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Non-Review Review: Independence Day

I think there’s a serious argument to be made for Independence Dayas one of the truly exceptional summer blockbusters. It’s not exceptionally clever or insightful, its characters aren’t necessarily more than plot functions given life by a wonderful cast, but it has a high-octane energy and wonderful sense of tone that makes it a joy to watch. It’s cheesy enough that it never takes itself too seriously, and yet it’s efficient enough and effective enough that it never descends to the level of pure camp. It’s a deft balance, and I suspect that it might be a fluke, but I think that Independence Day remains a gleefully enjoyable guilty pleasure to this day.

Don't run! We are your friends!

Okay. Let’s be fair. The script for Independence Day is a cliché storm. It checks off all the items on the “alien invasion” checklist, right down to updating the denouement from War of the Worlds. (Except this time it’s not an organic virus.) Anybody looking for any sort of realism in their alien invasion action films won’t be impressed as we’re subjected to convenient coincidence after convenient coincidence.

Apparently flying a cropduster is the same as flying a U.S. military jet. Apparently the guards at Area 51 will just let a convoy through the gates if you show up with an alien wrapped in a parachute. Apparently U.S. fighter jet pilots commiserate with each other over the airwaves while flying into a combat situation. Never mind the logical leaps required to get the plot to function – that aliens advanced enough to conquer other planets need to hijack our satellites to send a coordinated countdown signal, or that the President just happens to be a fighter pilot and the scientist who figure out the countdown just happens to be connected to a senior White House staffer.

Step away from the glass...

These plot contrivances are ridiculous, and I’ll freely concede that they are. However, the film does well not to take itself too seriously. Its cast don’t deliver the hackneyed lines with stoic gravitas. While never descending to self-parody, the film has a wry sense of humour about itself. In one sequence, as our lead scientist gets ready to explain things to the President, his father is trying to get his hands on a novelty pen from the White House. “What?” his son asks.

Part of the appeal is that cast have wonderful comic timing. I think Will Smith is an actor with a rare ability to elevate the material around. Imagine how bad Seven Pounds would have been without him. The scene where he steps outside to collect the paper, noticing the neighbours are moving, but completely missing the giant alien space ship, is a scene that could easily have become a camp disaster. Instead, Smith makes it work. Not many actors could punch an alien in the face and make “welcome to Earth!”work as a cheesy one-liner, but Smith excels.

Falling back to Earth...

Similarly, Hollywood needs to do more with Jeff Goldblum. Goldblum was Hollywood’s go-to “science guy” for a time in the nineties between here and Jurassic Park, and he manages the nerdy scientist role with remarkable ease. In fact, Goldblum seems to have great chemistry with everybody in the cast, whether it be Will Smith’s stereotypical hot-shot fighter pilot or Judd Hirsch as the father of Goldblum’s character.

Even the supporting cast work miracles with minor one-dimensional characters. None are tasked with creating anything resembling fully-formed creations, but it’s joy to watch Brent Spiner in a rare big screen role as a nerdy scientist (“they don’t let us out much!”) or James Rebhorn as a slimy Secretary of Defense. I know it might seem like a waste to put these sorts of talented actors in roles that are relatively restricted, but it lends the film considerable charm. There’s nobody in the cast who doesn’t work a lot harder than they probably should have, and the film is much better for their efforts.

They're a bit testy today...

Both are helped by a script that, at least, seems aware of the clichés that it is using and shrewd enough never to take itself too seriously. Like a hangover from the eighties, the film makes a point to include blipvert-style media coverage as seen on the edge of the screen from time to time. “Once again, the L.A.P.D. is asking Los Angelenos not to fire their guns at the visitor spacecraft,” one playful new report wars us. “You may inadvertently trigger an interstellar war.”

Even the much-maligned convenient resolution to the crisis actually makes a bit more sense than it may initially seem. Sure, my old Intellectual Property lecturer used to joke that you’d have to leave the planet to find anything compatible with a Mac, and it’s a fair point. However, the film suggests that the scientists at Area 51 have been reverse-engineering the crashed alien ship since the 1960s.

Smokin' Aces...

While they didn’t get very far into it, it is possible that some of the computer technology in the film was the product of this research. Sure, I’m doing a bit of reaching, but the film seems to hint in that direction, and it would allow the finale to make just a bit more sense than it might originally seem. Even if you don’t buy that logic, the film never takes itself so intensely seriously that it falls apart for these logical leaps. It tends to tr to coax the audience into making these jumps, rather than playing everything dead straight.

And yet, despite that, Emmerich manages to actually pull off all the standard action movie moments with enough skill and technique to keep them satisfying. Even the introductory half-hour seems the very picture of dramatic restraint – especially when we know the pyrotechnics that will follow. When the alien ships arrive, even though the audience knows they mean trouble, there’s still considerable suspense. Rather than glossing over the appearance of aliens, Emmerich actually does well to let us breathe it in a bit, to take a look at those massive ships and just get a sense of scale.

The arrival of the visitors tended to overshadow other developments...

Emmerich doesn’t let go of the reigns once the action starts either. I think that Independence Day might feature the best dogfighting sequence since Star Wars, and there’s really a truly massive sense of scale to Emmerich’s monster disaster movie. I think that his style works better here because he has stronger actors to ground his large-scale action, but also because it is relatively contained. As the name implies, Emmerich is focused primarily on the American response to the situation, rather than any true global counter-attack.

That is, to be fair, immensely frustrating. Don’t get me wrong, I know that Hollywood produced the film, so the Americans get to be the global heroes by default. My suspension of disbelief in a film like this suspends far enough to allow me to accept that the United States (rather than China or Russia) would be the first to attempt to nuke the invaders. And, to be fair, the President’s patriotic call to arms remains one of my favourite movie speeches of all time, delivered by Pullman with a gravitas I don’t think we’ve ever seen him put to use elsewhere.

"Today... is our Independence Day... unless you live abroad, in which case this is totally your Dependence Day..."

That said, it is frustrating that the movie opts to show the rest of the world sitting on their hands waiting for America to save the day. It seems that every nation on Earth is sitting by their radio waiting to figure out what America is going to do. None of them are conducting their own research or organising a counterstrike or even just planning mass evacuations. “About bloody time!” one R.A.F. pilot declares when the President announces a planned counter-attack, creating the impression that the British were just sitting there waiting for it.

I’d imagine they’d have more pressing concerns, even if it was just evacuating civilians and managing aid. The problem isn’t necessarily that the movie doesn’t include enough of the rest of the world – it’s that it seems to expressly include the rest of the world to show them as idly waiting for the U.S. to decide to do something. The BBC radio adaptation was commissioned with strict instructions not to downplay the importance of the Americans in the final attack. That feels just a bit too cynical, a bit too self-aggrandizing.

Wow, that was one hell of a weekend...

Still, it’s a minor problem in an otherwise enjoyable film. If half of the modern blockbusters could be this fun and this giddy, I think we’d all be quite a bit happier. Sadly, it seems that this was a fluke for even Emmerich, who has been struggling to reproduce it for well over a decade now.

2 Responses

  1. I love Independence Day. A legitimate nineties classic and arguably Will Smith’s best movie.

    • I agree. Although… controversy alert… I might narrowly go with Enemy of the State as my own favourite Will Smith movie.

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