Monday, September 23, 2013

Independence Day (review) Childhood Favorites Week


So this is a project I've had on the docket for far too long due to my overwhelming fear of criticizing modern classics. I've picked out my ten favorite movies from when I was growing up and revisited them all to see how they would withstand the test of time. For the most part, either because I was blinded by my nostalgia or because I had impeccable taste as a kid, I enjoyed watching all the movies from a new perspective. What was really interesting for me, however, was seeing everything that I missed or failed to appreciate. So I'm going to do a review a day for two (maybe consecutive) weeks in no particular order, and if you're lucky I'll write up some sort of ranking at the end. First up, Roland Emmerich's Independence Day (1996).

For those of you who don't already know the story: two days before the 4th of July, aliens show up in giant space ships and we have to fight them off. The movie has four main plot threads than converge and split off at various points. The primary story arch follows President Thomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman) as he reacts to the alien presence and struggles to make the best decisions for the American people. Then there's the "cable repair man" David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) who discovers how the aliens are using our satellites against us and isolates their signal. Third is Russell Casse (Randy Quaid), a former military pilot and present day alcoholic crop duster who claims to have been abducted by aliens. And finally, we have the U.S. Marine Corps pilot Captain Steven Hiller (Will Smith) who always wanted to work for NASA but lacks the credentials, and despite Smith's top billing this story is surprisingly the last to be introduced in the movie.

Part of the magic of this movie, and something I definitely couldn't appreciate when I first saw the movie over 15 years ago, is the skillful way these disparate plots are intertwined. It begins with simple stuff, such as David being introduced to the president because he discovers a countdown embedded in satellite distortion. Eventually it ramps up to more complicated connections though, like when Capt. Hiller's girlfriend, who barely escaped the alien's first wave of attacks alive, runs into the first lady, whose helicopter was destroyed in the attack, such that when Hiller rescues her and returns to the president in Area 51 he is also rescuing the first lady and returning her to her husband. It probably sounds jumbled in writing, but on screen it works wonderfully.

Classic disaster film visual coordinates.

Another item that belongs in the unconditional praise category for this movie is the acting. This is undoubtedly due in part to its star studded ensemble casting: Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, and Judd Hirsch are all amazing in their prominent roles while Harvey Fierstein, Margaret Colin, James Rebhorn, Adam Baldwin, Brent Spiner, and Robert Loggia bring their talents to the supporting cast. Independence Day even features an 8-year-old Mae Whitman. The only lead actor I didn't like was Randy Quaid's Russel Casse, and I think that feeling (or lack thereof) is linked somewhat with my idea that his plot thread is largely unnecessary. His alcoholism basically serves as an excuse for him to become a figure of sacrifice without our having to feel bad for him. It's not a bad story, I just didn't appreciate it as much this time around. But the fact that this movie develops strong characterization despite the scattered nature of its plot is a testament to the success of these actors in their roles.

Speaking of Quaid's side plot, this time around I watched the Special Edition which adds an additional 9 minutes to the feature, and I came to the conclusion that for the most part what was cut deserved to be cut. About 50% of it is an addition to Quaid's arch about his son and his medication which just draws out an already tangential thread of the story. There is exactly one scene that I felt could have been left in which involves Brent Spiner showing Jeff Goldblum around the inside of the alien spaceship. For the most part, however, the movie works better without these deleted scenes.

There's one more thing worth mentioning before I move from form to content, and that's the special effects. For me, some older science fiction can appear dated because of the decision to use early computer generated imagery, while others that used models tend to still look good today. Independence Day mixes these strategies with (perhaps unsurprisingly) mixed results. The model work (see below) is stunning. It manages to convey an immense sense of size and detail on the alien ships. There are some CGI sequences that haven't aged as well, however, and some of the green screening is so painfully obvious that I wonder how I never noticed as a kid. That said, for the most part this movie still looks great.

How can you not love this shot?

While Independence Day is still fun and entertaining (the comedy especially still shines), what I noticed most on my return voyage through this film is that, to put it bluntly, this is about as ideological as it gets. The biggest elephant in the room for me is the nationalist nonsense in the form of the United States as world savior. We're the first to discover the alien signal, we plant the virus in the mother ship, and we locate the structural weak point in the alien ships. Then, to top it all off, we force our July 4th Independence Day onto the rest of the planet. This supposedly unifying gesture instead comes off as smug and conceited, as if we're saying, "Now everyone gets to celebrate our holiday! Doesn't that make you feel special?" It's really unfortunate since the speech Bill Pullman gives on this issue is quite good and to this day gives me goosebumps.

There are also the more subtle cultural issues of heteronormativity and racism. The entire movie builds up to Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum reuniting with their respective women, using emotion to eclipse any politics that may have accidentally entered the frame. The president is white and the black protagonist marries a stripper. It's stereotypical to the point where I actually feel like pointing it out, and if you've kept up with my reviews you know I rarely mention stereotypes. These aren't the sort of things that will break a movie... unless it has nothing else going for it thematically. And Independence Day, despite remaining a joy to watch, is rather shallow in the content department. If this movie had a slogan, it would be this: you can physically tear apart our country and even threaten the entire world with destruction, but you can never damage our (bigoted and ideological) beliefs.



Also, 2001: A Space Odyssey reference for those who missed it.

3 comments:

  1. This movie is a masterpiece in my opinion. I had it on video in 1996 and watched it every day non-stop for months. Every day! It's my 'Star Wars'. Sure, it's cheesy, but that's what I love. I didn't mind the deleted scenes, and even though the film stinks of Americanism, it remains my third fav movie of all time.

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    1. This is probably my guiltiest pleasure on the list at this point, although I obviously liked it unironically when I was little. Definitely a good movie even if it's not my favorite anymore.

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  2. I have just downloaded iStripper, so I can have the best virtual strippers on my taskbar.

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