Roland Emmerich is going back to the chop-shop of his past this week with an Independence Day sequel. Let us chop up his part as well with his two worst films.
Emboldened to turn to drama after the relative commercial misfire of Godzilla and ready to show the world he was more than the hack who inspired a sea of clones like Armageddon, The Patriot is director Roland Emmerich’s stone-age storytelling misfire that just keeps going and going, without even the decency to be a pointlessly trivial disaster picture as a saving grace. No, no, Emmerich thinks he is an auteur here, and he is going to learn us a lesson before we’re through with The Patriot, a stunningly inept, sepsis-inducing trampling-upon of US history that, rather comically, both pisses all over the past and could only possibly, feasibly, be deemed smart in the first place by people who simply write get-out-of-jail cards, rather than tickets, to films just because they are about history to begin with. To quote Roger Ebert, speaking on another film, The Patriot is “the kind of movie beloved by people … (who) think historical accuracy is a virtue instead of an attribute”, and even then The Patriot just stirs the history into an unrecognizable ketchup for summer-time hot dogs at its 4th of July party. Each and every successive minute bears the walking threat of having to expend more energy in the film’s company.
Even the thirty year long deluge of Edward Zwick efforts (Glory and the half-dozen other Glories he has made since then, all of which would have claimed they cured polio if they were any more self-consciously noble) cannot match the funeral-ready sobriety of this film. The Patriot is a work that breaks its back lifting its serious solemnity over its head and then breaks its neck from tonal whiplash when it’s time to turn the whole thing into a giant cartoon about the evils of the British. It has the flag-waving grandiosity of a melodrama matched with the crimson flesh-desecration of a Grand Guignol, but it never has the courage of its convictions to explore either tone as an honest-to-god aesthetic to wrap itself around. A good film about the Revolution could be either a full-on Douglas Sirk or Gone With the Wind style Capital-M Movie with all the expected broad canvas emotion and poetically accentuated fable-like mood or, alternately, a rip-roaring, raffish adventure of the Errol Flynn variety circumstantially set during the American Revolution. Instead of either, though, we get a tonal mishmash of both that tears itself apart failing to decide on a direction.
Either, more cohesive tone would have been not only a style but a vision, a willingness to disrupt this false-realism for something that blithely avoided reality altogether, exploring history as a background rather than foregrounding all sorts of mendacious facts and figures that are to no avail in a film that slips between lecture and toybox like it can’t decide which outfit to wear to work. At least an open-faced cartoon like Emmerich’s Independence Day isn’t fooling anyone. The Patriot cloaks its silliness with sobriety and masks its sobriety with silliness in a half-hearted attempt to please everyone in the theater, but in aiming for the middlebrow, the film only succeeds in lacking any discernible personality whatsoever.
Mel Gibson, for his part, is painfully out of sorts with the film he’s in, the only participant capable of rising above the piece with a relatively subdued, not-too-histrionic portrayal that, in carrying a slight whiff of humanity, only acclimatizes us to how everything around him is a waxwork of statuesque artifice. It may be inapt to say he is too good for the role, but his presence – nominally filling the role with life – only draws attention to how ungainly the film around him his, how haphazardly it ricochets between locations and events without any meaningful sense of place, purpose, weight, or impact.
If I was morally inclined in this particular instance, I might call into question the dubiousness of the film’s – and all of American culture’s – one-pass acceptance of the need for revolution because of something so economically inclined as “taxation without representation” only when it happens to involve well-to-do white people. The timidity of modern America’s position toward any semblance of revolt or riot in 2016 is, in comparison, stultifying hypocritical. But, then, The Patriot doesn’t really need moral critique anyway; its failures are all too apparent and surface-level, existing within the film and not simply contextually. As any good film scholar would say, it’s all on the screen. Delving deep only implies we are dealing with a work that is actually trying in the first place.
That this fascinatingly morally sharded, fractured, often regional conflict of attrition and guerilla terror has been recast as a puppet show, complete with Jason Isaacs doing his best Snidely Whiplash impression as a sociopathic buffoon of a villain, is disappointing to say the least. But simplicity has its virtues in the cinema, something The Patriot apparently doesn’t cotton to; despite its oblivious idiocy, it has the poker face of a film that appears deep in thought, like it’s hurting itself with every scene. Even as an action movie, the film’s best scene – an early backwoods slice-and-dice with a viciousness lacking anywhere else in the film – is sabotaged by a phenomenally constipated final image of Gibson hacking away at a British soldier with a tomahawk until Gibson’s face is a slab of uncooked beef. That the image is dazzlingly, beguilingly indulgent as a commentary on the horrors of war or, like whatever, is embarrassing; that the film never again even considers this thread is all the more-so. Again, hurting itself.
At some point, it just seems like a pile-on, as though you are picking on something that is too pitiful to actually deserve it in the first place. The film’s other embarrassments are multitudinous and vigorous, and they aren’t simply limited to the glorious mismanagement of every single scene involving the British. The sitcom cast is fully-packed, headed by Heath Ledger as the Gibson character’s eldest son vacillating between presumably wanting to surf or needing to smash a beer can over his head with every scene. I mean, I’m no scientist or anything, but there has to be a less intrusive way for him to find a hamburger than to scour the countryside hunting for British people who may have them in their knapsacks.
Not to be outdone, there’s the miraculously grotesque, cloying device of a young girl who won’t speak and is just so sad until the film requires her to change her mind for maximum impact. There’s also something deeply wacky and offensively post-racial about a slave fighting for Gibson’s militia and a racist who doesn’t want to fight with him that I just can’t spoil in the name of comedy. And if the structural horror of the macro-narrative view from the helicopter safely flying above the film wasn’t bad enough, then on-the-ground lines like the abomination “It’s a free country. Or at least it will be” (delivered when Gibson asks his ex-sister-in-law if he can sit next to her) ensure that the film’s hatred of the British is so full-throated that destroying their language is never off the table.
Having already displaced the world with Independence Day and reenvisioned the physical form of Dolph Lundgren and Jean Claude Van-Damme with Universal Soldier (and turning Egyptian culture into his personal abuse child/plaything in between), disaster-maestro Roland Emmerich finally took it upon himself to realize his birthright and sick his atomic breath on Japan’s most cherished cultural export. The long-gestating, long-in-the-tooth Godzilla is a sort of personified avarice of a film, an anything-goes gluttonous hybrid of plastered-on ineptitude and chasm-hopping grandness at the expense of anything and everything resembling craft.
It’s a cavern of nothingness, ultimately, a phantom punch of a blockbuster with a weightless lack of impact and no style to mention at all. The early moments – a passively sly hide-the-monster omen of nasty things to come – are denounced immediately upon the titular monster’s in-the-flesh appearance, his cartoonish welterweight status sabotaging any hint of fire-and-brimstone physicality to his character. Certainly, the withered CG doesn’t help, but the design of the character also sacrifices his oblivion-beckoning nature. Gojira (the character’s Japanese name) is a portmanteau of gorilla and whale, but this speck on the wall feels like he’ll crumble to the ground if the wind blows the wrong way.
Even if the intent of the design was to recalibrate the beast toward a more lizard-like, reptilian status, like a sidewinder more than a bruiser, the film fails to take advantage of this. There’s no validating evidence at all in the directing or the framing, both of which sort of plop the character out in the frame and fail to take advantage of any theoretical terror. The only thing fittingly gargantuan about the film is its ego, corporealized in the cartoonishly indulgent runtime of nearly 2 and ½ hours (a rarity then, a disturbing commonplace now). Most of the time, incidentally, is expended watching main star Matthew Broderick doing something particularly nasty with human emotion and the script using him to do something particularly nasty with fish. A lapsed marriage reconstructing itself is the latest misguided attempt to induce a “human story” in a film that either should not have one or deserves a significantly improved one.
From there, we nose dive into troublesome military-scientist dynamics that, as per usual, foreground the director’s carefully curated “worship them both” ideology meant to maximize the personality-free please-everyone milquetoast vibe that just makes the film so squeaky-clean. The side dishes are some of the most disturbingly awful non-comedy sequences in any blockbuster film from its decade (the infamous “fish” line feeling like a warped anti-joke from an Andy Kaufmann routine). And the dessert? An unpalatable post-Jurassic Park excursion mid-film with mini-Godzillas rushing every which way beneath Madison Square Garden in a sequence that could be scrapped away completely without missing a beat.
Of course, many of these things could also be said of your average blockbuster misfire, but even within Emmerich’s own oeuvre, Godzilla is drudgery. Ultimately, it is a stunning, inebriated amalgam of the barely-trying and the over-worked, a corpulent desecration of good taste that fails to even explore its convictions as a down-and-dirty monster movie. Leadenly carting out the Irwin Allen “throw another character on the barbecue, because why not?” mantra of big in every way, Godzilla simultaneously sucks up too much oxygen and never actually ingests any fire to begin with. While a monster movie only really needs one size, Godzilla donned the wrong garb.