Independence Day (1996)    0 Stars

“THESE extraterrestrials don’t want to phone home…They want OUR home.”


Independence Day (1996)

Director: Roland Emmerich

Cast: Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum

Synopsis: The aliens are coming and their goal is to invade and destroy. Fighting superior technology, Man’s best weapon is the will to survive.

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It’s debatable whether America, in the wake of 9/11, will ever again make a movie like Independence Day. A typically noisy summer blockbuster full of spectacle and action, it’s also a celebration of the nation’s position – as perceived by Hollywood moviemakers – as the prime global superpower, near-insuperable in terms of technology, intelligence (both military and cognitive), ingenuity, bravery and patriotism. There’s a certain smugness to be found in Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich’s screenplay today, that wouldn’t have been so obvious had the US not been subjected to that terrible, world-changing onslaught orchestrated by fanatics who spend a good part of their lives living in caves. Ironic doesn’t even begin to describe it…

The movie follows the movements of three couples before, during and after an alien invasion which, it becomes apparent, is intent on eliminating all human life from the face of the earth. Will Smith is Captain Steve Hiller, an air force pilot with aspirations to become an astronaut. He’s in a relationship with single mother Jasmine (Vivica A. Fox), a stripper whose occupation is proving a stumbling block to Steve’s aspirations. Jeff Goldblum, just starting to tone down all those comical twitches by 1996, plays David Levinson, an embittered scientist whose wife (Margaret Colin) has forsaken their marriage for a political career working for President Thomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman), whose own wife (Mary McDonnell) is a little slow in making her escape when the carefully synchronised alien attack begins.

Let’s make no bones about it: Independence Day is pure Hollywood hokum on an undeniably grand scale. You don’t even have to hold the plot up to the light to see right through it, so detached is it’s grasp on reality. As with all movies pitched at the population’s lowest common denominator, the musical cues tell us exactly when to feel sad, or sentimental, or proud, or elated and none of the words spoken are too long or complicated. Also, the techno-speak is kept to a minimum to prevent us from becoming bored. All we need to know, courtesy of a demonstration with a coke can and a gun, is that Goldblum’s hotshot scientist – who was falling down drunk just moments before – has come up with a means of installing a virus into the mother ship’s mainframe (an admittedly neat variation on the way H. G. Welles despatched his similarly problematic aliens in The War of the Worlds) which will make everything alright again. A part of me can’t help thinking that The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper would have figured that one out as soon as he learned the aliens had used our own satellite system to synchronise their assault on earth – but there I go thinking too much again…

All the characters we see here are just pieces of cardboard covered in skin. There are no bad guys in this America, no opportunistic looters or rapists, no anarchic breakdown of society. Such inevitable consequences are beyond the movie’s remit and its determinedly escapist agenda, and any character defects we might glimpse are merely temporary aberrations that are swiftly resolved. Even James Rebhorn’s resolutely negative Secretary of Defence sees the light thanks to the born again Judaism of Levinson’s dad (Judd Hirsch). It’s simplistic as it is banal, but it does provide the kind of brain-in-neutral entertainment that has become Hollywood’s speciality over the past few decades. The movie does achieve an emotional crescendo in its closing moments with the usual act of selfless heroism from an ’unlikely’ quarter – but even that brief highlight is diminished by the piece of ham-fisted dialogue which follows.

(Reviewed 16th July 2012)

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