*Please don't unfriend me, I'm so lonely....
Today's victim-- er, subject is the 1996 blockbuster event picture Independence Day, directed by Roland Emmerich and starring Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum and Bill Pullman.
Independence Day's release twenty-five years ago was preceded by mucho fanfare, with moviegoers anticipating that generation's defining summer movie, a la Star Wars. Its interest bolstered by promotional images of landmark buildings being decimated by giant alien saucers, ID4 made an absolute KILLING at the box office, garnering over $800 million worldwide on a $75 mil budget. It was assumed this would be the first of a trilogy since it was supposed to sorta be the next Star Wars and it grossed a fuckton. But oddly a sequel was never made until two decades later. Maybe the filmmakers didn't have another story to tell. Maybe they still don't....
Anywho, you might ask yourself "Why does ID4 qualify as an Awesomely Shitty Movie?" Well my reasons this time are slightly different than usual. For me, this film was unabashedly awesome the first time I watched it, and agonizingly shitty on every repeat viewing. This is a prime example of a film you should only watch one time. Then throw it away and never speak of it again. Don't even think about it. You'll only break your brain and end up in a home.
So let's pick apart this ham-fisted clod of a summer movie, shall we?
The special effects in this movie looked amazing at the time and for the most part still look at least pretty good a quarter-century later. Some of the compositing is a little messy, particularly when they show the Earth from space, but the alien craft are still convincing, the model work (which I almost always prefer over excessive CG) looks tangible and believable, and there are multiple shots in the first hour or so that still hold up.
|This part still works|
Alien Ships Appear
For example the moments when the giant saucers appear over the various major cities. We see several shots of the massive ships emerging from behind the clouds and it looks great. The filmmakers expertly conveyed the scope of the spacecraft, showing us just how insanely huge and intimidating they are. Few things are as immediately threatening as an alien ship blocking out the sun and spanning the width of an entire city. Super cool-looking stuff.
|So does this|
This film also provided several lasting images, such as the saucer blowing up the White House, the Empire State Building, etc. These moments would have a huge influence on Hollywood blockbusters even to this day (More on that later). Even the poster looked boss, depicting one of the ships hovering over New York City. The marketing team certainly earned their keep with this movie.
I've liked Jeff Goldblum in pretty much every film I've seen him in. He plays more or less the same character in everything, but it's a compelling, quirky character with an unusual speaking cadence and subtle sense of humor. His character David Levinson is easily my favorite character in the film, just as his Jurassic Park character Ian Malcolm stole that movie. If you want your big dumb action film to seem intelligent and multilayered, cast Jeff Goldblum.
|"Your aliens were so preoccupied with whether or not they could|
that they didn't stop to think if they SHOULD!"
Independence Day essentially launched the career of Will Smith as a huge box office action star. Yes he was in Bad Boys a year earlier, but this film was really where he became a perennial tentpole draw. Smith has always been a gifted everyman actor, able to instantly win the audience over and pull them into his character's story. In this film Goldblum's character is the brains of the operation but Smith's is the muscle. Smith would cement his station as Hollywood's hottest action star a year later with Men in Black, another film dealing with aliens.
|The Fresh Prince of the Air|
So that's about all I got for the Awesome section. Now for what doesn't hold up...
Just about every character in this film has one easily identifiable trait or quirk that gets hammered home just so the dopes in the audience can pick out what their "thing" is. Jeff Goldblum is a science nerd, Will Smith is a pilot who wants to be an astronaut, his girlfriend Vivica Fox is a sassy stripper, Judd Hirsch is a borderline offensive Jewish stereotype, Harvey Fierstein is a borderline offensive gay stereotype, Randy Quaid is a paranoid drunk, and Bill Pullman is a robot-- er, I mean President. Could even one character have been written as something resembling a three-dimensional person?
I found the creature design simultaneously phoned-in and overthought. The body armor they wear is pretty clearly ripped off from Alien, while underneath the creatures seem assembled at random and also heavily influenced by the BrundleFly creature in The Fly. At any rate their physical structure seems wholly impractical to fit inside a traditional fighter jet seat. Their heads are enormous and cumbersome, especially when they're wearing the body armor, plus they have half a dozen fifteen-foot tentacles all over the place and their feet bend around from the front. Did the creature design team and the spaceship design team even talk to each other during pre-production? By the way, apparently the aliens' Giger-esque biomechanical armor doesn't offer much protection since Captain Hiller was able to knock one unconscious for three hours with one punch.
|Looks like Giger's Alien crossed with a trouser snake|
Alien Motivation (or Lack Thereof)
Even the first time I watched this film (The one time I actually liked it), I kinda groaned when it was revealed the aliens just wanted to destroy humanity. What a dull, unimaginative, vague motivation for an antagonist. Going into this I'd hoped it was all some kinda misunderstanding, like maybe eons ago people from an Earth-like planet attacked them and it was a case of mistaken identity. Just gimme something, anything more interesting than "They travel around the galaxy and consume other planets' resources." If that's the case, how come we never see them, ya know, consuming any of our resources? All we see them doing is blowing stuff up real good. Furthermore I'd imagine having to sift through miles-wide swaths of rubble would make accessing said resources much more arduous. Why would they need to destroy everything first? It kinda makes a movie boring if we don't understand why the bad guys are doing what they're doing.
|Be afraid.....be very afraid.....|
I think Randy's a solid actor. But in just about every movie he's cast as an insufferably cartoonish comic relief character. This film is no exception. He's "hilariously" drunk the whole movie, until the plot calls for him to sober up and fly a fighter jet, at which time he's in over-the-top, applause-inducing revenge mode. "In the words of my generation, UP...YOOOOOOUUUUURRRRRSSS!!!!" But wait, his plane hasn't flown up into the alien laser cannon yet. One more zinger for the road: "Hello boys, I'M BAAAAAAAAAAAAACK!!!"
I'm sure Bill Pullman is a perfectly decent guy, but I honestly dunno if there's a worse actor in the film industry today. I've yet to see a performance of his that wasn't passable at best and cringe-inducing at worst. Every line of his in this movie comes off like a middle school drama club performance. He makes William Shatner look like Daniel Day-Lewis. And don't get me started on that speech....
|Wait, isn't that Mitt Romney????|
....Fuckin' hell, that stupid Presidential speech. Even in the hands of an accomplished thespian (which Bill ain't), that speech is just about the most trite, uninspiring twaddle I've ever heard anyone claim gave them goosebumps. And what's the nonsense about invoking the Fourth of July? Aside from that being the date the movie's set on, what does trying to stop aliens from blowing up the entire planet have to do with Independence Day? The aliens aren't levying taxes without representation. They're not demanding loyalty to King Martian the Third. This movie may as well have been set on December 26th and been called Boxing Day. At least that sounds like a fight: "We will not go down quietly in the third round!"
No One Cares About All the Death
Aside from Bill Pullman, who delivers his big post-invasion lament so badly the point nearly gets lost, none of the characters seem all that upset by the literally millions of lives lost in the attack. For example Harry Connick's character is totally out of place at this point in the movie - almost everything out of his mouth is a joke or one-liner. Dude, any of your friends or family who live in a major city are probably dead now. Maybe ease up with the misplaced humor. And all the other characters just go about the business of doing whatever the plot requires them to do. You'd think the script would spend just a little time exploring how the decimation of Earth's population and every major city affects the survivors. I know I'd be curled up in a ball in a puddle of my own piss & shit for probably three or four weeks before I'd be of any use.
The Birth of Disaster Porn
Upon its release Independence Day seemed like it would influence summer popcorn movies for years to come, much as Star Wars had two decades earlier. Unfortunately it did, in a bad way. Independence Day marked the birth of the Disaster Porn genre, where every summer action movie needs to be GIGANTICALLY HUGE and depict massive citywide destruction, with dozens of buildings (particularly landmarks) blown up or collapsing and thousands upon thousands of people dying horribly in the streets. This movie was followed shortly after by films like Godzilla, Deep Impact, and Armageddon, and then later by The Day After Tomorrow, War of the Worlds, Transformers, 2012, World War Z, Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and scores of other overly depressing action fare. You'd think after 9/11 Hollywood might've toned it down a bit with all the buildings gettin' blowed up, but no. Just about every summer season since has yielded at least one uncomfortably close-to-home reminder of it. Remember when summer movies were fun?
|Great, thanks a lot Roland. Now EVERY movie looks like yours.|
-The film's opening shot depicts the US flag planted on the moon just before the alien mothership appears. The flag is completely still since there's no atmosphere on the moon to blow it around, but then when the ship flies by we see dirt and dust being kicked up all over the place. Umm, if there's no air on the moon to blow the flag around, there's no air on the moon for the ship to blow dirt around, nor air to vibrate, causing a lunar tremor as the ship flies past. So the filmmakers got the first part of the scene scientifically accurate before pissing all over science immediately afterward. That's quite a turnaround.
-Lemme see if I have this clear - the aliens need to use Earth's satellites to coordinate their attack, because the "curvature of the Earth" prevents these super-advanced saucers from communicating directly with each other....despite the fact that they have the entire planet surrounded and presumably they could at least communicate with the mothership hovering near the moon. Also I'd imagine the ships all have some kind of chronometer on board, which they've taken the time to sync beforehand? Kinda like when you call your buddies and say "Meet me at the bar at 7:30?" It's almost like the filmmakers threw this nonsense into the script just so Jeff Goldblum would have a way of uploading a virus onto the mothership....
-....which brings me to my next point. A fucking computer virus?? Do they honestly expect me to believe Seth Brundle is so brilliant he can figure out how to write and install a virus onto the aliens' far more advanced main computer? How'd he get past their firewall? How'd he connect his Earthbound laptop to the aliens' obviously much more sophisticated network port (This of course assumes the 50-year-old fighter they stole has compatible technology to the aliens' present-day mothership)? How does a species this technologically superior not have any sort of virus protection installed? Oh and by the way, since the smaller saucers' shields were disabled due to the mothership's computer being infected, I guess that means they were able to communicate directly with the mothership. So the whole reason for the satellite thing even being in the movie is inadvertently what exposes it as a plot hole. Sweet Jeezus, the irony.
|Nope, no satellites in THIS diagram....|
-Along the same lines, how did Stephen Hiller know how to fly the alien fighter jet? Oh right, he's "seen them in action." I guess that means I could fly one too, since I'm watching this movie.
-Speaking of alien fighter jets, why would gigantic saucers with impenetrable shields need to send out single-pilot fighter crafts to combat the US planes? Just let 'em keep wasting their missiles and fuel until they have to turn around and go home.
|If you can destroy an entire city in one blast, what's even the point of this?|
-How did the aliens know to target the White House and NORAD? It seemed like they were primarily going after the most densely populated areas, but apparently they've also figured out where the President lives and where our aerospace defense system is located.
-Late in the movie Hiller steals a chopper to go looking for Jasmine....and he miraculously finds her among the miles and miles of ruins that used to be Los Angeles. Wow, that was lucky!
-Why was there a one-scene subplot involving the Secretary of Defense being adamantly against David's virus plan (To be fair, said plan made no sense), leading to the President immediately firing him? Why even waste the screen time on that?
-Wait, why was this movie nicknamed ID4? So it's....Independence Day 4? When were Parts 1-3?
-Multiple bits of dialogue are rather shamelessly lifted out of earlier, MUCH better films, and in one case delivered by the same actor. "Must go faster!" "I've got a really bad feeling about this." "There's too many of them..." You're straying dangerously into ripoff territory, Roland.
-Also multiple sequences are blatantly recycled from the Star Wars trilogy. The chase through the canyons is from Empire, right down to Hiller's plane flying sideways through a tight spot, the control hub inside the mothership looks suspiciously like the second Death Star reactor in Jedi, as does the "Pull up, they have a shield!" moment, and the final sequence where the good guys have to blow up the big saucer before it arrives at their base and destroys it? Hmmm, that's familiar....
-Okay, so they figure out how to destroy the giant saucers, which break into multiple pieces and then crash land nearby. Thus killing how many more civilians? Hooray!! Celebration time!
-I know this movie came out 25 years ago, but it's actually kinda shocking how little the womenfolk are given to do. The First Lady, Jasmine and Connie contribute literally nothing to the cause (except that Jasmine rescues the First Lady from the LA ruins so she can die comfortably in the medical center instead of under a pile of rocks). They all essentially just stand around the whole movie just being supportive while the men handle the heavy lifting.
-Alright look, I get that this is an American movie and it was released July 4th weekend and therefore called Independence Day (for no real reason), but the events depicted in this film affect the entire globe, and yet there isn't a single solitary important character from another country in this entire movie. Not one. All the people we're supposed to give a shit about, and all the landmarks we see destroyed, are in the United States. This seems like a staggering level of Ameri-centric conceit if you ask me. Christ, the American characters even get to be the ones who figure out how to destroy the saucers. If this actually happened today we'd surely lose that particular race to South Korea, Japan, Finland, or one of the other ten or so countries with a superior education system.
Independence Day sorta became hugely influential in all the wrong ways. Where summer action movies were already fairly thin on plot and character, ID4 and its spiritual offspring began the trend of every popcorn movie relying completely on special effects and explosions and making the characters secondary. As effects technology now allowed for nearly any epic set piece imaginable to be realized, filmmakers no longer needed to think of clever ways to get around budgetary and technical limitations. Sadly it would take years for audiences to start demanding more substance to their popcorn movies again. It's crazy now to go back and watch pre-1996 smaller-scope action films. They seem so simple and quaint by comparison, and I mean that in the best possible way. I guess what it all boils down to is "Bigger is not always better.....in fact usually it sucks."
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