Monday, June 27, 2016

Welcome to Earth


INDEPENDENCE DAY

Probably the best straight-up alien invasion film we've ever gotten—or, at the least, the most excessive—Independence Day will live forever.

1996
Directed by Roland Emmerich
Written by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich
With Jeff Goldblum (David Levinson), Judd Hirsch (Julius Levinson), Bill Pullman (Pres. Thomas Whitmore), Mary McDonnell (First Lady Marilyn Whitmore), Robert Loggia (Gen. Grey), James Rebhorn (Sec. Def. Albert Nimziki), Mae Whitman (Patricia Whitmore), Margaret Colin (Constance Spano), Brent Spiner (Dr. Brakish Okun), Adam Baldwin (Maj. Mitchell), Randy Quaid (Russell Casse), Vivica Fox (Jasmine Dubrow), and Will Smith (Capt. Steven Hiller)

Spoiler alert: high


Now, I wasn't wrong when I said that Stargate remains Roland Emmerich's best space opera (and, therefore, Emmerich's best movie overall).  But if we're going to talk about his other one, then it behooves me to admit that it's actually a lot more complicated than saying, simply, "Stargate is unambiguously better, and Independence Day is unambiguously worse."  For within its massive and mostly-justified 145 minute runtime, Independence Day offers the highest highs in Emmerich's career-spanning attempt to fuse all his disparate influences into one single, coherent auteurist vision.  (The definition of auteur, mind you, is not "director you happen to like.")  Thus, in ID4, as it was marketed and as I shall call it, you can find long stretches of movie that are every bit as mind-smashingly awesome as anything ever done by Spielberg or by Cameron, or, really, by anybody—even by Emmerich's truest guiding light, that immortal Master of Disaster, Irwin Allen himself.

But, then, you'll also find something else: and while I have no interest in pretending that they are the lowest lows which Emmerich could reach—Godzilla was just around the corner—there are moments where the director and his screenwriting partner, Dean Devlin, seem compelled to break their own damned film, with some of the worst "jokes" you'll ever hear, alongside some of the most self-evidently false sentiment that you'll ever wish you hadn't felt.  Oh, it can be as sincere as any movie ever made, and yet it is replete with innumerable tangents into what can only be described as self-parody; Emmerich, who had somehow managed to take Stargate's goofy genre scenario seriously, intermittently descends into what would soon become one of his signatures: sub-slapstick skits, running at something close to 90 degree angles to the nominal mood of his films, and embodied in the form of absolutely unacceptable comic relief characters.  Hell, it's somewhat hard to say how many comic relief characters ID4 actually has, for even its comic relief characters have their own comic relief characters, turtles all the way down.

Being so clearly inspired by Allen's disasters, yet expanded in scope beyond Allen's wildest dreams, the plot is a big, mighty, sprawling thing.  But the premise?  That's pure 1950s: nothing more nor less than the most ambitious full-scale alien invasion ever put on film.  It is War of the Worlds and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers wrought with all the audience-flattening spectacle that 1996 and seventy-five million bucks could offer.

And let's not mince words: ID4 is one of the last great gasps of its art form.  Though there's plenty of early (and well-concealed) CGI to see here, in theory, ID4 could have been made at any point since 1977.  But it was made in '96.  Decades of Hollywood technology support its aspirations.  And thus we have the persevering monument to the utter magnificence of practical effects—of models, of matte paintings, of motion-controlled photography and lovingly-detailed models of spaceships and cities and landmarks—in short, of blowing up real shit, real good.  It holds up so well that it looks better than many movies made now.  Sure, there are some badly pasted-on flames here and there, and some intermittently dire compositing (most notably in the film's single worst scene); and the effect isn't so much that you're seeing actual alien spaceships kill actual Earthling cities.  Instead, you're seeing artfully-constructed alien spaceships kill artfully-constructed Earthling cities.  Yet that's exactly the kind of thing you want from a movie that transparently positions itself as the rightful heir of Harryhausen.  So what ID4 offers us is this: a vision of the end of the world that remains, upon an aesthetic and a technical level, almost flawless.

Roland Emmerich: the only director I can count on to hate cities as much as me!

But then, there is still a plot to apply to that unbreakable premise, and that ranges from the perfectly fine to the actively bad; if I'm forced streamline things too much, blame Emmerich and Devlin, not me.  So: on the most basic level, we have three acts, one for each day of this film's story's alternate universe, helpfully announced by on-screen title cards reading "July 2nd," "July 3rd," and "July 4th."  (And just how cute is it, that ID4 was actually released on 7/2/96?)

So, on July 2nd, we meet our heroes, and they are legion: there are three main groups, along with one auxiliary plotline that only exists so someone we presumably care about can sacrifice themselves in the end.  But the main groups belong to Jeff Goldblum (a Scientist), to Will Smith (a Soldier), and to Bill Pullman (a President).

Or, to "David," "Steve," and "Thomas J. Whitmore," respectively, if you need to be a stickler about treating movies as cohesive fictions, though I don't know why you would—because Emmerich surely isn't, and in the grandest Towering Inferno fashion, ID4 is stuffed with famous (and "famous") faces in all its major functional roles, most of them actors known for a very specific shtick (ID4, of course, is peak Goldblum).  These actors then perform their shtick in front of Emmerich's camera.  Sometimes they do so within the confines of their movie's reality.  Sometimes they do not.  So, unlike Allen's best works, we don't have bona fide characters (and, unlike Poseidon Adventure, no one we actually do care about dies).  Instead, we have a collection of poses—though often quite effective ones!—that you feel perfectly comfortable referring to, for example, as "President Pullman."  And you might as well call him that.  Slapping some metafiction onto the actor makes the movie much better, especially since Pullman plays a man who went from Gulf War fighter jockey to POTUS in three years.

I do like his campaign slogan, though: "Hope, change, and death from above."

Back to that story: on July 2nd, a moon-sized alien mothership arrives in near-Earth space, and dispatches its city-sized flying saucers to loom ominously over human population centers in a cinematically perfect way, making no attempt at contact, instead merely floating and waiting.  People go nuts, as they would, and David Levinson—a communications engineer—discovers the aliens' signal, buried within our own satellite network, and, worst of all, it's counting down.  He rushes to the President—with whom he has an in, for one of Whitmore's lackeys is his ex-wife—and tries to explain the situation.  Whitmore listens, and orders an evacuation—something he ought to have done immediately, obviously, though to ID4's credit, it makes it clear that President Pullman knows full-well that he is going to go down as the single worst president in American history, assuming any American survives.

Naturally, it's too late.  The saucers destroy New York, L.A., D.C., and more.  Only the President and his circle survive the conflagration in Washington. Meanwhile, in several cross-cut sequences (ID4 is all "cross-cut sequences") we've met USMC pilot Steve Hiller, although we may wish we hadn't.  He survives the initial onslaught by being called away to fly an F/A-18 Hornet for America; although his girlfriend Jasmine and her son (and their fucking dog) survive by pure, unadulterated screenwriter fiat.

July 3rd arrives, and America begins its various aerial counterattacks, while the Prez and David visit Area 51 to meet with a mysterious government scientist and gawk at the alien technology we've secretly recovered over the years.  The counterattacks fail, spectacularly—indeed, Steve is the only survivor of his squadron, and when he actually brings down one of the aliens' swarm fighters, it's mostly by accident.  Predictably enough, even nukes don't work.  (Predictably, of course, only in the sense that "this is a movie"; the failure to immediately turn to nuclear weapons the moment the aliens go hostile is all the evidence you need that Whitmore is, as a commander-in-chief, borderline incompetent.)

So, as usual, it's up to Science to save the world.  David sets himself to the task of breaking into the alien computers using the recovered spaceship's system, in order to bring down their shields and give Earth a fighting chance; Steve derelicts his duty to save his presumably-dead girlfriend; and, finally, the President gives the greatest inspirational speech in film history, right before David's master plan is executed on the morning of July 4th, in a scene that's 100% reminiscent of Return of the Jedi, except for the parts where the mood drifts off, oddly enough, into the "cosmic wonder" territory staked out by Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Given the little nod to HAL 9000, it's probably supposed to be 2001: A Space Odyssey.  But it's not.

By this point, Emmerich has exorcised his most dangerous comedic demons—the turning point, I think, is the scene where Brent Spiner is turned into a meat puppet during a horror-inflected alien autospy gone wrong that's surprising for just how damned well-made and, frankly, actually scary it is.  But getting to this point really isn't all that hard: if you can praise ID4 for nothing else, it's some of the quickest 145 minutes you'll ever experience.  And this remains true, even if it does occasionally slam you at full-speed right into the brick wall of some of its less-enjoyable characters.  No, the good stuff makes it easy to forget just how unbelievably toxic some of this film's early going has been, and how often it prompts you to ask, "But Roland, why?"

Above all, "Why is Will Smith, and everything to do with Will Smith, so terrifyingly unappealing in this film, until almost two hours have passed?"  At the very least, you'll have cause to wonder whether or not ID4 would be a significantly better movie if Will Smith played his character in silence, piping up solely to offer ID4's other most famous line of dialogue, which is (in perfect fairness) one of the 1990s' greatest and most iconic quips.

But it's hard to square the charismatic lead of The Fresh Prince and Men In Black with the over-aggressive flailing Smith gets up to in ID4.  He wouldn't be this unpleasant again until he started drinking his own jellyfish-flavored bathtub moonshine, and decided that he would make some severely overworked melodramas.

Yet blaming Smith himself just feels wrong, for, truly, it's not his fault: on top of being saddled with a disaster of a character, he's also burdened with virtually every other bad thing in Emmerich and Devlin's whole screenplay, too.  Thus it's his girlfriend (and, yes, his girlfriend's dog) who survive by miracles in the tunnel, because giant walls of flame—known for their courtesy—will politely avoid burning major supporting characters; and it's his sidekick, Harry Connick Jr.'s Jimmy Wilder, who presents himself as Emmerich and Devlin taking turns, spitting directly into your mouth and calling you a whore.

Their scenes together are like premonitions of hell.  Only a single gag between them works on even the most marginal level: it's a misunderstanding that makes it look as if Wilder is proposing to his handsome friend, and this old chestnut only functions at all because we know that Emmerich himself is gay, so therefore the joke comes off as reasonably good-natured.  Otherwise, though, Connick is an outright abomination.  Forced by Emmerich into performing a vaudeville act atop the smoking graves of a hundred million corpses (an act which Connick apparently based on a total moron's notion of Top Gun) it is something akin to the worst idea anyone has ever had.  And so the very best thing about Wilder is that he dies almost the moment the shit hits the fan.  Then we cheer like mad, because now we don't have to see just where he was going to take this character next.

But all is not lost, for the Smith we actually like shows up, at long last, once he finally collides with Goldblum, who gives him something solid to work against, cutting against Smith's smarmy confidence with his many classic Goldblumisms.  But then, there's nothing in ID4 that does not benefit from Goldblum's presence, not even the preposterous Science Heroics of the third act, which—in glorious 1990s fashion—depend crucially upon hacking.

Decried as stupid by proponents and detractors alike, David's alien computer virus is perhaps both better and worse than you remember: better, because it's just plausible enough, within the constraints of a dumbassed subgenre like the alien invasion film, that the aliens have already built an interface with our networks that David could theoretically use against them; and much worse, because the fanwank explanation for how this is supposed to work implies that an alien empire has brought their war machine billions of miles through the void, yet forgot to bring any equipment to talk to one another.

Not that, in the final analysis, it really matters all that much: it's neither more nor less believable than the outs posited by the alien invasion films of yore, and, frankly, it's rather more credible than the ending of Wells' ur-text, even as it charmingly and subtly references it.  It exists not for its own sake, anyway, but to provide the framework for a thrilling, funny, and action-packed climax that's as well-earned as any disaster film's has ever been.  Besides, even though it's at least as eye-rolling as the computer science, you will never hear anybody complaining about the preposterously idiotic way that air combat is depicted in ID4, presumably because Star Wars spoiled them and Top Gun spoiled them even further.  Yet it certainly looks cool as hell; whereas hacking is still just stupid hacking.

But, you know, even if David's particular contribution is plum silly, it's still hard to gainsay just how well-motivated the President's decision to directly inject himself into the combat is.  Better yet, Whitmore's presence at the controls of an F/A-18 makes the stakes clearer than fine crystal: for this truly is humanity's very last chance, and if our heroes fail, the world will have precious little use left for any President of the United States.

And so the final half-hour is as close to perfect as this kind of popcorn movie can get, even feinting toward some genuinely meaningfully moving material, as the whole world unites in the face of extinction: it's little touches, like the Israeli and Arab air forces working together, that make ID4 more than just a purely mechanical exercise.  Emmerich puts his images and his sentiment where his stand-in president's mouth is; and if you're so inclined, you can feel, right in your soul, the whole human family reach up to smash our existential nemesis.  Of course, if you aren't so inclined, maybe you should ask yourself if you're actually a bad person.  Because you probably are.

The wonderful thing is that it never feels like an allegory for anything: it is a deeply literal film.  Focused principally upon Americans because it was marketed to an American audience, in its heartfelt climax, it really seeks to embrace us all in what amounts to a patriotism for the whole human species—and that's a beautiful sentiment for a mindless blockbuster like this one to have.  Maybe, in the end, that's what makes Roland Emmerich special and likeable, despite all his excesses (and all his many, many missteps): for when he destroys the world, and kills most of us, it's actually because he loves us, after all.


Score:  9/10

3 comments:

  1. I so powerfully don't want to see the sequel to this one, no matter how good the original was. But I do love me some Maika Monroe, and I want her to spread across the country like a virus.

    I eagerly await your review to see if it's safe to dip my toe in the water. Tim hated it, but what does he know?

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    1. He's never had the best eye for blockbusters, unless he thinks they're really good, in which case they typically are (and, sometimes, if he thinks they're really bad, which bodes ill).

      I'm hoping he's wrong, but I get a sinking feeling he's not.

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    2. Well, you'll at least get a thorough education in super fake technology.

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