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INDEPENDENCE DAY

The science fiction blockbuster.

By Steve Biodrowski     June 27, 2000

One of the biggest behemoths of blockbuster proportions in recent memory, INDEPENDENCE DAY arrives on DVD today in a special edition featuring numerous bells and whistles. The double-disc set, loaded with supplemental materials, supposedly contains five-and-a-half hours of material. Although for some critics, the film will always stand as an example of Hollywood excess gone far to excessive, of weak storytelling bolstered by prodigious special effects, the film really does deserve the royal DVD treatment is receiving. In terms of sheer scale, the film really does deliver; far more than the misguided follow-up that was GODZILLA, ID4 convinces that size does matter.

Before INDEPENDENCE DAY, the team of director Rolland Emmerich and writer Dean Devlin had turned out competent genre potboilers in the past (MOON 44, UNIVERSAL SOLDIER), and STARGATE (1994) showed an impressive epic sweep in its conception, but in general their work had a certain lackluster quality to it--the absence of any kind of vision, style, or panache that would lift their filmmaking above the run-of-the-mill genre standards. Therefore, it was something of a pleasant surprise to see that their summer behemoth, INDEPENDENCE DAY, mostly transcended the limitations of their earlier work.

To be sure, their limitations were still on view: they had not suddenly developed a subtle grasp of characterization or learned how to stage a dramatic scene with any great conviction. However, the film they constructed played to their strengths so well that the weakness were dwarfed in comparison, if not completely eclipsed. They delivered an absolutely stunning alien invasion on an epic scale, with mass destruction served up almost to perfection, and they tied it all together with a disaster-movie style multi-character scenario enlivened by some amusing performances.

Basically, what this adds up to is a near-perfect realization of the movie you eagerly anticipated when, as a kid in the '50s, you saw some poster or coming attractions trailer for a science fiction movie, only to find out that the actual film was 75 minutes of talk, some stock footage, and a few cheap special effects. (We are of course referring not to WAR OF THE WORLDS, DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, etc., but to the American International Pictures type of product). In ID4, you get the real thing: a apocalyptic confrontation of staggering proportions, with enough special effects and pyrotechnics to satisfy that long-remembered youthful anticipation.

To be fair, there is more here than just explosions: the script by Devlin and Emmerich provides plenty of other grist for the mill, and as a director Emmerich orchestrates that mayhem to great effect. Rather than just an effects spectacular, the film really does capture a genuine sense of suspense, of impended doom proceeding from an implacable, utterly alien foe with whom there can be no negotiation. Nowhere is this more evident than in the opening 45 minutes, which consists mostly of a countdown to the first attack. The scenes are constructed so well that the audience hardly notices that, for the most part, it is simply waiting for something to happen.

Once the cookie starts to crumble, the script fairly deftly moves its ensemble cast together so that they can put aside their differences and unite to defeat the common enemy. The calculation on the part of the filmmakers is utterly transparent, with the ethnically diverse characters (WASP, black, Jewish), but it's so well-intentioned that it would be picayune to quibble. The plot requires a rather healthy dose of suspension of disbelief, but for the most part the film earns this indulgence from its audience. For instance, when Will Smith pilots an alien fighter vehicle at the climax, we have to accept that he could learn how to handle it in a few minutes, but the thing has supposedly been lying around since crashing at Roswell, New Mexico, so at least there's been time to study it. Likewise, Jeff Goldblum's announcement that he can bring down the aliens' defensive force field with a computer virus is such a lazy writer's device that it elicits audible groans, but as an old Apple advocate I was amused that a Macintosh helped save the world (never mind the problems with the alien technology being Mac compatible).

For the most part, the human interaction fails to equal the combat scenes. The film really does live up to its other model, the '70s disaster film, in this regard, with a slew of familiar faces filling out two-dimensional stereotypes. Most of the cast bring enough screen presence to help compensate for this, but only Goldblum, with his eccentric character ticks, and Smith, with his straight-arrow sincerity, manage any interesting character interaction, when they team up to turn the film into a buddy movie toward the conclusion (Hollywood really should team them up again). STAR TREK's Brent Spiner also has a few good moments as hyperactive oddball scientist, but the actors fare less well, particularly Judd Hirsch, and for some reason Randy Quaid's part just doesn't come off (at least for me).

To be fair, the film does occasionally achieve the gung-ho, patriotic effect it intends: Bill Pullman's inspirational pep talk, just prior to the last-ditch desperate assault on the enemy, is effective and even moving; it's the one moment when what a character has to say is as interesting as the action that is about to be seen. (For a film dealing with a worldwide invasion--from a German-born director, no less--ID4 is, unfortunately, too focused on the U.S., almost but not quite to the exclusion of all other nations. Yet this moment really does convey the proper sense of global unity. If only there had been more of this, it might have ratcheted the film up on notch on the epic scale.)

This movie was such a success that it earned its creative duo the carte blanche they used to ruin GODZILLAa film that looked like a shoo-in for success after what Emmerich and Devlin had achieved here. In retrospect, what went wrong should have been no surprise. The writing of ID4 is serviceable; it does the job of setting up the elements that make the movie work, but it is actually the sheer scale of those elements that truly impresses (as when countless alien ships bombard hapless human airmen). But size and scale can only hide so much, and ID4 has a ticking time bomb structure built into the story that keeps the plot driving forward, something sorely lacking in GODZILLA. But what's far more damaging is that GODZILLA almost steadfastly refused to deliver on its potential, whereas ID4 is a wonderful evocation of childhood wish fulfillment, delivering everything one could expect from the film of this sortor at least, everything that one would expect with the imagination of an eager eight-year-old film-goer (ironically, an approach not dissimilar to that used in DESTROY ALL MONSTERS).

With a two-hour-plus running time, INDEPENDENCE DAY is not as tight as it should be, but at least it delivers on most of its promises. This is one summer blockbuster that truly earned its hype.

INDEPENDENCE DAY. Released by 20th Century Fox, July 1996 by 20th Century Fox. A Centropolis Films production. Directed by Roland Emmerich. Written by Dean Devlin & Roland Emmerich. Produced by Dean Devlin, Roland Emmerich, Ute Emmerich, William Fay, Peter Winther. Music by David Arnold. Rated PG-13. 142 mins. Starring: Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Randy Quaid, Robert Loggia, Judd Hirsch, Mary McDonnell, Margaret Colin, Vivica A. Fox, Harvey Fierstein, Harry Connick, Jr., Adam Baldwin and Brent Spiner.

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