such? Here are five of Emmerich’s trademarks as director, in no particular order.

Lead Character Duties Shared by Several Characters

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Emmerich’s films often have multiple storylines happening at the same time. These storylines each usually involve one character who would be considered the “main” character of each story. Although there may be a true lead character these “main” characters share the screen time. Often their stories all intersect but the characters don’t necessarily have to meet each other. Even in his films with one main storyline it is sometimes not enough to determine who the lead character is based on screen time. Frequently there are two characters who share this responsibility.

Father/Son Themes

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Most of Emmerich’s films feature a father and son as characters, or at least a theme of a young man trying to show his worth to his elders. The main character can be either the son or the father. Either way they both have some sort of issue with each other. For example, in Independence Day David and his father are constantly arguing, in The Patriot Gabriel joins the Continental Army against his father’s wishes, and in The Day After Tomorrow the film’s story is derived from Jack trying to rescue his son from New York City when disaster strikes.

The Number “44”

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This is an Easter egg in Emmerich’s films. As homage to his film Moon 44, Emmerich likes to hide the number “44” in most of his later films. The “44” can be obvious, or hidden, and is often featured multiple times. In Godzilla, the cab that is featured is number “44”. In Independence Day channel “44” is shown frequently, a number in a jet fighter’s cockpit is “440”, and at the end of the film there is a fire coming from a downed alien ship that looks like a “44”. In Stargate a probe that is used is “Model 44”.

Zoom Death Shot

If the film features a main antagonist, they will die at some point in the climax, typically in an extraordinary or very dramatic fashion. When this character dies, Emmerich likes to zoom in on their eyes as they show a frightened expression. Even when there isn’t a main antagonist, Emmerich likes to use this technique on ordinary bad guys too.  

Preposterous Plots

 

Perhaps the biggest reason that Emmerich’s films have had such a varied amount of success is that he isn’t afraid of re-writing history or altering the laws of physics in order to make things more entertaining on-screen. Furthermore, in his more action-packed films, Emmerich’s characters often barely escape from dangerous situations that in real life would surely mean certain death. Also, Emmerich’s films typically involve some sort of scheme hatched by the main character(s) in order to save themselves or kill their adversary (sometimes both). This plan is usually quite ridiculous but always manages to works. 

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Managing editor. Fascinated by the history of film. "Film can teach us just as well as it can entertain us, and the things we learn from film can be much more beneficial to our lives than the short-term entertainment we extract from it."