The Good: Moments of character, Judd Hirsch, Concept
The Bad: Special effects underwhelmed, Much of the acting, character and plot, One too many character groups
The Basics: In an overall disappointing science fiction summer blockbuster extravaganza, aliens arrive at Earth to blow everything up and it's up to Americans to come together to stop them.
The first time I encountered Independence Day, it was still known as ID4. I was at a Star Trek convention and the trailer was being shown and the audience got it. Apparently, our mass culture couldn't fathom a number at the end of the title unless it was a sequel and in the weeks before the film was theatrically released in 1996 the title was changed to Independence Day. At the time, I opted against it. I "got" the concept, but even at the time, the special effects did not look all that great to me and I avoided it. I was given the opportunity to see the special edition DVD and I decided it was time. The shortest version of this review I can possibly give is: I could have gone to my grave just fine having never seen this movie.
On July second, aliens arrive in giant motherships over major world cities. There are approximately fifteen of these giant, disc-shaped starships that break off the true mothership which is stationed near the moon and has about a quarter the mass of the moon. Scientist David Levinson soon realizes that these aliens are neither funloving nor here for our planet's cuisine when he discovers they are using our satellite network to communicate around planet a countdown. He rushes to the side of the american president, Thomas Whitmore, a possibility because his ex-wife works for him, with his findings. Whitmore, Levinson and the highest members of the government take off moments before the aliens let loose a barrage that utterly destroy's the world's major cities.
Over the course of the ensuing days, the military strikes back and fails, including marine pilot Steven Hiller. As Whitmore and Levinson work to outsmart the invaders with a trip to Area 51, which is as real as every conspiracy theorist in existence would hope, Hiller journeys with an alien pilot from a downed enemy craft to the same location. As humanity is looking at extinction, all of the main characters converge and, working together, work to thwart the invading armada.
The thing is, from the very first moments of Independence Day, this feels like something we've seen before. I watched the special edition with 9 minutes of restored footage, putting this movie at the 153 minute (2 1/2 hours) mark. It felt much longer. And while alien invasion movies are not new, this rendition felt especially canned, felt like something very specific the viewer had seen before. Pacing, story structure and sheer number of characters is almost identical to the mid-80s masterpiece mini-series V (reviewed here!). This is more than just nitpicky; ID4 was so derivative of V that the ships hovering over the major cities look almost identical, save that in this newer incarnation they are black as opposed to gray.
Now, I'm someone who likes epics, but Independence Day is more sloppy than grand in scale. There are no less than 5 groups that have stories that need to be resolved: Whitmore and his wife (who is stranded out in Los Angeles), Hiller and his stripper girlfriend, David and his ex-wife (and we'll throw his father in here, too, so as not to make it look ridiculously overwhelming), Russell and his family, and the relationship between the President and the intelligence community. The thing is, the movie only works as well as it does with all of these various elements because it is constructed to work so well with them. What I mean by that is that this movie could have used at least one less of these threads (I'd opt for ridding the movie of alien-abductee Russell Casse and his ridiculous subplot wherein his children need medicine) and used that time to develop some of the other threads more fully. This would have resulted in some of the plot points needing different resolution, but I could have lived with that.
The other annoying factor of ID4 is that for an epic, it's awfully limited, terribly ethnocentric. Even in the belabored Signs (reviewed here!) it's not just the Americans that are fighting the aliens. As a result, other places in the world learn how to thwart the aliens quicker than the Americans. In Independence Day, the U.S. is leading the charge and it just feels forced. A movie that is trying to put the entire world in peril could use more of a multiethnic cast. For something that was supposed to be so big and devastating, this movie seems very insulated within the confines and prejudices of the United States. A perfect example of this prejudice comes in the listing of cities around the world that are being attacked. Three are in the U.S. None are in China. If the point of the invasion is to wipe out humanity, I'd go for where there are a lot of humans!
Outside the weird dichotomy of smallness of scope combined with having far too many characters working out relationships, ID4 suffers because as a special effects movie, it's not terribly special or sensible. In fact, there's dark humor in viewing it for the first time here in 2007; when New York City has been leveled two of the only buildings still standing are the World Trade Center buildings. And with that in mind, the silliness of the attack pattern of the aliens is revealed. If you want to cripple the world, attacking the halls of power, industry and economy is a great strategy. The aliens center on the Empire State Building (not the WTCs), the White House (not Congress or K Street), and downtown Los Angeles (no complaints with that choice). We are told they attack Moscow, London, Bangladesh as well. Leveling major cities makes a great deal of sense, but in order to make the special effects aspect of the movie work, the film sacrifices any sense of realism or substance. Alien ships hover over New York City and the people there wait for the President to ask them to leave in an orderly fashion?! That's b.s.! Sure, blowing up the White House looks great for movie trailers and posters, but it's not the most sensible target.
There are any number of technical aspects to make this movie problematic, but in the long run, special effects are only one point in the scale. As for the numerous plot problems, they count for more, but the cumulative effect is that the plot is usually used to serve the effects and the story elements that are most troublesome come in the character front.
None of the characters works in a completely believable fashion, save perhaps Area 51 denizens Dr. Brackish Okun and Major Mitchell. General Grey essentially turns over the military directly to the President, which I can live with up until the moment the President decides he's hopping in a plane. Whitmore tells Grey, "I'm a fighter pilot . . ." and Grey accepts that based on Whitmore's prior military experience in the Gulf War. The thing is, Grey's responsibility there was to note that Whitmore was no longer a fighter pilot, he's the President and there's no way such a general would let the last surviving world leader into a combat position for the simple fact that if he falls, there is no one left to lead.
Captain Hiller works for the most part, but his relationship with Jasmine is rushed and seems forced with the pace of the apocalypse on him. Moreover, his character is one who exerts himself the most physically over the course of the movie, yet we never see him sleeping. He's always doing something. Military or not, that's hard to buy. Even harder is David Levinson, who might well be a genius, but he goes from being fall-down drunk to solving the crisis before dawn on July 4. His relationship with ex-wife Constance is completely canned and simply drags the movie down. The only purpose it serves is to get Levinson to the President. Once that is done, it simply becomes another annoying thread to be resolved.
ID4 has a pretty impressive cast, though that too is not without its serious problems. There are wonderful actors and actresses who get juicy and/or fun parts, including Brent Spiner as Dr. Okun, Adam Baldwin as Major Mitchell, Harvey Fierstein as Marty, James Rebhorn as Albert, May McDonnell as the first lady, and Vivica A. Fox as Jasmine. They are all wonderful and they are generally playing roles that they might not usually be associated with (with the obvious exception of Fierstein). Will Smith does fine as Captain Hiller and Jeff Goldblum does quite well at convincing the viewer he is a computer genius as David Levinson.
The two big acting problems come in the forms of Robert Loggia and Bill Pullman. Loggia spends the film acting like Gene Hackman - in one of his understated roles - as General Grey. Loggia does a great and unflinching Hackman impression throughout the entirety of the movie, but he adds nothing of his own unique zest to the role.
Bill Pullman is the dealbreaker as President Thomas Whitmore. Bill Pullman could pull off the role of President now, perhaps. In ID4, he fails to do that, not because of his age but because of his bearing. Watching Pullman in this movie suggests nothing of how the man could have possibly gotten to his position. In short, trying to imagine Whitmore running a campaign and actually winning an election stymies even those of us with an extensive political imagination.
The less said about Randy Quaid as Russell, the better, though one wonders if he gets tired of playing dumb hicks.
The shining acting gem in this movie is Judd Hirsch. Yes, in a film with acting sensations of the younger variety like Fox, Goldblum, Pullman and Smith, it is Hirsch who dominates every scene he is in. He's phenomenal as David's father Julius, slouching around with his heavy Jewish accent as a parody of the elderly Jew who may be annoying, but is always right. Hirsch is amazing in the role, though it doesn't take long for his character to start popping up in scenes that he has no legitimate business being in.
It may be longer, it may be older and it may be less violent and spectacle-filled, but V tops this movie and is much worthier of one's time and attention. It is smart, menacing and clever in all the ways that this movie should have been, but was not.
For other alien invasion films, please be sure to check out my reviews of:
Battle Los Angeles
The X-Files: Fight The Future
Robert A. Heinlein's The Puppet Masters
For other movie reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the films I have reviewed!
© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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