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Catastrophic SCIENCE FICTION – 6 scenes of mass DESTRUCTION from Roland Emmerich

How did Roland Emmerich accomplish the work of destroying the world in his science fiction films?

Rafał Donica

22 April 2023

We will always associate some filmmakers with only one genre of cinema, even if they have made a multitude of films of other kinds. It doesn’t matter that Emmerich’s credits include historical pictures (The Patriot, 10,000 BC), sci-fi actioners and the usual (Stargate, Universal Soldier, White House Down), war films (Midway) or even intimate dramas (Anonymous). As for the creator of Independence Day, with which, by the way, began Emmerich’s adventure of wrecking planet Earth and mass tormenting its population, we associate primarily as the king of destruction, annihilation and the end of the world (not to be confused with the master of destruction – Michael Bay).

If the creator of 2012 and the Day After Tomorrow attended meetings of anonymous directors of demolition cinema, he would probably introduce himself in more or less this way: “Hi, I’m Roland, I haven’t demolished for a year…”. The cinematic destroyer on an almost cosmic scale, who has 6 disaster films to his credit so far, reached the proverbial wall in this subject with an almost comically over-the-top picture entitled Moonfall from 2022. The film turned out to be a spectacular financial flop (on a budget of $150 million it earned less than $70), was raked over the coals by critics and rejected by audiences, for whom such an idiotic plot, despite great effects, proved indigestible. Add to this the equally huge financial flop and low ratings from viewers and critics for Independence Day: Resurgence, it’s safe to speculate that this may be the end of Emmerich’s adventure with this kind of spectacle. After all, as the negative audience reception and dismal box office shows in black and white, everyone is fed up with the flooding of New York City, the toppling of the Statue of Liberty or the destruction of the Chrysler Building, whose “demolition” or devastated remnants can be seen in perhaps all of the German director’s films. So now is the perfect time to sum up the catastrophic (or perhaps disastrous) stage of Roland Emmerich’s career. Ahead of you is a subjective ranking of the best scenes of destruction that came out of the hand of this, by all accounts, skilled film craftsman.

6. „GODZILLA” (1998)

This is perhaps the least destructive film among those collected here, for we are not dealing here with destructive forces of nature or an alien invasion, but merely one overgrown lizard. This doesn’t mean, however, that Godzilla can’t spoil the buildings and blood of the city officials and the military fighting it. I’ve chosen a sequence of the reptile’s interrupted meal and escape from (and then chase after) a squadron of AH-64 Apache helicopters as representative of this film. There’s tank trampling, fire breathing, the monster breaking through buildings, knocking down and crushing helicopters with its jaws, and eventually the Chrysler building mentioned in the intro also falls, but at the hands of Apache pilots, lest it be on Godzilla. As it is with Emmerich, it’s spectacular, but silly and naïve, e.g., the helicopters follow Godzilla between apartment buildings, gleefully bludgeoning people’s windows with rifle fire, and at night, when they’re probably asleep. But it was all shot with ingenuity and verve, through an old-school combination of miniatures, physical effects and CGI. The film was made at a transitional moment, as traditional physical effects were dying, and the moment before the total expansion of computer effects. And it was, for me, the most beautiful time for cinema, which was still caught by Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example. After that, everything went 100% soulless CGI, and I guess only Nolan still proves that movies can LOOK GREAT if CGI is skillfully complemented with practical effects.


The film’s showpiece scene – the flooding of New York City (it’s perhaps Emmerich’s most-destroyed American city) and the Statue of Liberty by a tsunami that’s high, oh my. Despite nearly 20 years on its neck, the computer sequence of the great water approaching, entering the city and spilling over the streets (top view), still holds up pretty well and is spectacularly impressive. Slightly worse, i.e. more artificial, the situation is in the shots with stuntmen/actors and visual effects superimposed behind their backs, until it comes as a surprise to see such an underdeveloped green screen in such a specialist in the visual side of films as Emmerich. Overall, however, as a whole – that is, a combination of CGI, practical effects, miniatures, vehicle models and stuntmen fleeing the water – the sequence of the flooding of the Big Apple still doesn’t put it to shame, and in its year of release it really kicked ass.


The sequel to Independence Day failed, although it remains my guilty pleasure for unknown reasons. Will Smith, the undisputed workhorse of the 1996 original, refused to participate, and the wasted Bill Pullman and the charming Jeff Goldblum failed to pull this wagon on their own. Above all, however, the script and the new characters were at fault, whose plethora failed to overshadow their blandness. However, what to say about Independence Day: Resurgence, one must do it justice that the effects are of a world, or cosmic, standard. The landing of the huge invading ship on our mother Earth is a real visual feast and CGI on steroids. Having its own gravity, the alien vehicle makes everything from the surface of our planet soar, and so people, buildings, planes, ships and other land and surface structures whirl in the air.

3. „MOONFALL” (2022)

Roland Emmerich has been providing audiences with better and better visual experiences from film to film… gleefully sliding down the slope in terms of their substantive content. At the same time, with successive titles he climbed to higher and higher heights of absurdity and storyline embarrassment. His Moonfall is already a total departure and a total disjunction between jaw-dropping special effects and, bringing to mind the well-known from Naked Gun 33 and 1/3 a pat on the forehead, nonsense chasing nonsense in the script. However, setting aside the plot shallowness, lame and/or annoying characters and idiotic starting point (the Moon as a megaconstruction), it must be admitted that all the sequences in which the Moon scores ever-closer encounters with our planet are masterfully done and a hell of a pleasure to the eye. As a representative of the film, I chose the approaching Cape Canaveral gigantic gravitational wave carrying a hecto, what am I saying… some friggin’ liters of water behind it, and the takeoff of our heroes’ shuttle at the last minute in escape from it. And so what if everything around is stupid, impossible and infantile in this film, for me this scene is a real firecracker and I will not apologize for it. Well, sorry.

2. „2012” (2009)

I remember before the 2012  theatrical release, Emmerich released online the entire sequence of a limousine tear through a city plagued by collapsing tectonic plates. But I sharpened my teeth for the entire film at the time. As it was to turn out, aside from the volcano eruption in Yellowstone and the spectacular takeoff of the antonov, this was one of the three big highlights of the film, and the rest, especially the disappointing finale with the arks gleefully rocking on the water from left to right – like a chicken at a wedding behind the tables while singing To the green… aha ha… to the green! – spiced up the yawning with boredom. Well, okay, still the moment when the US president got hit in the face with an aircraft carrier was pretty good. But back to the film’s best showpiece sequence for me, it’s the aforementioned frantic limousine rally amidst the crumbling city, preceded by the words of fey Governor Schwarzenegger on TV that these tectonic plates are no longer to be feared, as they are in retreat. To sum up, there’s drama here, as we worry about the pretty cool characters, it’s spectacular, spectacular, exciting and with just the right dose of humor (a rolling giant donut or a car being doused with septic tank).


This space blockbuster from more than a quarter of a century ago (!) with a capital cast (Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Randy Quaid) should stand in the International Bureau of Weights and Measures as an example of the perfectly matched proportions of a smoothly paced plot, great characters, capital visual effects (the only technical Oscar for Emmerich’s film) and humor and looseness hovering over the entire show. I think you know very well what scene I chose to represent Independence Day. Of course, it’s the first impact of the aliens, i.e., blowing up miniature buildings and vehicles, in a word, good old pyrotechnics and physical effects (unfortunately, it’s clear today that the fire truck rotating in the air is a toy), of which as much as 80% (and only 20% CGI) fills Emmerich’s best production. The rays falling from spaceships onto the tops of skyscrapers in New York and the White House in Washington (it was a plaster model) and the buildings crashing down in a ball of fire are still impressive today. This is how computer effects used to be combined with real explosions on set, miniatures and model vehicles. Today, even explosions in many productions are often done in CGI, to cut costs and production time, which translates directly into a meager effect on screen.

Rafał Donica

Rafał Donica

Since watching "Blade Runner", he has been passionate about cinema, loves "Akira", "Drive", "Escape from New York", "North by Northwest", the underrated "The Hateful Eight" and "Terrifier 2". Author of the book "Frankenstein 100 years in cinema". Founder and editor-in-chief (in the years 1999 - 2012) of the Polish film portal FILM.ORG.PL. Since 2016, a professional reportage photographer.

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