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The Schlock-Down: Michael Bay vs. Roland Emmerich

The Schlock-Down: Michael Bay vs. Roland Emmerich

I’ve never made a secret of the fact that I love a good, schlocky disaster movie, and as far as good, schlocky disaster movies go, 1998 was a real watershed year. We got two movies about giant asteroids slamming into the Earth, and another movie about a giant lizard wrecking Manhattan. The truly important aspect of 1998 in disaster movies, though, is that two of them were directed by two men whose names would soon go on to become synonymous epitomes of the schlock disaster movie genre: Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay. Today, of course, both of those directors are very well-known and widely panned as blights on silver screen entertainment, but back then, things were a little bit different. While both Emmerich and Bay were working directors, they were more or less fairly well-regarded newcomers who both showed a lot of promise with their genres. Both were a mere two years removed from blockbuster extravaganzas of movies; Emmerich’s Independence Day was the ruling box office champion of 1996 for miles, and Bay’s The Rock was fourth or fifth in the standings. While both of those movies have an enormous share of haters today, they were actually pretty well-received at the time.

1998, though, is when both directors – Bay in particular – started turning toward a drastic style shift. After making their first handful of movies in relative anonymity, Emmerich’s Godzilla and Bay’s Armageddon saw both of them turn toward the trademark styles they’ve come to define for themselves. They also started the shifting of the very ethos of disaster movies; whereas many previous disaster flicks made a point of focusing on the human drama surrounding disasters, the advent of CGI imagery allowed filmmakers to start zooming in more on the disasters themselves, and not many directors have been living and dying by that rule like Emmerich and Bay. While this has resulted in wholesale hatred from a lot of serious moviegoers and critics, its also resulted in big bucks from audiences who, no matter how much they love movies for their artistic merits, still believe movies are ultimately a form of escapism. This summer, Bay is acting as the producer of a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie (NOT the director, as many think), while helming the next Transformers movie. Emmerich, well, he’s related to this because there was a new Godzilla movie which was just released. And while I haven’t seen every movie by either director, I’m extremely well-versed in the work of both. So let’s do this! Roland Emmerich vs. Michael Bay. One day, I’ll learn.

Shooting Style
Basic style is what most people comparing Emmerich and Bay automatically think of, which is a perfectly natural thing to do because they do the same thing in such different ways. The best explanation I can give for their stylistic differences comes from an article I read recently on a site I can’t remember (I think it might have been Whatculture): Emmerich thinks of his sequences in terms of sequences while Bay sees sequences as sums of his shots. In Bay’s case, style results in a lot of confusion because he has a habit of trying to get every shot from every conceivable angle, and the final product will frequently produce all those different angles spliced together. The result is meant to look flashy and exciting, and there are times when it can work if it’s used right. Bay’s problem is his sworn reliance on that style, and the way he uses his lighting effects much of the time combines with his shot style to form something which tries to be edgy, but which has the potential to bring seizures. When Emmerich shoots a sequence, he wants viewers to behold the scale of the thing. Emmerich tends to rely a lot on wide pans which present a more contextual view of the destruction, and he’ll frequently add a little bit of accent by giving us occasional character viewpoints or otherwise showing us models of everyday cars or houses in order to let us grasp the sheer size of the event.
Roland Emmerich. Emmerich shoots his disasters to make them look like disasters, and you can’t help but marvel at the way he makes things collapse around and into themselves. I swear, Roland Emmerich movies have probably inspired the next generation of demolition experts.

Storytelling Style
Emmerich’s way of telling the stories in his movies often results in regular token critical beatings, but for some reason, he usually manages to escape without any real damage to his credibility. That’s a way of saying that while Emmerich is regularly hammered for his storytelling, everyone doing the hammering seems to forget about Emmerich’s story flaws until his next movie comes along. (The exception would be Independence Day, which people gleefully pick apart.) Of course, the best thing that can probably happen to stories in modern disaster movies is people forgetting them because they can be so redundant, but Emmerich does use staples. He frequently relies on the strength of the ensemble cast to try to bring human faces to his movies. Unfortunately, the trouble with ensemble casts is, between the multitude of characters and destruction, no one gets developed, and cheesy melodrama with the occasional high-handed Message becomes the order of nature for Emmerich. Even his better movies tend to rely on melodrama. Emmerich also has a thing for conspiracies and fringe theories – Roswell (Independence Day); Atlantis-like prehistoric civilization (10,000 BC); ancient astronauts (Stargate); and even Shakespeare not having written his own work (Anonymous) have all been explored by Emmerich, and it even culminated in an entire movie about that big-ass apocalypse we were supposed to have in 1012. Bay approaches his stories with more of a frat boy mentality. He’s best known for his explosions, in your face style of 90’s hubris humor, and frequent use of the USA military. Bay frequently defends himself against criticism by pointing out that his movies aren’t made for art house snobs, but this tends to show more in some of his movies than others. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is particularly egregious in its pandering to the young adolescent, with its servings of juvenile humor, explosions, and cleavage. Lately, Bay seems to enjoy overcooking his movies, and he seems to be falling back on certain safety tropes like the buddy movie (Bad Boys); the honorable sacrifice (Armageddon), and the aforementioned military porn (damn near all of them).
Roland Emmerich. Despite my own criticisms of Michael Bay, I’m entirely capable of enjoying his style. I just have to be in the right mood in order to swallow one of his increasingly long boom festivals. Where Emmerich really gets the edge, though, is in his concepts. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I do enjoy interesting ideas, and Emmerich likes to take fringe thoughts and run them to their furthest logical extremes.

Misguided Attempt at Historical Prestige Piece
Emmerich directed The Patriot in 2000, and Bay followed in 2001 with Pearl Harbor. Both movies revolved around huge seminal events in American history: The Patriot took place during the American Revolution and Pearl Harbor, of course, was about the Missouri Compromise. Both were written less with an emphasis on accuracy than jingoism, and therefore both are wildly inaccurate. Notoriously so, in fact, to the point that both have been singled out for inaccuracies many times in an industry where historical inaccuracy is not only accepted, but seen as a boon which keeps the story running. Both use black characters as tokens. Both paint the other side dark – The Patriot’s redcoats and Pearl Harbor’s Japanese are both seen as violent maniacs, although Pearl Harbor made a (very half-witted) attempt to tell things from Japan’s side. The Patriot is probably the more melodramatic – a daughter whose anger caused her to never talk? FUCKING REALLY?! – and the one that dodges history more; it ignores the slavery issue completely and Gibson’s character, Benjamin Martin, was based on Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion, who in real life hunted Indians for fun and raped slaves. Pearl Harbor, meanwhile, shows the Japanese bombing civilians – which NEVER HAPPENED – and uses that damned trope where the badass fighter pilots basically get promoted for endangering themselves, other soldiers, and expensive military equipment. Both fall back into cliche and caricature repeatedly. Where they differ is that in Pearl Harbor, Michael Bay was trying to skirt James Cameron’s Titanic by setting up a love story through a disaster backdrop. That’s the biggest weakness of Pearl Harbor; the buildup is insufferable, the main characters – especially Ben Affleck’s Rafe – are either dumb or jerkasses, and the movie makes use of every love triangle cliche ever. The Patriot, meanwhile, is more interested in being American Braveheart. Emmerich even managed to cop Mel Gibson to play the lead, and Benjamin Martin is virtually indistinguishable from William Wallace. The Patriot, though, tries to play the action epic straight to what it is.
Roland Emmerich. Braveheart is a much better movie than Titanic, and so The Patriot succeeds in spite of itself and its ridiculous cliches. Besides, The Patriot really is an inspirational movie which uses plenty of action to spur the story along. With Pearl Harbor, Michael Bay basically forgot who he is and what he does. There’s no action until the halfway point and by then, you hope all the main characters are killed in the bombing. Also, the performances in The Patriot are infinitely better.

Popcorn Factor
It’s difficult to find the greatest moment of cheese from both Emmerich and Bay, but for different reasons. It was pointed out at me recently that Emmerich’s movies have a common vein running through them in the way they bring people of all different backgrounds together in the face of whatever worst case scenario Emmerich is peddling this time. It’s not as if Emmerich doesn’t have any sense of fun in his movies, but it’s so buried behind his other themes, it doesn’t even seem like it’s there half the time. The Patriot may be his most unintentional moment of cheese, but for sheer schlock value, it doesn’t get much better than Independence Day. Even Independence Day is played a bit too seriously for its own good, though, between the comedic moments of Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum and the melodramatic moments being written and performed in a subtle manner which makes them pretty affecting. It’s hard to pick a particular moment for Michael Bay, too, but that’s because his career has been nothing but highball cheese. If I had to pick off the top, though, it’s almost certainly Armageddon. The first half of Armageddon comes off like a comedy; the second half like a drama, and Bay makes no effort to hide the shift; he switches gears the moment the movie does. Bay knows what kinds of movies people enjoy seeing in the theater, and he goes out of his way – frequently to his own detriment – to show that movies are supposed to be fun.
Michael Bay. Emmerich too frequently forgets people don’t pay ticket money to see his movies for high-handed messianic messages. Bay, for the most part, remembers he’s an entertainer above all else even in his worst moments. The one time he forgot it was when he made Pearl Harbor, but he seems to have realized his mistake there and gone right back to what he knows best.

Best-Reviewed Movie
I’m getting my information from Rotten Tomatoes, which includes heavy critical archives, and besides, I was listed there myself as a critic when Netjak was still running. Bay’s best-rated movie was The Rock, which scored a solid 67 percent. Emmerich’s best-rated was The Patriot, which scored a respectable 62 percent. (Independence Day scored 60 percent.) From objective standpoints, it’s difficult to argue either one; although I’m not sure I would score The Patriot higher than Independence Day, I’ll go with it. The Rock has Bay directing almost perfectly to type – it’s an adrenaline action thriller movie with clear nods to Die Hard, which I would give it a favorable comparison to. Where Bay isn’t actually directing to type, though, are points where he’s directing above the tropes he’s known for. The characters in The Rock are formulaic as hell, but they’re not insufferably immature or stupid, and all are played with conviction by Oscar-winning actors Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage, and Ed Harris. None of Bay’s juvenile humor is here, and so we get an action movie which is fun and exciting without trying too hard. From Emmerich, there’s The Patriot, which has excellent action sequences as well, complimented by compelling performances. The scale tips at the amount of bloat and caricature, and The Patriot has this in spades. Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Jason Isaacs, Tcheky Karyo, and the rest are intense and compelling in their parts, but they aren’t enough to make anyone forget how melodramatic and choppy the script can be.
Michael Bay. Given the choice of The Rock or The Patriot, there’s no question which one I’d rather watch. As much as I enjoy The Patriot, the movie is still a little too bloated for its own good, and the actors aren’t good enough to excuse the melodrama. The Rock is shorter, moves faster, is free of any melodrama, and while Bay was directing into type, he frequently chooses to take the high road, and you know what? While Michael Bay will probably never be mistaken for an artiste, when he has an array of great actors and ignores juvenile humor to focus on action, he’s a very good director. If Independence Day had only gotten three more points on the Tomatometer, things might have gone better for Emmerich, but it didn’t.

Worst-Reviewed Movie
Emmerich’s worst-rated Tomatometer movie is 10,000 BC, with eight percent. No surprise there. Bay’s is…. BAD BOYS II?! Yeah, it looks like critics are a bunch of fucking idiots again, because Pearl Harbor somehow managed to score two points higher than Bad Boys II – 25 percent to 23 percent. This is completely unacceptable to me because Pearl Harbor was as bad as it gets, while Bad Boys II was gloriously overblown, and one of the few movies to come out over the last decade which gave a real jolt of electricity to the catatonic genre. Unfortunately, the rules I made for this say I have to use the highest and lowest rated, not the ones I agree with. On the upside, though, I can spare everyone a real rant since I haven’t yet seen 10,000 BC. (Although I’m definitely planning to!)
None. It wouldn’t be fair to pick a winner when I haven’t seen both qualifying movies, although 10,000 BC has some real work cut out for it for me to prefer it to Bad Boys II.

Michael Bay’s movies are filled with overkill. They’re overkill in and of themselves, but for the last seven years, Bay has been placing an emphasis on the Transformers series. The fourth Transformers movie will be released this month; Bay directed it, just as he did the last three. Transformers appears to be becoming Bay’s signature series; they comprise four of his last five movies as a director. They also run the gamut in quality; the original Transformers is seen as one of his best efforts; Revenge of the Fallen usually occupies discussions about whether or not it’s worse than Pearl Harbor, and while Bay himself does defend it, he admits it deserved a bit of the hate it got; and Dark of the Moon is generally seen as solid, if not great. Bay’s signature style is frequently referred to as “Bayhem,” and that’s a pretty decent summary of it. Not only is there a ton of action in a Michael Bay movie, but between the action and character threads, Bay’s movies tend to haphazardly tumble toward a conclusion, and so they are able to be mayhem even when there’s no mayhem. Also, Bay’s movies are getting longer and longer lately. Roland Emmerich’s movies also seem to be expanding in length quite a bit. Emmerich, however, usually isn’t privy to turning his movies into series (although the long-rumored Independence Day sequel is now officially slated for release next year) – in a lot of his movies, the world is virtually ruined by the end anyway, so it’s tough to make a sequel which would blow more shit up with no shit to blow up. Emmerich’s overkill is still there, though, which you can see in themes. He’s destroyed the world three separate times (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012) and turned the White House into a target several times as well, in Independence Day, 2012, and White House Down. Emmerich makes such a habit of it, you would think he’s an honorary member of the Tea Party.
I’m calling this a draw. Much as I love both Emmerich and Bay, it would be difficult for me to really marathon with a collection of either of their movies.

Overall Body of Work
Believe it or not, both Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay have themes which reach across much of their bodies of work. Emmerich’s demolition festivals usually tend to unite people. He’s even told that common thread across dimensions in Stargate. A lot of Emmerich’s best-known movies feature it: Independence Day; The Day After Tomorrow; 2012; and even Godzilla all have that theme, and it’s blindingly apparent in each movie. Bay’s theme is broader: Let’s blow some shit up! As to the actual quality of their work, though, you have to first accept the fact their movies aren’t high art. Bay seems more aware of this than Emmerich, and he tends to embrace it in the name of escapist entertainment and commercial success. Emmerich isn’t quite so willing to fall into trope, and so while Michael Bay’s movies tend to be very similar to each other, Emmerich’s are a lot more sporadic as he tries to reach out to different genres. Aside from the disaster movies Emmerich is known for, he’s also frequently directed against type. We know Emmerich’s disaster movies, but Stargate; The Patriot; 10,000 BC; Anonymous; and White House Down aren’t really typical of Roland Emmerich. The results have varied – The Patriot was his best-received movie, remember, while 10,000 BC was the worst – but I have yet to see a Roland Emmerich movie I thought was a complete waste of time. Michael Bay is probably the worse director of the two, but it’s hard to tell since he is more prone to stay in his comfort zone with his signature style. The quality of his work is pretty varied as well – while Emmerich’s worst movie was more hated than Bay’s worst (Bad Boys II for the critics, Pearl Harbor for anyone else), his best (The Rock) is considered better than Emmerich’s best (The Patriot to many, Independence Day to me). Bay’s work, though, tends to lean into the terrible-but-entertaining categorization, and it’s hard to argue that any of his work could help define any genres. It’s easier to make the case for Emmerich because he was instrumental in redefining disaster movies for both better and worse. His straight disaster movies are eye-popping and convincingly use models and CGI. The Patriot aside, the only times people seem to truly hate Emmerich is when he directs against type.
I’m giving it to Roland Emmerich. Michael Bay is great in small doses, and he also has a habit of sticking to the things he knows. I appreciate Emmerich’s attempts to direct against his type more because his work outside his comfort zone at least tends to be interesting.

Roland Emmerich takes it against Michael Bay. I will note again, though, that I haven’t seen every movie by both directors, so I may end up feeling differently soon. The Michael Bay movies I missed, in fact, are The Island and Pain and Gain, both of which are lower-budget, more cerebral, and from what I’ve heard, more challenging and against type for Bay. From where I stand now, though, the champion is Emmerich.


About Nicholas Croston

I like to think. A lot. I like to question, challenge, and totally shock and unnerve people. I am a contrarian - whatever you stand for, I'm against.

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