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Retro Review: INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996)

Roland Emmerich is not the worst German director of all time, no. Uwe Boll (House of the Dead, Bloodrayne…and other video game adaptations) or Leni Reifenstahl (Triumph of the Will…the Nazi propaganda film) might take that honor. However, Emmerich is up there. He’s well-known for his cliché-ridden, end-of-the-world, paper-thin plots as well as helping nearly destroy Jeff Goldblum’s career, while simeltaneously lifting Will Smith to an insane level of stardom, further allowing him to pump out mediocre vehicle-films year after year. And for that, Roland Emmerich, I am none too fond of you.

Independence Day (1996) was an incredibly popular film at the time of its release. I was eleven years old and burned through our VHS copy of the film six weeks after its release. At the time, for me, it was hilarious, exciting, explosive, and at times, creepy. I say creepy because of the head scientist, Dr. Brackish Okun (Brent Spiner) at Area 51. Now, I see this man as a run-of-the-mill archetypal scientist whack job. But when I was eleven, the long, stringy hair and buggy eyes really got to me. Back in the mid-nineties, the quality of CGI was quite high, and blowing up the White House, New York City, and other major spots around the world was definitely realistic. Today, sadly, watching the golden retriever jump from car to car, and just out of harm’s way as a fireball hurdles towards our stripper heroine and her son…it’s so blatantly green screen. It’s unfortunate. The entire time I was rewatching this film, I was slapping my eleven-year-old self for being so dumb. You really thought that dog was in danger? Moron!

Maybe I’ve become cynical. I’ve seen too many movies and too many aliens. I believe it was around the time that Signs (2002) was released, that I firmly stated my opinon on aliens. Showing an alien takes…at least a little bit of guts. You have to feel confident that the image you’ve created is going to carry over, across celluoid, into the audience, and not fail miserably. The weird, invisible alien in Signs made me laugh. And that film was supposed to be creepy and horrifying. There are times when it works like in E.T. (1982). It’s a touching, light-hearted romp and the alien design fit that mold. But here, when Will Smith rips open the spacecraft to reveal Earth’s menace, it looks more like a rejected  Alien (1979) design…the one that the props department brought to Ridley Scott, and he just laughed and laughed. Will Smith stands tall while these rubbery tentacles flail around, harkening the whacky inflatible arm-flailing guys from every used car lot…ever. Much of the second half of the film includes images of the alien creatures, including the autopsy scene where the creepy scientist gets destroyed by one of these tentacles, while Bill Pax…Pull…yeah Bill Pullman talks to the alien like he’s John freakin’. Yet, it is still my belief, that even though much of the plot relied on us seeing the alien, I feel, in most cases, filmmakers are much better off keeping the alien off screen, for us to fill in the blanks and imply a higher level of terror. Or maybe they don’t teach subtly in Germany, because Triump of the Will is in no way subtle…Leni really wants us to like the Nazis.

Jeff Goldblum, for many years now, has been one of my favorite actors. I first saw him in Jurassic Park (1993) as Ian Malcolm. But then my dad made me watch Death Wish (1974) where Jeff Goldblum briefly appears as a bloodthirsty rapist. He appeared briefly, as well, in Annie Hall (1977), another favorite of mine. And his genius in The Fly (1986) is unsurpassed. Unfortunately, Goldblum has not been a fixture in Hollywood as much as he was in the 80’s and 90’s. It may not be true…but I blame Emmerich for debasing his top-flight acting skills in such a humdrum popcorn blockbuster. He is my favorite part of this movie, however, and his ability to go from one mundane word, muttered by someone, making impossibly absurd connections and word associations to somehow discover the way to defeat the aliens, is pure skill.

I like this movie and I don’t. I love this movie and I hate it. That’s because I’m struggling to reconcile eleven-year old Mikey’s grandest imagination of a doomed planet and cynical, nearing 30, and sick of cheap Alien knock-offs-Michael’s belief that the science fiction genre can be one of the finest modes of cultural speculation. The human race was blessed with the genuis of H.G. Wells, Authur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. We made the transition to film with greats like Ridley Scott, Stanley Kubrick and the master Fritz Lang. But we’re losing our touch. Our imagination. Sure, Independence Day exists as simple-minded popcorn fare (as fun and exciting though it is), but we’ve been let down. Maybe it’s the producers in in Hollywood who are too scared to take a risk on a true piece of imaginative speculative science fiction. Or maybe we’re all tapped out of ideas. Independence Day follows formula, taps a big name star, throws in a few one-liners, makes horrific leaps in logic and dashes it with a healthy dose of explosions (ya know, for the kids). Gone are the days of nuance and true terror.

 

Afterthoughts:

  • Sorry everyone, this was a true downer.
  • Honestly though, rewatch this over the holidays this week, and tell my why Will Smith’s character seems to get over his best friend’s death so easily. Is it part of the military characterization? When Harry Connick, Jr. dies, you know I’m shedding a tear…
  • Two stand-out characters: Judd Hirsch as Julius Levinson (Goldblum’s father) and Harvey Fierstein as Marty Gilbert (Goldblum’s boss). These guys steal the show in terms of comedic timing. “Oh, crap!”
  • “I have got to get me one o’ these!” How many of you said this ad nauseum from 1996 to about Y2K?
  • For any Arrested Development fans out there: take a look at Bill Pullman’s daughter in this…closer…even closer…yep, that’s Egg…Ham…Hamegg…It’s Ann!
  • Bill Pullman’s speech is by far one of the most horrific speeches in modern fictional presidential history. It’s got nothing on Harrison Ford’s Air Force One speech…you know…“GET OFF MY PLANE!” He kept it direct and to the point.
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The Author

Michael O'Brien

Michael O'Brien

Michael graduated with a degree in Creative Writing with a minor in Film Studies from Western Kentucky University in 2009. He currently lives with his wife, two cats (and Netflix account) in NYC. He has published short stories on 400words.com and asouthernjournal.com. He has published poems in The Poetry Gymnasium by Dr. Tom Hunley and in The Roundtable.