Thursday, August 19, 2010

Independence Day

There are movies, and then there are films.  The difference can be subtle.  Sometimes, all it takes to move from traditional popcorn fodder to artistic statement is a single performance.  Other times, it requires a hefty dose of Jeff Goldblum and exploding the living hell out of America's landmarks.  Roland Emmerich has never directed a subtle movie (aside from Godzilla (1998) of course), so guess which route he took?

Independence Day answers the question of whether humanity is the only intelligent life in the universe.  The answer is "No, and where do you get off calling humanity 'intelligent'?"  So, yes, Elliot, there are aliens, and of course the aliens want to kill us.  Do you blame them?  Look how well we take care of things; America is now surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, and the Gulf of Inkwell.  Actually, this movie takes a much more intimate look at how Earthlings (by which, I of course mean Americans) might handle a hostile alien invasion.  Maybe, if all of America were wusses like Arizona, we would just pass a ridiculous law or two.  Luckily, the other forty-eight states (I'll be dead and buried before I recognize Mizzoura) play for keeps.  When aliens come into our atmosphere and blow all the major cities in the world to hell, that just makes us mad.  Well, it makes us panic and despair first, but after our greatest president gives a speech to a bunch of semi-professional pilots, we are ready to kick butts and mispronounce names.  All we need is a hero and a nerd to lead us to victory.  As far as heroes go, it's hard to top mid-90's Will Smith.  The man has charm, talent, and is fun to watch.  As far as nerds go, Anthony Edwards must have been busy.  Still, Jeff Goldblum is a respectable substitute.  Like many mid-90's movies, it turns out that the cure to everything is computer knowledge, so getting a cable repairman/Mensa member to go into space and launch a computer virus into the alien spaceship network sounds waaaaay too easy.  And it is.  But this isn't a movie that ever tried to be smart, so just be happy it's loud and dumb and never gets pretentious.

Is there more to the movie than that?  Of course there is.  This is a big, blockbuster film, so it has an enormous supporting cast.  In the apolitcal and non-military side of things, we have Judd Hirsch playing the broadest Jewish stereotype I have ever seen outside of Seinfeld.  It works, if only because Hirsch is funny, but damn, he is kind of offensive.  Harvey Fierstein plays an obviously heterosexual man at the cable company and Randy Quaid is a drunk pilot (with something to prove to the aliens) with James Duval as his frustrated son.  Randy is drunk in this movie, which is what I expect from all of his roles, but Duval manages to exude frustration, tenderness, and the slightest hint of acting talent in his supporting role (which is surprising, since he stars in my Most Hated Movie, The Doom Generation).

Interesting side note...I am reasonably sure that Randy Quaid wasn't even cast in this film.  He just showed up, drunk as a Senator, and wouldn't leave.  He had some story about being abducted by aliens, and the filmmakers decided "Why not?"  The rest is history.  "Uh, Brian, if that's the case, why isn't his character named Randy?"  Because he was drunk for a solid week.  He might not respond to the name Russell at first, but it only takes four or five tries to convince him of his new identity.

And then there's Jeff Goldblum as a genius/cable repairman.  He has always had a unique speech cadence, but this is the movie that makes it his calling card.  Like Christopher Walken before him, Goldblum is able to channel awkwardness in such an unexpected way that the rest of the cast simply has to bow down before him. This is also the movie script that took his vocal mannerisms and gave him a script just as ludicrous.  Whenever he has an epiphany, he speaks his train of thought out loud and it is beyond believable.  But that's how this movie works.  It takes a decent idea, makes it overblown to the point of being absolutely terrible, and keeps going until it becomes ironic.  This is the epitome of so-bad-it's-good movie making, and Goldblum's character is the best illustration of this.

The President of the United States is Bill Pullman, with a First Lady (Mary McDonnell) that seems to want him to learn to lie better than he does.  Hmm.  He has a capable adviser and a former wife of Goldblum on his staff, Margaret Colin.  Robert Loggia also serves as a military advisor, as does Adam Baldwin (to a lesser extent), but they basically just grimace and shoot things in the movie.  Will Smith is a fighter pilot with Vivica A. Fox as his stripper girlfriend.  He is buddies with another pilot, Harry Connick, Jr., who is less talented (as a pilot) and used as alien cannon-fodder/don't-ask-don't-tell jokes.  Brent Spiner also makes an appearance as a scientist that is clearly not as intelligent as Goldblum's cable repairman.  How embarrassing.

This is not a smart movie.  It is big, loud, and stupid.  The characters are shallow, the dialogue is full of cliche one-liners ("Now that's what I call a close encounter").  You don't care when somebody dies in the movie; this is basically a disaster flick, so that stuff happens sometimes.  This movie is all about the spectacle.  Want to blow up the White House?  Done.  You want Will Smith to punch out an alien?  No problem.  How about an embattled president giving the best damn speech any president has ever given, where he calls for international cooperation in front of an exclusively American audience?  We can make that happen.

I will give Roland Emmerich credit where it's due --- this is a big movie, filled with big moments.  The fact that those moments are effective (or, at least, cool looking) shows the success of this movie.  Emmerich's other films are just as stupid as this, but they lose momentum by the final act.  The pacing in Independence Day is pretty good, with a nice build-up and then waves of action from there on out.  The acting and script are definitely second to the big dumb stuff, but that's okay.  Sometimes, details like characterization get in the way and force movies to spend less time on blowing up the White House.  And we wouldn't want that, would we?

In a way, the silly things are what makes this such an enjoyable movie for me.  It's easy to go back to the special effects blockbusters of years past and be unimpressed; the effects are dated, the characters are cliche, and the personal style of the cast is questionable, at best.  Independence Day still stands up because it is not so serious.  The fact that the dialogue and plot are bad enough for even dramatic characters to be kind of funny defies the odds and enhances that attitude.  This may be a disaster movie, but it's a fun movie, too.  Is this an artistic film?  God, no.  It is the kind of big, dumb action movie that Hollywood loves to make, but rarely completely succeeds with.  And if that doesn't make you feel patriotic, I don't know what will.

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