Skip to main content

Welcome to Earth!

Independence Day
(1996)

(SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Independence Day, which is probably why it has taken me a full 20 years to revisit it, and only then for the sake of referencing with regard to its belated, forlorn follow-up. ID4 is a difficult film to actively dislike, just as it’s a hard to one to come out swinging for. Its pertinent problems and common complaints are at least partly intentional, based on its makers’ bizarre notion that the ‘70s disaster movie genre was some kind of worthy template to strive for and reinvigorate. That the picture hits its marks in this regard will likely be some measure of your tolerance for its content, but mostly its lustre is down to showing off Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum at the height of their powers. Oh, and Randy Quaid, wherever he may currently be hiding, proudly sporting an industrial strength tinfoil hat.


For my money, director Roland Emmerich later bested ID4’s dubious template with the giddy end-of-the-world overkill of 2012 (no movie featuring a limo outpacing the San Andreas fault can be slighted for lack of self-awareness). But, while there was no guarantee this was going to be a mega-hit, as the makers have been fond of repeating in the run-up to the sequel, its promotional campaign and nuts-and-bolts have the confidence of a sure-thing. Anyone would think Emmerich was James Cameron (he does love Aliens, of course), the way he teases out the introductory sequence for going on an hour before the obliteration begins. It’s a canny move, as anyone who had seen the trailers was essentially standing in-line for those money shots.


And, on the way to that place, Emmerich and Devlin’s embrace of the corny and otherwise risible is so on-the-nose, it’s difficult to take as other than gently mocking. The only difference being, if this was, say, Joe Dante at the helm, you’d feel the satire seeping through. There’s an underlying lack of gleeful mischief here that may derive from Emmerich’s Teutonic gaze. He can switch from the rousing to reducing at the cut of a scene. So there’s a swathe of fetishised images of the great US of A (that waving flag, even on the Moon) followed by the relish of mass destruction as its iconography is laid to waste, followed by that ridiculously hokey rousing speech from Bill Pullman (recently invoked by Nigel Farage, of all people).


Because there’s no mistaking this as all about America, not that it harmed the box office any (60% of the gross was international). There are occasional cuts to the indistinct rest of the world, notably including some of recent adversaries (Russia is one of the first to feel the shadow of impending doom, the damn commies), and unfettered clichés invoked (Iraqis and clipped Brits, working together; “About bloody time!”) And, for all the global basis of events, the reportage is a constant drip feed of Sky News. Well, obviously.


Emmerich is stealing from his heroes throughout. He’s a very clean action moviemaker, perhaps his greatest strength, and he gets that from Spielberg, but he also gets his cues on science fiction from the same source. This is the anti-Close Encounters of the Third Kind, not just through being shorn of that film’s disarming immediacy and pregnant atmosphere, but by reverting to the cardboard currency of the disaster movies the wunderkind was at that moment eclipsing. There’s also the reversal of benevolent aliens by way of Aliens (asked “What do you want us to do?”, the succinct reply comes “Die!”), such that design-wise the trad Greys are mashed up with xenomorphs for results both derivative and unmemorable (the creatures are basically a bit crap, spindly flailing exo-suit limbs aside).


In the face of superior firepower, the Earth America is shown to be amusingly ineffectual, such that their traditionally aggressive posturing (“Nuke ‘em!”) is pitifully inadequate, and, as has been noted, it is left to an assimilated Jew and a middle-class African American (and a blue collar drunk…) to come up with the goods and preserve the status quo.


As for the alien-defeating solution, it’s not like the cheesy computer virus thing hasn’t been used since. And, I suppose, if you’re looking for rigour in that regard, you’ve started watching with entirely the wrong presuppositions. The grand climax also incorporates a reworking of the old vulnerable Death Star trope, but that never gets old (it seems, eh JJ?), and particularly since the other steals are all from Spielberg and Lucas, the ones that aren’t The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, it’s probably appropriate.


Of the alien aspect, I rather like the (verisimilitude?) that the President doesn’t know about Area 51, or aliens (and the real guy still doesn’t, right?) However, in this particular conspiracy, the plot requires all that previously discovered alien tech to have been sitting there doing nothing for 40 years, rather than feeding into a covert US space programme and various assorted mainstream technological advances (we have the sequel for that, and not just in respect of Kevlar).


If I don’t really care for Bill Pullman’s President, who rather lacks the necessary undermining of his jingoistic repose, Randy Quaid’s alcoholic Nam vet is good fun once you get past the early, quirkily-scored crop-duster scenes, by virtue of being so unapologetically goonish; he’s a near-summoning the spirit of Belushi in 1941, dying to get payback ever since aliens kidnapped him a decade before. This is another aspect of Emmerich maintaining the broadest of sweeps, corralling knowing ridicule at belief in aliens, cynicism at the government, patriotic fervour and the lampooning thereof, revelling in loss and grief and undercutting it; some of these choices work better than others.


Indeed, much as I adore saving the lubbable dog (leaping from the path of an oncoming fireball, no less), there’s something a bit suspect that it comes in tandem with killing the camp gay guy (which is designed to get a laugh; both of these get call-backs in the sequel, naturally). And I could do without the risible scenes involving Mary McDonnell’s stricken First Lady.


But the main reason this is such a breeze, its flaws failing to overcome its careless enthusiasm, is that, unlike most the director’s subsequent movies, the stars give it a pulse. I dare say it would have been a hit without Will Smith (“You’re not as charming as you think you are” – “Yes, I am”; that’s a star, right there) and Jeff Goldblum, but I doubt it would have been as big. Smith, in only his second major role (as in, as a lead in a big movie) shows definitively that he has made the transition from Bel Air, and delivers his character as ‘Will Smith who just happens to be a fighter pilot’ (an important distinction, as the sequel proves with its non-entity uniforms). One wonders if Liam Hemsworth hurting his hand when he punches an alien in Resurgence is a direct recognition of this.


Goldblum is great, of course, a perhaps unlikely sci-fi go-to coming off Jurassic Park, and with its sequel just round the corner. His brand of quirk is so pervasive that he can effortlessly steal the funnies from Smith in any scene they share (“Yes, yes. Without the oops this time”). He’s somewhat burdened by onerously unsubtle eco-motivation (“You know how you’re always trying to save the planet?”), having to patch up his relationship with his wife (Constance Spano), and being delivered pep talks from dad (Judd Hirsch), and asked to dive into an impromptu drunk scene (even Jeff’s not so good that he can pull that one off), but his “Good morning, Dave…” when speaking to an alien computer definitely seals the deal.


There’s also Brent Spiner, overacting as wildly as a man will when he’s afraid of forever-typecasting. He’s perhaps the least expected character to get an expanded role in the follow-up, but that’s what trying to make up for a Big Willie-sized hole will do.


Many of the ID4 effects are rather quaint by modern standards (back projection, model work, real fire etc.), and there’s an unvarnished quality that would inform Emmerich’s subsequent career. High concept, but with no messing about for depth or post-movie contemplation (recently he’s tried to reverse that trend, to resounding ridicule). Which is fine, but Independence Day is absent genuine wit and smarts too, aside from the easy-going charm of its leads, which separates it from the genuine cult classics of the genre; it isn’t a sufficiently clever dumb movie, making it unlikely that the sequel would have knocked it out of the park even if Smith had deigned to return.

Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Mondo bizarro. No offence man, but you’re in way over your head.

The X-Files 8.7: Via Negativa I wasn’t as down on the last couple of seasons of The X-Files as most seemed to be. For me, the mythology arc walked off a cliff somewhere around the first movie, with only the occasional glimmer of something worthwhile after that. So the fact that the show was tripping over itself with super soldiers and Mulder’s abduction/his and Scully’s baby (although we all now know it wasn’t, sheesh ), anything to stretch itself beyond breaking point in the vain hope viewers would carry on dangling, didn’t really make much odds. Of course, it finally snapped with the wretched main arc when the show returned, although the writing was truly on the wall with Season 9 finale The Truth . For the most part, though, I found 8 and 9 more watchable than, say 5 or 7. They came up with their fair share of engaging standalones, one of which I remembered to be Via Negativa .

Schnell, you stinkers! Come on, raus!

Private’s Progress (1956) (SPOILERS) Truth be told, there’s good reason sequel I’m Alright Jack reaps the raves – it is, after all, razor sharp and entirely focussed in its satire – but Private’s Progress is no slouch either. In some respects, it makes for an easy bedfellow with such wartime larks as Norman Wisdom’s The Square Peg (one of the slapstick funny man’s better vehicles). But it’s also, typically of the Boulting Brothers’ unsentimental disposition, utterly remorseless in rebuffing any notions of romantic wartime heroism, nobility and fighting the good fight. Everyone in the British Army is entirely cynical, or terrified, or an idiot.

Isn’t it true, it’s easier to be a holy man on the top of a mountain?

The Razor’s Edge (1984) (SPOILERS) I’d hadn’t so much a hankering as an idle interest in finally getting round to seeing Bill Murray’s passion project. Partly because it seemed like such an odd fit. And partly because passion isn’t something you tend to associate with any Murray movie project, involving as it usually does laidback deadpan. Murray, at nigh-on peak fame – only cemented by the movie he agreed to make to make this movie – embarks on a serious-acting-chops dramatic project, an adaptation of W Somerset Maugham’s story of one man’s journey of spiritual self-discovery. It should at least be interesting, shouldn’t it? A real curio? Alas, not. The Razor’s Edge is desperately turgid.

It’s not as if she were a… maniac, a raving thing.

Psycho (1960) (SPOILERS) One of cinema’s most feted and most studied texts, and for good reason. Even if the worthier and more literate psycho movie of that year is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom . One effectively ended a prolific director’s career and the other made its maker more in demand than ever, even if he too would discover he had peaked with his populist fear flick. Pretty much all the criticism and praise of Psycho is entirely valid. It remains a marvellously effective low-budget shocker, one peppered with superb performances and masterful staging. It’s also fairly rudimentary in tone, character and psychology. But those negative elements remain irrelevant to its overall power.

You have done well to keep so much hair, when so many’s after it.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972) (SPOILERS) Hitherto, I was most familiar with Jeremiah Johnson in the form of a popular animated gif of beardy Robert Redford smiling and nodding in slow zoom close up (a moment that is every bit as cheesy in the film as it is in the gif). For whatever reason, I hadn’t mustered the enthusiasm to check out the 1970s’ The Revenant until now (well, beard-wise, at any rate). It’s easy to distinguish the different personalities at work in the movie. The John Milius one – the (mythic) man against the mythic landscape; the likeably accentuated, semi-poetic dialogue – versus the more naturalistic approach favoured by director Sydney Pollack and star Redford. The fusion of the two makes for a very watchable, if undeniably languorous picture. It was evidently an influence on Dances with Wolves in some respects, although that Best Picture Oscar winner is at greater pains to summon a more sensitive portrayal of Native Americans (and thus, perversely, at times a more patr

My Doggett would have called that crazy.

The X-Files 9.4: 4-D I get the impression no one much liked Agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), but I felt, for all the sub-Counsellor Troi, empath twiddling that dogged her characterisation, she was a mostly positive addition to the series’ last two years (of its main run). Undoubtedly, pairing her with Doggett, in anticipation of Gillian Anderson exiting just as David Duchovny had – you rewatch these seasons and you wonder where her head was at in hanging on – made for aggressively facile gender-swapped conflict positions on any given assignment. And generally, I’d have been more interested in seeing how two individuals sympathetic to the cause – her and Mulder – might have got on. Nevertheless, in an episode like 4-D you get her character, and Doggett’s, at probably their best mutual showing.

You’re a disgrace, sir... Weren’t you at Harrow?

Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966) (SPOILERS) I hadn’t seen this one in more than three decades, and I had in mind that it was a decent spy spoof, well populated with a selection of stalwart British character actors in supporting roles. Well, I had the last bit right. I wasn’t aware this came from the stable of producer Harry Alan Towers, less still of his pedigree, or lack thereof, as a sort of British Roger Corman (he tried his hand at Star Wars with The Shape of Things to Come and Conan the Barbarian with Gor , for example). More legitimately, if you wish to call it that, he was responsible for the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu flicks. Our Man in Marrakesh – riffing overtly on Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana in title – seems to have in mind the then popular spy genre and its burgeoning spoofs, but it’s unsure which it is; too lightweight to work as a thriller and too light on laughs to elicit a chuckle.

The best thing in the world for the inside of a man or a woman is the outside of a horse.

Marnie (1964) (SPOILERS) Hitch in a creative ditch. If you’ve read my Vertigo review, you’ll know I admired rather than really liked the picture many fete as his greatest work. Marnie is, in many ways, a redux, in the way De Palma kept repeating himself in the early 80s only significantly less delirious and… well, compelling. While Marnie succeeds in commanding the attention fitfully, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. And Hitch, digging his heels in as he strives to fashion a star against public disinterest – he failed to persuade Grace Kelly out of retirement for Marnie Rutland – comes entirely adrift with his leads.

I tell you, it saw me! The hanged man’s asphyx saw me!

The Asphyx (1972) (SPOILERS) There was such a welter of British horror from the mid 60s to mid 70s, even leaving aside the Hammers and Amicuses, that it’s easy to lose track of them in the shuffle. This one, the sole directorial effort of Peter Newbrook (a cameraman for David Lean, then a cinematographer), has a strong premise and a decent cast, but it stumbles somewhat when it comes to taking that premise any place interesting. On the plus side, it largely eschews the grue. On the minus, directing clearly wasn’t Newbrook’s forte, and even aided by industry stalwart cinematographer Freddie Young (also a go-to for Lean), The Aspyhx is stylistically rather flat.

I don't like the way Teddy Roosevelt is looking at me.

North by Northwest (1959) (SPOILERS) North by Northwest gets a lot of attention as a progenitor of the Bond formula, but that’s giving it far too little credit. Really, it’s the first modern blockbuster, paving the way for hundreds of slipshod, loosely plotted action movies built around set pieces rather than expertly devised narratives. That it delivers, and delivers so effortlessly, is a testament to Hitchcock, to writer Ernest Lehmann, and to a cast who make the entire implausible exercise such a delight.