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How the Master of Disaster’s ‘White House Down’ Can Stand Out in the Summer of the Apocalypse

In a summer where the world ends every weekend, Roland Emmerich's latest film stands apart from the crowd in how it differs from the modern action movie

When Roland Emmerich first got the script for "White House Down," his upcoming film about a plot to take over the White House and kill the President, he was confident he'd have to keep looking for his next project.

"When I read 'White House Down' on the title page, I thought I wouldn't do it," Emmerich told TheWrap. He'd already read a script about an assault on the White House, "One Nation," and was concerned this would be too focused on pure disaster.

But as he sat down to read it he was immediately engrossed, drawn in particular to the lead character — played in the film by Channing Tatum.

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The plot of "White House Down" sounds like another iteration of films we've already seen from Emmerich, the maestro who made the disaster movie a calling card with hits like "Independence Day," "The Day After Tomorrow" and "2012": Two movie stars strive to avoid a violent catastrophe, one that imperils not just the president but the world at-large.

Yet in a summer where the world ends every weekend — at the hands of super villains ("Man of Steel"), God ("This Is the End") and zombies ("World War Z") — his latest film stands apart from the crowd in how it differs from the modern action movie.

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"It's not spectacle for spectacle's sake," writer Jamie Vanderbilt, who previously wrote "Zodiac" and "The Amazing Spider-Man," told TheWrap. "That's the danger with movies this big and the danger with computer graphics. Just because you can make it the biggest thing in the world, should you? At what point do you lose connection with what's going on?"

The movie still has all the requisite explosions and car chases, and no one involved shied away from describing it as a "popcorn movie," a term that evokes mindless spectacle.

Producer Brad Fischer pointed out that 90 to 95 percent of the movie was shot against a green screen since they couldn't shoot in the White House.

Yet despite all the explosions — some laughable, some terrifying — the film pivots on two very personal relationships: one between a father and his daughter and another between the president and his unlikely guardian.

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Everything that Tatum's character does is out of loyalty to one of those two people. He will risk anything to protect his daughter, a brave young girl whose YouTube video unmasks the assailants invading the White House.

He will also go to any length to protect the man that supplanted him as her hero – the president.

"What people really remember in movies are the characters," Fischer, whose previous work consists mostly of smaller, darker dramas like "Zodiac" and "Black Swan," told TheWrap. "Spectacle will take you so far, but all the bells and whistles in the world will not really mean anything unless you have a story with characters you care about."

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That hit a chord with Emmerich, who was coming off "Anonymous," a political thriller that questions whether Shakespeare wrote all his plays. While Shakespeare is not new to Hollywood, its $30 million budget was the Stuttgart native's smallest in two decades.

He said he was looking not just for character but for a movie that had a real message.

"In the very first meeting with them I said, 'Guys, it's a very good script. Everything is there. What's missing is the movie has to be about something,'" Emmerich recalled.

So he added in political stakes, framing the siege of the White House in the context of a president's efforts to withdraw the United States from conflicts in the Middle East.

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It helped that the producers were able to lure actors like Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Richard Jenkins and James Woods – thespians more accustomed to dialogue than fight sequences.

Mindful of Emmerich's reputation, Sony took pains to convince moviegoers that "White House Down" was not simply another "Independence Day."

"He is so closely associated with the disaster genre, and this isn't strictly speaking a disaster movie," Doug Belgrad, president of Columbia Pictures, which is distributing the movie, told TheWrap. "Roland makes his movies as emotionally satisfying as possible; it's his signature."

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Yet though the movie is very much about "something," it remains a throwback action movie at its core. While so many modern versions involve superhuman characters, Tatum stars as the everyman. In an age where every action movie seems to be darker — pursuing the success of the "Bourne" series and Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy — this one is decidedly not.

"The first thing I learned from my career is that movies shouldn't take themselves too seriously," Emmerich said. "Even in a movie like ‘Schindler's List' there are two or three or four great jokes. There has to be."