EMPIRE ESSAY: Independence Day Review

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The ultimate encounter when mysterious and powerful aliens launch an all out invasion against the human race. The spectacle begins when massive spaceships appear in Earth's skies. But wonder turns to terror as the ships blast destructive beams of fire down on cities all over the planet. Now the world's only hope lies with a determined band of survivors, uniting for one last strike against the invaders - before it's the end of mankind.


Whatever one feels about the actual movie, only the dullest dog would deny Independence Day — or, as it is also known by its tidier tag, ID4 — had one of the most bitchin' promo trailers ever spliced together. It raised the bar for teasers as audiences roared approval and salivated at the hors d'ouevre of the White House being disintergrated. As a result, when the film opened in North America it played around the clock to packed houses, crossing the magic $100 million mark in the first weekend.

Despite pooh-poohs that it's silly, hokey, sentimental and formulaic — well, yeah, but shamelessly, knowingly so — plenty of bang for your buck was delivered exactly as advertised. One day the people of the world collectively gawp at the arrival of a fleet of titanic flying saucers hovering over capital cities and scenic landmarks. Once again we learn that we are not alone in the universe. And, naturally, rather quickly we wish that we were as the mystery armada sets about incinerating city centres, famous architecture, traffic jams, brave pilots and comic supporting actors. Anyone who ever got a kick out of commie paranoia 50s B-movies, or monsters from space flicks, will have a ball with ID4. Also catered to are devotees of those 70s disaster movies structured to accommodate the romantic problems, redemption mini-dramas and destruction of large ensembles in preposterous, preferably fiery, set pieces.

Director Roland Emmerich and his producer-writer partner Dean Devlin, coming off the surprise success of Stargate, took things the perfectly-timed step further, bringing the bad-ass aliens and the big production design home to planet Earth. The gusto with which Emmerich and Devlin stirred corn, cliches and conventions of pop culture into the spectacle of its year is really quite endearing and hilariously, excitingly entertaining. ID4 cheerfully rips off H.G. Wells' War Of The Worlds, Kenneth Johnson's 1980s TV space invasion opera V, and every tentacled thingie pic ever made.

Throughout there are specific homages made to The Day The Earth Stood Still and Kubrick's duo of Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Other audience-friendly elements include R.E.M. (It's The End Of The World As We Know It, of course), references to The X-Files and the Roswell Incident, and a multi-ethnic cast representing a stereotypical cross-section of American society, from U.S. President Thomas Whitmore (Bill "Let's nuke the bastards!" Pullman) to alcoholic 'Nam vet and trailer park denizen Russell Casse (Randy "Hello, boys... I'm ba-aaack!" Quaid). A favourite is the teen wolf who attempts to capitalise on the situation — imminent annihilation — by putting the make on Russ's daughter: "This could be our last night on earth. You don't want to die a virgin do you?"

ID4 owes much of its charm to the exuberant presence of Will Smith as studly Marine flyboy Capt. Steve Hiller, who longs to be an astronaut and can't wait to get up there and kick some alien butt, which he does with wonderfully matter-of-fact "That's what I call a close encounter" aplomb. The Designated Everyman is Jeff Goldblum's David Levinson, who saves civilisation from stinky telepathic techno-locusts with his laptop. ID4 enshrines the great and greatly absurd action cliches of our time. 1) Heroes always escape an engulfing fireball by inches. Air Force One squeaks out of the D.C. inferno; Steve and David burst out of the exploding mother ship in the repaired Roswell craft. 2) In a crisis, class barriers fall. Steve's stripper squeeze rescues and bonds with the critically injured, high-toned First Lady; crop-duster Russ and the President become comrades-in-arms. 3) The pet is imperilled. Jasmine and winsome child escape a firewall, but pooch Boomer is a goner. No, by golly, a split-second from cremation the plucky retriever miraculously bounds to safety. Yay! 4) Isn't America great? Yankee cock-a-doodle can-do spirit brings the grateful world to its feet in an "I'd Like To Buy The World A Coke" kind of moment. African youngsters scamper across the hillside and turban-sporting types reach for the sky, jubilant at the sight of flying saucer wreckage.

The checklist of required incidents, characters, quips, stunts and property destruction is worked through with almost none of the butch cynicism or irony that marks other B-sensibility blockbusters of the period.

Independence Day is a throwback to traditional entertainment with an old-fashioned, gung-ho good time thrilled up by 90s-style state-of-the-art technology.