Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Independence Day (1995)

Let me roll my “Why Do I Own This?” and “Memories” column into one for a paragraph. My strongest memory about “Independence Day” involves a birthday party. I honestly do not recall whose birthday it was, so I’m guessing it was either a school mate’s or a friend of a friend's. I remember the puke-green wallpaper in the back room of a sleazy roller rink. (Though it might have been an arcade...) I remember the kid unwrapping an action figure of one of the aliens from “Independence Day.” That should show you how disassociated with the kid I was, that I remember the toy more then him.

That’s how omnipresent “Independence Day” was back in 1996. The “ID4” logo was slapped everywhere. The image of an exploding White House was impossible to escape. I don’t remember many people owning them but the merchandise was still very easy to find. It’s one of the earliest times I can recall taking note of a movie’s box office performance. The film was a monster hit, the first blockbuster Will Smith scored on his path to becoming the world’s highest grossing star. All of this is despite “Independence Day” not being that good of a movie. Maybe that’s why, two decades later, the film isn’t that widely discussed. “Independence Day” mostly survives as an artifact of nineties nostalgia and an internet meme. Despite Roland Emmerich’s insistence on making a sequel – which is finally coming into being next year – the movie is far from a universally beloved classic. Which brings me to the central question: Why do I own it?

Maybe that success can be laid at the film’s easily understood log line. This is a standard-issue alien invasion story, the nineties blockbuster variation on “War of the Worlds.” In the days leading up to July 4th, satellite signals are being interrupted all over the world. This is because a giant alien mothership has taken up residence in our atmosphere. Soon, that ship sends its still-massive cruisers down to Earth’s surface, one floating over the capital of every world power. The public is both panicked and curious about the visitors, until they start destroying whole cities with their massive death rays. Now, a divergent group of people – the President of the United States, a newly-wed fighter pilot, an eccentric tech expert, an alcoholic crop duster – come together to protect what remains of Earth from the hostile invaders.

Certain scenes in “Independence Day” left a bad taste in my mouth upon this viewing, the first time I’ve seen the movie in probably a decade. Modern blockbusters thrive on images of urban destruction. I don’t know how many essays have been written about “destruction porn” but it’s a common topic. “Independence Day” probably isn’t the first movie to focus on massive collateral damage but it, no doubt, shares some responsibility for pushing modern summer movies in that direction. The alien spaceships don’t just blow up the White House or a single skyscraper in L.A. They decimate both cities. Washington and Los Angeles are reduced to giant fireballs. Millions die. This was before the days of the hyper-grim blockbuster. “Independence Day” is full of goofball comedy and silly screenwriting. Yet it’s hard to keep the tone light when the movie incinerates a huge portion of the country’s population. Here’s one example of the movie’s weird double-standard: It has no problem murdering nearly every person in Los Angeles but it spares one of the main character’s dog. It’s excessive, impersonal chaos, huge explosions in the name of nothing.

Despite being a huge hit, “Independence Day” did not usher in a new era of alien invasion movies. (Though it doubtlessly led to Will Smith being cast in “Men in Black,” a far more amiable blockbuster.) Instead, it birthed a revival of interest in disaster flicks. The screenplay definitely resembles a seventies disaster flick. Those movies always had a huge cast of frequently disconnected character, brought together by some cataclysm. “Independence Day” directly emulates this structure. Will Smith is the hot-shot fighter pilot, only getting to show a fraction of the charm that would make him a huge star. The most expendable subplot concerns Vivica A. Fox as his stripper fiancé, who somehow survives the destruction of L.A. Bill Pullman is overly grim as the President. Sure, he has to make some heavy decisions but he’s relentlessly white-bread. Not even the relationship he has with his daughter is enough to humanize him. Of the big stars, only two make an impression. Jeff Goldblum makes a thin character a living being with some of his trademark nervous energy. Randy Quaid, meanwhile, brings a bawdy manic quality to a two-note character. The script brings everyone together through incredibly unlikely circumstances, as is the way. It takes far too long to get the cast together. Smith isn’t even introduced until the twenty minute mark.

Truthfully, “Independence Day” is both too dumb to be a serious alien invasion epic and too slipshod to be a popcorn time-waster. That dumbness manifests itself in a number of ways. Like the aforementioned dog somehow surviving an exploding tunnel. Or Goldblum’s dad being a broad Jewish caricature. Or, for that matter, Randy Quaid being the most facile of redneck stereotypes. How about Smith’s best friend, who naturally exist to die in a dogfight with the aliens? So, you know, the hero’s quest is personal now. Or the President’s defense secretary, whose habit of keeping secrets (otherwise known as his job) paints him as a stuffy bad guy? Unlike a Michael Bay movie, Emmerich at least acknowledges that other parts of the world have worthy militaries. Granted, Africa is represented by some spear-carrying tribesman… But at least they are represented at all. Naturally, no dumb scene in “Independence Day” is more dumb then that climax. The alien forces are destroyed when a computer virus is uploaded to their mother ship. Never mind an extraterrestrial computer being compatible with Earth technology. The human heroes being able to operate an alien ship and slip into the mothership undetected strain inevitability.

So why did “Independence Day” become such a hit? Of course, the continued massive success of Michael Bay’s movies shows that the public has an appetite for great big explosions and casual racism. And summer cinema was a little different in ’96. Movies with this many booms and CGI chaos still held a certain novelty. Of course, there’s less CGI in “Independence Day” then you’d think. The movie primarily uses some excellent miniature effects. The alien spaceships are an imposing sight, especially when looming huge over cities. The invaders are a clever creation. Small, big-eyed creatures inhabit bio-mechanical suits, with lots of tentacles and claws. The sequence set inside Area 51, when the movie resembles a smaller-scaled horror film, is probably the best scene in the film. Because the movie relied on practical effects over computer-generated ones, the special effects in “Independence Day” actually hold up pretty well.

Why Do I Own This?:
I’m honestly not sure. “Independence Day” is dumb and not in a way that’s especially likable. It sets out to be a big fun action movie, full of stupid one-liners and crowd pleasing pyrotechnics. Yet it’s scenes of destruction are too mean-spirited. Like-wise, the characters are too thin to be memorable. The plot holes and logic gaps in the script inevitably draw the audience’s attention, defusing any attempt at “turn your brain off” fun. I guess I own the movie because it is a touchstone of nineties pop culture. The VHS box, which featured a lenticular image of the exploding White House, definitely sticks in my memory. Yet the next time I get rid of some DVDs, this one is likely to be atop the pile. [5/10]

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