Sunday, July 4, 2010

"Independence Day" (1996)

Starring Will Smith, Bill Pullman and Jeff Goldblum
Written by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich
Directed by Roland Emmerich

I have a confession: I watch this movie every 4th of July.  Let there be no mistake, this movie is pretty damn retarded.  And yet, I also find it highly entertaining.  The plot is a mishmash of alien invasion cliches and the characters are written in broad strokes.  It's unswervingly pro-American, which would probably be uncomfortable if the rest of the film weren't so utterly ridiculous.

While the United States is readying for its largest national holiday, a massive alien spacecraft enters orbit around the planet.  Huge, city-sized flying saucers detach from it and enter the atmosphere, settling over Earth's major cities, but the film only focuses on Los Angeles, New York and Washington DC.  It is in these three cities that we meet our disparate cast of characters: President Whitmore (Bill Pullman), press secretary Connie Spano (Margaret Colin), genius cable TV technician David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) and his father Julius (Judd Hirsch), Marine fighter pilot Steven Hiller (Will Smith) and his girlfriend Jasmine (Vivica Fox), Whitmore's wife Marilyn (Mary McDonnell), and crop duster pilot Russell Casse (Randy Quaid).

As the alien ships position themselves around the Earth, Whitmore and Spano attempt to keep the United States from tearing itself apart through panic and attempt to communicate with the aliens.  Meanwhile, Levinson discovers a signal hidden inside Earth's satellite network that is slowly counting down to zero.  He rushes to Washington to attempt to inform Whitmore and Spano (who is Levinson's ex-wife, by the way).  He manages to tell them just in time to evacuate the White House just as the aliens begin their attack, firing weapons down at the cities that are capable of destroying entire cities in a single shot.  Hiller is ordered to lead a counterstrike against the aliens which results in disaster; his entire squadron is lost, including his best friend, Jimmy (Harry Connick Jr).  However, Hiller manages to take down one of the alien fighters, and kidnaps its pilot.

Air Force One heads for Area 51, where it is learned that the US government has kept an alien vessel for the last forty-something years.  When Hiller arrives with the kidnapped pilot and the aliens' plan to strip the Earth of its natural resources is revealed, Levinson is able to devise a way to disable the alien ship's shields, and the United States will lead a massive, worldwide counter-offensive against the alien invaders.  Hiller and Levinson will fly the Roswell alien ship up to the mothership in orbit to attempt to disable it, which will give the fighters on Earth a chance to destroy the aliens once and for all.

The setup of "Independence Day" is much akin to disaster movies of the 70s, with its large cast of characters who come together through a complex sequence of events, only this time wrapped in all the cliches of an alien invasion movie.  Director Emmerich would use this template for nearly every single one of his films after "Independence Day" (save "The Patriot") including "Godzilla," "The Day After Tomorrow" and "2012".  There's the scientist everyone either thinks is a crackpot or no one will believe until it's too late, massive sequences of destruction and mayhem, heavy-handed moral messages, the fictional US President that seems far more noble than any real one... 

"Independence Day" lets the rest of the world sit and wait for the United States to save the world, literally.  Once Levinson's plan is devised, we get a short sequence of military units in other parts of the world literally sitting around and saying, "Well it's about time!"  I imagine this didn't go over hugely well with international audiences, but here in America, it sang to the tune of $300 million at the box office. 

The movie is rife with problems, beyond its chauvinistic patriotism.  It's absurdly melodramatic, with not a single emotional moment for the characters not represented by a huge swelling string orchestra.  The beginning of the movie simply takes too long to get to the destruction everyone wants to see, trying to paint these characters as people we might give a damn about.  The fact that any of our computer technology might interface with that of such a completely alien civilization, let alone a Macbook from 1996, is unbelievable, and yet the whole climax of the film hinges on this conceit. 

The visual effects, pretty much the pinnacle of miniature model work before CGI became the dominant method, still hold up quite well for most of the flick.  The lengthy sequences of destruction are still rather spectacular, especially those featuring recognizable landmarks like the White House and the Empire State Building.  Why audiences love watching such beloved places blown to smithereens is beyond me, and yet... we do.  There's a sort of visceral jolt associated with it that I can't quite justify.

David Arnold's massive score fits the action perfectly, with lots of sweeping strings and booming, patriotic brass.  As the movie is asking you to pump your fist and shout, "America, fuck yeah!" so is this score, with all of the heroic moments accompanied perfectly by energetic themes that somehow don't manage to turn utterly silly.

On blu-ray, the film actually looks quite good.  There's a somewhat inconsistent amount of grain, but that's to be expected from a movie like this, especially one made with more old-school special effects techniques.  The grain gives it a nice, film-like look but doesn't destroy detail.  This disc looks amazing compared to the (numerous) DVD releases, with excellent detail visible on skin and clothes, and also on all the alien technology.  Like the grain, sound is also inconsistent.  The surrounds absolutely come alive during the action sequences, but during quieter parts of the movie, remain fairly inactive.  The bass is pretty astonishing, however.  The subwoofer shakes the house throughout this entire film.

Despite all of its problems, I can't help but love "Independence Day."  It is the quintessential summer blockbuster, full of absurd storylines, broad characters and huge action sequences.  I've made a tradition out of watching this film every year on July 4th, and it's one I don't intend to give up soon.  Frankly, I think this should be one of those movies that gets played on some cable station for 24 hours like "A Christmas Story."  It's ludicrous, unbelievable, funny and fun.