Wednesday, May 4, 2016

INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996) - ***

Rated PG-13
Running time: 145 min.

Independence Day makes no bones about what it is and what it is intended for. It is a big dumb summer blockbuster that is intended to entertain even the most discerning audience. The movie winks at the audience so much, you would think it was flirting with us. In fact, that's exactly what it is doing: it's enticing us with all of these noises and visuals and silliness in order to get our attention, and then when it's over, you think to yourself "Well, that was fun."

The movie is a mash-up of the alien invasion and disaster sci-fi genres. Giant spaceships appear out of nowhere from the clouds and hover over major worldwide landmarks, but especially the ones in the United States, and people everywhere are either panicking or celebrating, as some believe they will finally see the return of Elvis. You would have sworn that Michael Bay directed this film, with all the scenes of people looking to the sky and emoting fear or worry or confusion on their faces. Jeff Goldblum plays David Levinson, a satellite expert who has somehow cracked an alien code that was embedded in Earth's own satellites, and has interpreted the signal as a countdown to extinction. He and his father (Judd Hirsch) rush to the White House, where his estranged wife (Margaret Colin) happens to be communications director. He attempts to explain to the President (Bill Pullman) what is happening and to prepare for the worst. Meanwhile, we get various characters at different points of the country wondering what to think of all of this alien madness, including fighter pilot, Capt, Steven Hiller (Will Smith) and his stripper girlfriend (Vivica A. Fox), as well as alcoholic former Vietnam vet, Russell Case (Randy Quaid), who has made claims of a prior alien abduction, which no one believes, of course.

As the President orders large-scale evacuations of Washington, based on David's conclusions, the alien ships open fire across the world, right on time with the countdown timer. The President and his staff escape unharmed, but others across the world are not so lucky, and we have massive casualties and destruction. Hiller and his comrades take to the skies to engage the alien invaders in a dogfight, which proves to be fruitless, as an invisible shield protects the larger ships. The invaders send out their own fighters, and whereas Hiller loses his comrades in battle, including his good friend Harry Connick Jr., he is successful in bringing one alien fighter down. All concerned parties eventually converge at the famed Area 51, which the President's staff was aware existed while the President himself was not. "Plausible deniability" is the reason one staffer provides to him. Area 51 employs a scientist (Brent Spiner) who has probably spent way too much time studying aliens in secret underground labs, but he has discovered a few things about our alien visitors that are very important to the planned resistance. Indeed, the President gathers the world to fight back and gives us the all-important rallying speech about how "today is our Independence Day".

First thing you learn about this film is that is filled from top to bottom with your stock disaster-film characters, and everyone plays their role and dials it up to eleven in doing so. Will Smith provides enough charisma to carry the thing on his back, but everyone holds their own. Jeff Goldblum as the super-smart tech guy gets off his fair share of one-liners, Judd Hirsch holds nothing back in portraying the totally 100% Jewish character, and Bill Pullman as the former fighter pilot turned leader of the country carries an understated stoicness and bravery in the face of extinction. Randy Quaid as the obnoxious, drunken former abductee has his moments as well, and he gets one of several moments in the film that should have people cheering. The screenplay by Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin may be light on character development, but because of the performances you end up cheering for almost everyone on screen. Emmerich and Devlin have also taken a simple plot and padded it with so many b-movie tropes that it never seems to run out of steam.

The special effects, needless to say, are jaw-dropping. The alien spacecraft are expertly designed and the battle scenes appear to be seamless. The aliens themselves are less than inspired, but certainly villainous in appearance, which I guess is the way to go if humans are going to be eradicated by them. We certainly couldn't get behind something that resembled E.T. if we're supposed to be afraid. Ultimately, Emmerich and his team have crafted a 1950's alien invasion film, thrown through the 1970's disaster film wringer, and he comes up with a 1990's special effects blockbuster with a marketing campaign that was bigger than the alien mothership.

Big. Dumb. Loud. Obnoxious. Fun as Hell.




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