Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Michael Bay vs. Roland Emmerich

Michael Bay gets a bad rap.

At least, compared to Roland Emmerich.

You would agree that Bay and Emmerich, throughout their careers, have indulged in essentially the same brand of disaster porn, to borrow a phrase I heard on the radio last night. Both love explosions. Both love end-of-the-world scenarios. And both love to cram as much high melodrama as possible into those exploding end-of-the-world scenarios.

Yet Roland Emmerich enjoys relative anonymity among average filmgoers, while Michael Bay is so stigmatized by the movies he's made that he's become a household name. In fact, I'd argue that even dumb people see Michael Bay movies in spite of themselves -- that's how far the cultural besmirching of Bay's name, encouraged by snarky entertainment writers like myself, has extended.

I'm not saying it's not deserved.

But it's just as deserved for Emmerich, if not more so. In fact, since Emmerich's films have been just as high-profile, and just as poorly received, as Bay's, I'd argue that the main reason he is not widely perceived as the same kind of poster child for crap is that his name is all foreign, and therefore, harder to remember. (Emmerich was born in West Germany; Bay, appropriately, in L.A.)

The thing is, I don't actually know myself which one is worse. I have my suspicions, but I can't say for certain. And so it is that I've devised a little system to determine who is worse -- for me, anyway. I can't speak for you.

See, I noticed recently that Bay and Emmerich have very similar careers. Not just their subject matter, but the period they've been working as well. Both directors are 44 years old, Emmerich just having celebrated that birthday a week ago today. Emmerich got started in his career earlier, but he didn't direct a true blockbuster until 1994, when Stargate came out. (He'd directed the largely unseen Universal Soldier two years earlier, and then a couple totally unseen projects before that.) Bay got started a year after Stargate with Bad Boys. Each has been steadily contributing their unique brand of schlock since then.

And I realized something else: After 2012, which I saw last night, I have seen exactly seven films by each director. The last seven films, in fact, as I never saw the original Bad Boys (though I did see the sequel), and I've seen every Emmerich film since Stargate (Stargate included). Pity me, dear reader.

Could this comparison line up any more perfectly?

So here's what I will do -- and I use the future tense, as I have not actually done it as I type these words. I will rank Bay's and Emmerich's films from 1 through 14, "best" to worst. And then I will add up their personal rankings within those rankings. Lowest score wins.

I will tell you this, hence revealing my bias -- Emmerich would have fared a lot worse in this duel before I saw 2012 last night. But more on that in a moment.

Now please excuse me for a moment or three as I go off and make my rankings. To you, it will seem instantaneous.

Without further ado, and with short explanations for each:

1. 2012 (2009, Roland Emmerich). Yes, Emmerich's newest film is the best of the bunch. Really. More on that in a moment.
2. The Rock (1996, Michael Bay). Yes, Bay's oldest film is the second best of the bunch. I guess he hadn't learned his terrible tendency toward bombast yet. Followed by ...
3. Stargate (1994, Roland Emmerich). ... Emmerich's oldest film (that I've seen). I don't remember much about it, but when it comes to these two directors, that probably means it was decent.
4. Transformers (2007, Michael Bay). Controversial ranking. It worked for me.
5. Pearl Harbor (2001, Michael Bay). Again, controversial. I found myself defending this movie upon leaving the theater. It has not held up in my mind, but I can't forget that I did that. So sue me.
6. Independence Day (1996, Roland Emmerich). I really think this film is bad, but not compared to the others lower on this list.
7. The Day After Tomorrow (2004, Roland Emmerich). Again, bad. But the pickings are getting slim.
8. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009, Michael Bay). Held my attention for a surprisingly long time, before it didn't.
9. Godzilla (1998, Roland Emmerich). Good destruction, bad everything else.
10. Bad Boys II (2003, Michael Bay). Not good. Watchable in parts.
11. The Patriot (2000, Roland Emmerich). I think I disliked this film more than most people. I really, really disliked it. Fewest explosions in any Emmerich movie, except maybe Stargate.
12. Armageddon (1998, Michael Bay). Not only did it suffer terribly in comparison to 1998's other asteroid movie, Deep Impact, but it's also Bay's most shamelessly jingoistic film. Blecch.
13. The Island (2005, Michael Bay). Bay's worst film. In part because it had such an interesting beginning, and then became 100% ridiculous.
14. 10,000 B.C. (2008, Roland Emmerich). Emmerich's worst film, and the worst of the bunch. Just awful. I can't even bring myself to say any more about it.

Michael Bay: 2 + 4 + 5 + 8 + 10 + 12 + 13 = 54
Roland Emmerich: 1 + 3 + 6 + 7 + 9 + 11 + 14 = 51

Well well well. Roland Emmerich wins. I have to say, I was not expecting that.

In fact, I will admit to you now: This post was envisioned to show you that Roland Emmerich is actually worse than Michael Bay, or at least just as bad. (Originally conceived title: "Just as bad as Bay?") But I thought I should give each a chance to have that assessment "scientifically" tested. And it turns out, Emmerich is not quite as bad.

And he has 2012 to thank. If 2012 had been half the train wreck many were expecting it to be, Bay certainly would have won this duel. But it isn't. You can argue until the cows come home about the tastelessness of all this orgiastic destruction in a post-9/11 America ... but then again, you could have argued the same thing about The Day After Tomorrow. The fact is, the destruction sequences in this film are hypnotic; Emmerich somehow manages yet new ways to envision the end of the world even after already doing that twice in Tomorrow and Independence Day.

But what really makes 2012 better than any Emmerich film -- any film by either director -- is the writing. I understand that this is a frankly shocking statement. However, the dialogue was good, the film moved a long at a good pace (it was actually a brisk 158 minutes), and there were few scenes that did not clearly contribute to the trajectory of the story. Plus, there were some really smartly timed reveals of previously unknown information. And Emmerich himself actually deserves the credit for this, having co-written the script with Harald Kloser. Just one quibble about the script: the repetition. Not only do planes take off three different times just prior to being engulfed by the earth, but the writers flog the joke where somebody says "I think we've seen the worst of it" right before another giant fissure opens up.

The biggest surprise, however, is that the acting is not hammy. John Cusack probably sets that tone, and a handful of talented actors -- Chiwetel Ejiofor, Thandie Newton, Woody Harrelson, Amanda Peet, and yes, in this case, Danny Glover -- manage to maintain it. What do they all have in common? Roland Emmerich was directing them. Good on ya, Roland. You're learning.

A couple other random thoughts from watching 2012:

1) If you're planning to watch a 158-minute movie, it's a good idea to pee twice before it starts, if you can. That's right, I peed twice last night at the theater -- once about ten minutes before screening time, and once during the commercials that precede the trailers. I got little more than dribbles the second time, but it helped me hold out.

2) If you're planning to watch a 158-minute movie, Reese's Pieces make a great choice to sustain you through the movie. Long after your popcorn -- which sometimes runs out during the trailers -- is gone, you'll still have plenty of the no less than 492 individual pieces in that surprisingly large bag. In fact, I ate my last few with less than ten minutes left in the movie. And yes, I did feel sort of sick from all that peanut butter. But I got the sustained regular eating experience I desired, without having to consciously monitor my intake.

3) If the world does indeed end on December 21, 2012, I might just be okay with it. Sound crazy? Here's my thinking. If the Mayans were in fact able to predict the end of the world thousands of years ago, it means somewhat definitively that our world can't be explained by science alone. This also means that maybe, just maybe, there is an actual afterlife where we will all go after that apocalyptic 24-hour period. It'll be pretty crowded, but hey -- the consciousness will live on. If science can't explain the Mayans' prediction -- they couldn't have been that good at astronomy, nor fully comprehended the deadly consequences of planetary alignments -- then who's to say that all the other stuff with no scientific proof, like religion, can't be true? And that's about as religious as I get.

An appropriately weighty way to end a post about two guys who specialize in ridiculous spectacle, don't you think?

Also, how do you rank these directors' films? I'd be surprised if many -- any -- of you had the displeasure of seeing all 14 films I discussed above. But let me know how you weigh in on the ones you did deign to see.


Daddy Geek Boy said...

You make an interesting point, but here's why Michael Bay sucks more than Rolland Emmerich:

Michael Bay occasionally shows flashes of greatness. The sweeping panoramic shots in Pearl Harbor? The intensity of Bad Boys or The Rock? His giddiness at blowing things up?

Rolland Emmerich has always been a cheesy B-level filmmaker who has pretty much made the same type of movie again and again and lucks into them being successful.

I've never looked at an Emmerich film and said, it had so much potential if only he didn't direct it. But with just about every Bay film over the past few years, there could have been a good movie in there, but Bay comes in and pisses all over it.

Daddy Geek Boy said...

By the way...I know as a writer you're into details but "I got little more than dribbles the second time"...?? I could have done without that visual.

Vancetastic said...

Excellent point, DGB ... er, both of them. The main difference is the ego. Bay emanates arrogance, and part of the reason he's such a punching bag is that people have gotten to know his personality. Whereas I have no idea what Roland Emmerich even looks like. One of the things I love lately about Bay is those ads (for the L.A. Times, I think) that appear before films in the L.A. area, where he describes himself as "the last holdout" on shooting with film. You're such a renegade, Michael.

Paul said...

The reason that Bay has more buzz is due to his early work being backed by uber (yes, I used uber) producer J.W. Bruckeimer. Dean Devlin never played a part in the creation of the "High Concept" movie.

BTW, I want to change my identity on this thing to Dimster's Union, but I just can't make it happen. Paul is just so...

Vancetastic said...

Funny ... I just did a test to see how the informal rankings I did here compare to the formal rankings I have on Flickchart, which are, of course, forever being tweaked. I got pretty close to how they are ranked on FC. Even though I only just entered 2012, meaning it's only been ranked three times, it's STILL the fourth highest of these movies.

In case you are interested:

1. The Rock - 780
2. Transformers - 816
3. Stargate - 1136
4. 2012 - 1459
5. Independence Day - 1674
6. The Day After Tomorrow - 1712
7. Godzilla - 1844
8. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen - 2001
9. The Patriot - 2041
10. Pearl Harbor - 2134
11. The Island - 2300
12. Armageddon - 2423
13. Bad Boys II - 2469
14. 10,000 B.C. - 2551

Emmerich: 12417
Bay: 12923

Also funny: Even though Bay has the top two movies on this list, Emmerich still wins by a very slight margin.