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An earthquake sends Los Angeles sliding into the sea. An alien superweapon obliterates the White House (and several other landmarks) in spectacular fashion. Godzilla, uh, dodges some missiles that end up destroying the Chrysler Building. Whatever the disaster is, it’s a pretty safe bet that Roland Emmerich is involved.
The German director has a knack for destroying cities in elaborate and thrilling ways, often upping the stakes each time he returns to the disaster movie genre. Having already tackled kaiju, alien invasions, freak weather, and a world-ending Mayan prophecy, Emmerich’s latest disaster movie is the logical next step: The moon attacks the earth. Moonfall, now in theaters, might be the most ridiculous disaster movie he’s made so far, but how does it stack up compared to his other blockbusters? To celebrate the release of Moonfall, SYFY WIRE has dug through the rubble and ranked all of Emmerich’s disaster movies.
This list does not rank every movie that Emmerich has directed — just the ones that can be classified as “disaster movies.” This means that action movies that lack the same sort of destructive stakes, like Stargate or The Patriot, are not eligible. Emmerich-directed movies that were themselves disasters, like the critically reviled Stonewall, are also not eligible.
6. Moonfall (2022)
Moonfall has nothing on how crestfallen I was when I watched Moonfall and realized, with soul-crushing sadness, that Moonfall is very bad.
It’s not like anybody was expecting Moonfall to be Citizen Kane, but the tragedy of Moonfall is that, for a movie about the moon falling into the Earth, Moonfall frequently seems to forget that the moon is falling into the Earth. The characters — none of whom have the charisma of Emmerich’s greatest disaster protagonists — seem to be largely unbothered by the incoming moon and are blase about imminent lunar death. Patrick Wilson’s character is more concerned with getting his teenage son out of jail than the fact that he needs to fly into space to stop the moon or else his son’s imprisonment will be kind of a moot point. Multiple characters flee to “Colorado,” as if the moon will simply miss Aspen. The moon causes gravitational chaos on a flyby and then characters will kinda just forget about it until it completes its orbit and they get surprised again.
It’s not like we come to these types of movies because we want to seriously grapple with feelings of pointless despair as we watch the apocalypse. But, in order for us as an audience to feel anything about the destruction we’re seeing on the screen — whether that be sadness or glee — we need to have a sense that the destruction is a real threat. Moonfall is sadly lacking on good sequences of gratuitous planetary destruction and the characters seem unbothered by the falling moon, so why should the audience get excited about any of this? Moonfall didn’t need to do much in order to be a success. It needed to make a big dumb spectacle out of the moon crashing into the Earth. It failed, and please believe me when I say that nobody is more upset about this than me.
John Bradley’s character has a cat named “Fuzz Aldrin,” which I did like.
5. Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)
Spoiler alert: Independence Day is the No. 1 movie on this list because it is also — and I cannot tell if I’m being ironic about this or not — the greatest movie ever made. So, why is its sequel the second-worst of Emmerich’s disaster movies? It would be easy (and not altogether inaccurate) to say it’s because Will Smith isn’t in this one, but that’s really a symptom of a larger problem. If you’re going to make a sequel, 20 years later, to a beloved blockbuster, it should feel like it has a reason to exist. Independence Day: Resurgence never distinguishes itself this way, and the fact that Smith’s character is killed off-screen, rather than deal with the budgeting or scheduling conflicts that prevented his return, speak to the hollowness of the effort.
Resurgence feels off, compared to the original. It tries to go bigger, but larger ships, high-tech weaponry, and battling the same alien species — while a spherical alien intelligence tries to recruit humanity for a war on the Harvesters' homeworld — just don't have the same simple allure of ID4’s classic alien invasion. The new characters aren’t nearly as memorable as the original’s, and the familiar faces that aren’t killed offscreen don’t have enough to do. Also, with all due respect to Maika Monroe, who is wonderful in the modern horror classic It Follows, it’s pretty messed up that they recast the President's daughter played in the original film by Mae Whitman.
4. Godzilla (1998)
The giant monster genre has a lot of overlap with the disaster movie genre, but kaiju films have their own specific tropes and hallmarks, too. Emmerich and producer-writer Dean Devlin clearly had no interest in making a giant monster movie, calling it a “dopey idea” and eventually deciding to throw away everything about the original Godzilla and instead set out to make their 1998 flop its own thing. Godzilla might have worked on that level if they’d just used the basic premise to make a disaster movie, but Godzilla really fails because it’s hardly a disaster movie. It’s a bad Jurassic Park movie, just with a bigger T. rex and Baby Godzillas subbing in for velociraptors.
Godzilla has several other things going against it. The CGI does not hold up in the slightest. The mayor of New York City is an unflattering parody of Roger Ebert, an unbelievably petty and not-funny decision. Inexplicably, Godzilla is a live-action Simpsons reunion, as three members of the core cast — Hank Azaria, Harry Shearer, and Nancy Cartwright — have starring roles. Matthew Broderick delivers most of his lines with the energy of somebody who is lazily reading the script aloud to himself in his trailer for the first time. It’s a bad movie, but at least the soundtrack, which includes a “Godzilla Remix” of Green Day’s “Brain Stew” that’s just the original song, but with some Godzilla roars layered in, kinda whips.
3. The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
The Day After Tomorrow is good, unlike the first three entries on this list. It’s just not the best Emmerich can do when it comes to wanton destruction. The 2004 film turns the real threat of climate change into an exaggerated disaster and it does away with subtlety when it comes to all of its other metaphors, too. Making it so that Americans are the ones who need to illegally cross the border into Mexico is more forced than it is clever, and the climate deniers are comically obtuse and evil.
As a metaphor, The Day After Tomorrow is both going too far and not trying hard enough, but that can be forgiven with setpieces like a Manhattan-flooding tsunami and a gang of tornados destroying Los Angeles. The ending doesn’t quite live up to the destruction that precedes it, as Emmerich and Co. don’t quite make “burning books to stay warm enough to not freeze to death” as dramatic or visually interesting as the more overt weather disasters earlier in the film. Still, watching The Day After Tomorrow is a pretty fun way to kill an afternoon and also a planet.
2. 2012 (2009)
2012, a movie that came out in the year 2009, is an incredible paradox. On the one hand, Emmerich is throwing disaster spaghetti at the screen, using a (fake) Mayan prophecy about the end of the world to make every sort of maximalist natural disaster happen at once. Los Angeles isn’t “destroyed” so much as it “ceases to exist” as the entire city breaks up and sinks into the Pacific. The Yellowstone Supervolcano turns most of the United States and also Woody Harrelson into superheated nothingness. Waves swallow up the Himalayas. In terms of disaster porn, Emmerich holds nothing back, destroying the world in such a big bombastic way that I thought it would never be topped — until I saw that the absolute madman made a movie where the freakin’ moon attacks the Earth (though Moonfall doesn’t live up to its premise the way 2012 does).
2012 is a huge, stupid, perfect movie. And yet, amidst an insanely big and deadly catastrophe, the movie focuses on John Cusack, a normal divorced dude, and his family. Thousands of people are dying in every single special effects-packed frame of this movie and billions more are dying offscreen, but 2012 largely says “never mind to all that” and puts all of our emotional investment in Cusack, as he makes the most improbable limo ride of all time through a crumbling LA and outruns a volcano. The emotional stakes are comically small, and the disconnect between the scope of the destruction and our little hero’s improbable survival is exactly what’s needed to make 2012 both a hoot and a holler.
1. Independence Day (1996)
I said earlier in this article that I believe Independence Day might be the greatest movie ever made. I’ve now had several blurbs worth of time to think about that statement and try to be honest with myself about that assessment. Is ID4 really one of the greatest movies ever made? ID4? Really? C’mon. Really?
This movie has it all. ID4 just might represent the pinnacle of miniature special effects work, as 1996 was the crucial tipping point where, if you wanted to blow up the White House, you still needed to make an incredibly detailed miniature model of the White House and actually blow it up. CGI was still just a tool in the special effects toolbox. Before too long, it would be the entire workshop, and Independence Day’s stunning practical effects hold up better than most disaster movies before or since. In terms of pure disaster spectacle, Independence Day’s targeted destruction of major landmarks is hard to beat. Other Emmerich movies destroy more, none destroy better.
At one point in Independence Day, a dog jumps out of the way of an explosion. It is truly profound cinema.
And the cast! Will Smith should’ve won an Oscar when he punched that alien in the face and said “Welcome to Earth.” Jeff Goldblum is peak Goldblum here, and Judd Hirsch is Cinema’s Proudest Dad. When Randy Quaid says “Hello, boys. I’m back!” and crashes his jet, sacrificing himself to save the day? I cried.
In conclusion, I will end this blurb by simply quoting, in full, the iconic speech given by Bill Pullman’s President Thomas J. Whitmore:
“Good morning. In less than an hour, aircraft from here will join others from around the world. And you will be launching the largest aerial battle in the history of mankind. Mankind — that word should have new meaning for all of us today. We can't be consumed by our petty differences anymore. We will be united in our common interests.
Perhaps it’s fate that today is the 4th of July, and you will once again be fighting for our freedom, not from tyranny, oppression, or persecution — but from annihilation.
We're fighting for our right to live, to exist. And should we win the day, the 4th of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day when the world declared in one voice:
‘We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight! We're going to live on! We're going to survive!’
Today, we celebrate our Independence Day!”
This movie rules.