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

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Life is like a box of timelines. You feel me?

Russian Doll Season One
(SPOILERS) It feels like loading the dice to proclaim something necessarily better because it’s female-driven, but that’s the tack The Hollywood Reporter took with its effusive review of Russian Doll, suggesting “although Nadia goes on a similar journey of self-discovery to Bill Murray’s hackneyed reporter in Groundhog Day, the fact that the show was created, written by and stars women means that it offers up a different, less exploitative and far more thoughtful angle” (than the predominately male-centric entries in the sub-genre). Which rather sounds like Rosie Knight changing the facts to fit her argument. And ironic, given star Natasha Lyonne has gone out of her way to stress the show’s inclusive message. Russian Dollis good, but the suggestion that “unlike its predecessors (it) provides a thoughtfulness, authenticity and honesty which makes it inevitable end (sic) all the more powerful” is cobblers.

We’re not owners here, Karen. We’re just passing through.

Out of Africa (1985)
I did not warm to Out of Africa on my initial viewing, which would probably have been a few years after its theatrical release. It was exactly as the publicity warned, said my cynical side; a shallow-yet-bloated, awards-baiting epic romance. This was little more than a well-dressed period chick flick, the allure of which was easily explained by its lovingly photographed exotic vistas and Robert Redford rehearsing a soothing Timotei advert on Meryl Streep’s distressed locks. That it took Best Picture only seemed like confirmation of it as all-surface and no substance. So, on revisiting the film, I was curious to see if my tastes had “matured” or if it deserved that dismissal. 

Mountains are old, but they're still green.

Roma (2018)
(SPOILERS) Roma is a critics' darling and a shoe-in for Best Foreign Film Oscar, with the potential to take the big prize to boot, but it left me profoundly indifferent, its elusive majesty remaining determinedly out of reach. Perhaps that's down to generally spurning autobiographical nostalgia fests – complete with 65mm widescreen black and white, so it's quite clear to viewers that the director’s childhood reverie equates to the classics of old – or maybe the elliptical characterisation just didn't grab me, but Alfonso Cuarón's latest amounts to little more than a sliver of substance beneath all that style.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

We’re looking for a bug no one’s seen before. Some kind of smart bug.

Starship Troopers (1997)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi trio of Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers are frequently claimed to be unrivalled in their genre, but it’s really only the first of them that entirely attains that rarefied level. Discussion and praise of Starship Troopers is generally prefaced by noting that great swathes of people – including critics and cast members – were too stupid to realise it was a satire. This is a bit of a Fight Club one, certainly for anyone from the UK (Verhoeven commented “The English got it though. I remember coming out of Heathrow and seeing the posters, which were great. They were just stupid lines about war from the movie. I thought, ‘Finally someone knows how to promote this.’”) who needed no kind of steer to recognise what the director was doing. And what he does, he does splendidly, even if, at times, I’m not sure he entirely sustains a 129-minute movie, since, while both camp and OTT, Starship Troopers is simultaneously required t…

Even after a stake was driven through its heart, there’s still interest.

Prediction 2019 Oscars
Shockingly, as in I’m usually much further behind, I’ve missed out on only one of this year’s Best Picture nominees– Vice isn’t yet my vice, it seems – in what is being suggested, with some justification, as a difficult year to call. That might make for must-see appeal, if anyone actually cared about the movies jostling for pole position. If it were between Black Panther and Bohemian Rhapsody (if they were even sufficiently up to snuff to deserve a nod in the first place), there might be a strange fascination, but Joe Public don’t care about Roma, underlined by it being on Netflix and stillconspicuously avoided by subscribers (if it were otherwise, they’d be crowing about viewing figures; it’s no Bird Box, that’s for sure).

Now we're all wanted by the CIA. Awesome.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)
(SPOILERS) There’s a groundswell of opinion that Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is the best in near 20-year movie franchise. I’m not sure I’d go quite that far, but only because this latest instalment and its two predecessors have maintained such a consistently high standard it’s difficult to pick between them. III featured a superior villain and an emotional through line with real stakes. Ghost Protocol dazzled with its giddily constructed set pieces and pacing. Christopher McQuarrie’s fifth entry has the virtue of a very solid script, one that expertly navigates the kind of twists and intrigue one expects from a spy franchise. It also shows off his talent as a director; McQuarrie’s not one for stylistic flourish, but he makes up for this with diligence and precision. Best of all, he may have delivered the series’ best character in Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust (admittedly, in a quintet that makes a virtue of pared down motivation and absen…

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.