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Independence Day, written by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, directed by Roland Emmerich, 1996, 130 min.

ID4 is a carefully positioned product, right down to its pre-chosen (and ultimately nonsensical) nickname, and represents one of the most disturbing trends in modern film-making. Namely, the big budget extravaganza, which throws all questions of quality and excellence out the window. Independence Day is deeply sexist, outrageously ignorant about science and logic, and only sometimes fun. Perhaps Emmerich is only filling the shoes of spectacle-makers of the past like De Mille, and there's nothing wrong with spectacle. I enjoy a cheesy matinee as much as anyone else, but I wish that film-makers would take time out of the rush to big special effects and big box office to fix up a few script problems.

The basic plot of the movie: aliens invade and things get blown up. BOOM! At first many people think that the aliens have come in peace, as all of those Spielberg movies have led us to believe. But one lonely scientist figures out that the signal being sent back and forth between the alien ships is a synchronizing signal, meant to make sure that all of the Earth's major cities get blown up at once. The President gets evacuated just in time, and the resistance begins in earnest. Meanwhile, the alien ships that have been hovering over many different cities around the world have used their death lasers to blow up those cities spectacularly. Some airforce pilots try to attack the ships, but the alien fighters are too well-protected. Two of the main male characters upload a virus, and the mothership loses its ability to protect all of the smaller ships. The resulting gargantuan, radioactive explosion doesn't worry anyone. It's only fireworks. Everyone cheers about the exciting explosions but no one worries about genocide (the characters have found out that the entire alien race moved into our solar system but are unmoved by this).

When I saw the movie for the second time, and analysed it in terms of the screen time taken up by explosions, I came to two conclusions. Explosions are, in the end, boring because of their essential similarity. Secondly, there's much less time left over for characterization. And should we subtract the screen time where characters react to the explosions, what do we have left? A collection of pure clichés, and perhaps it's silly to complain about sexism because of how both male and female are so deeply stereotyped. The noble stripper, the Jewish father. The foolish stripper, the foolish gay man. And so on, down the line. Even the relationships of the main two couples are indeed distressing. Vivica Fox is not entirely passive in that she drives a truck, but that's on her way back to her man, and what happens when she gets there? She gets to say goodbye as he goes off to do active, manly things, and be his photogenic welcoming-home committee. Constance Spano has an apparently interesting role, advisor to the President, but she does nothing in that role. She too gets to voice foolish feminine cautions and wave goodbye, and then kiss her man upon his return. Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum may also be playing stereotyped roles, but at least they are important to the progress of the story. And whether it is intelligent to have active roles in such silly proceedings is another question, but the movie doesn't touch that one, as might be expected. Even a tiniest bit of satire might have changed Independence Day for the better, but Emmerich and Devlin treat their hacked-together B-movie with complete seriousness, almost reverence. And I repeat my point: there's nothing wrong with B-movies. But it's still possible to get them wrong.

This brings me to the errors of science and logic in the movie, which is manifestly not the point of the film, or much on the minds of Devlin and Emmerich. All the same, it's disappointing when Independence Day uses some mildly interesting ideas, develops them somewhat, then forgets or abuses them later. Take for example the aliens' exoskeleton. It's a neat concept, and the design work and modelling are done perfectly. We are visually convinced that the aliens have some kind of superior biomechanoid armour protecting them. And then Will Smith punches an alien in the head, knocking it out for a long period of time. Ok, sure, it had just crashed, or perhaps it was waiting to be taken into the human headquarters (as the humans did indeed do, rather foolishly). So is the exoskeleton frail? And if so, what's the point? Or is it tough? And if so, how could Will Smith knock it out? Or was the alien faking? And if so, why did it wait until the doctors cut so deeply into it? None of the explanations quite work. This trend continues through the smaller details -- triangulating a call from one point, surviving a fireball in front of an open door, a human laptop "negotiating with host" and uploading a virus -- right up to the main premise. Alien invasion may touch off visceral fears in humanity (for whatever dubious reason) but it is essentially ridiculous. Interstellar travel and they come here needing to use our satellite system to coordinate their attack? And why would they be after resources so deep in a gravity well? And what particular resources (they are never named in the movie)? Sure, the invasion is a premise, but it's never worked out consistently to give the alien actions any credibility.

Independence Day is a movie spectacle that never even imagines that being spectacular is more than explosions and mindless fighting. The characters are conventional, the ideas are not fully developed, and there's not much truly memorable about the whole enterprise. Devlin and Emmerich busy themselves borrowing from other science fiction movies but no one needs to borrow from them; there's nothing here.

DVD Note: Independence Day is available in a 2-DVD set from Fox's Five Star Collection series. Disc 1 has the movie itself in two versions, one the theatrical release and the second a newer version that has nine minutes of extra footage (mostly character bits that are just as shallow as what was already onscreen). Disc 1 also includes two commentary tracks, one by Devlin and Emmerich and the other by the special effects team. Disc 2 has the usual variety of extras such as deleted scenes, galleries, trailers, and so forth, as well as three 20-30 minute documentaries, one a made-for-TV Making-Of special, one a Blair Witch-style mockumentary, and one a decent look at the special effects of the movie.


First posted: May 17, 1998; Last modified: February 19, 2004

Copyright © 1998-2004 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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