THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE

In America, 'Independence Day' has broken

all box-office records, taking $94.6m in

its first week alone.

So My son and I went to the 7am screening of Independence Day. Nicholas is only six - six and three-quarters, he adds - and I didn't want to make him stand in a queue for as long as it would take for one of the more normal screenings. But I didn't see any way of waking him up for the 3.15am screening - or, come to that, of coaxing him off to sleep first if he knew we were going for the 3.15. Strategically, I reckoned that the 7am was our best chance of getting in without being insane about it. Not that sanity was in itself non-negotiable: Nicholas had to see Independence Day quickly, before other kids, and before he burst. This was it, the summer sensation.

That really is the appropriate way to regard Independence Day: it's less a movie than something to rival heatwaves, wildfires, tornado season, urban riots, or even earthquakes. All those alleged "disasters" are part of the turbulent carnival of American summer. This is not to be facetious about the damage done by such things. Still, these fearsome events are also spectaculars, amazing ordeals that challenge attendance and even participation. Living in an earthquake-prone city, San Francisco, I know that one strand in the tangled reasoning that keeps people here is that, if the big one comes, at least we'll see it. Or at least its opening.

None of this is especially healthy - but we have clean air, no-smoking laws, the best of organically grown food, and an expensive medical system for health. What we also need in summer is a bit of excitement akin to the clash of the natural and the surreal such as earthquakes, unruly weather and a certain kind of movie can contrive. And, you see, we've known for months that Independence Day was coming.

It was hard to resist the brilliant campaign that has made the sensation what it is, and only archaic purists will wish that as much wit and invention had gone into the movie itself. As long ago as last Christmas - long before Independence Day was finished - movie theatres played teaser trailers in which we saw some very large but unexplained spacecraft looming over New York, Los Angeles and Washington, and blowing the White House into confetti. The hook was in; that last outrage was something most Americans could identify with in an election year that has two candidates running for President, Shifty and Gloomy, who suggest a total talent pool of seven or eight. A month later, during television coverage of the Super Bowl, the next trailer had the Manhattan skyline being demolished with the warning, "Enjoy the Super Bowl. It may be your last."

As yet, it was unclear what kind of movie Independence Day was - apart from big - but the campaign built in movie theatres where the film was promised for 4 July, which is Independence Day and the climactic point in the summer movie campaign. Some weeks before 4 July, the kids get out of school. The stupefying summer weather sets in. For instance on 8 July, it was 93F in Atlanta (roll on, Olympiad, and be ready to sweat), 99 in Austin, Texas, 90 in Boston, 91 in Chicago, 106 in Dallas, 97 in Little Rock (where Whitewater witnesses are sweating), 84 in New York and 92 in Washington. With humidity to match. The heat and the sun are loyally worshipped, but everyone likes to get into the cool and the air-conditioning at a certain time of day. And for two decades now - since the dawning of Jaws and Star Wars - the summer movie has been an economic bonanza.

The summer thrill should be for kids and young people, and something that engenders repeat business. It becomes a craze; you go to it with the gang. As such, the story is less compelling than the light show, the array of sights never seen before, and the sundry evocations of impossible destruction that will earn the kids' sigh "Awesome!" The ideal summer movie embodies some great dream or threat - but beware of too much sexual splendour, or nasty violence, for you don't want to lose the six-and-three-quarter-year-olds. The summer glory has consisted of ET, the Indiana Jones films, the Batman series, and Jurassic Park. Independence Day was aimed at early July not as a patriotic gesture, but as a sign that it meant business. Months ahead, it was promised that the picture would open on 3 July - "everywhere" as the trailer put it.

Now, 20th Century-Fox, the studio behind Independence Day, was taking immense pains over this campaign. The movie, it is said, cost close to $70m; at least half as much again will have been spent on the trailers and the larger costs of advertising. That is routine for a big picture. What was not conventional, however, was the audience response Fox obtained in several preview screenings during the spring. "The numbers are out of sight," Fox people were saying. They knew as well as anyone ever knows that they had a hit. I knew they had a hit because my six-and-three-quarter- year-old was very, very ready. There were figures based on the main characters on sale already at Toys R Us. A summer movie with any self-respect comes with merchandising spin-offs, toys, T-shirts and promotional tie-ins at fast-food chains. After all, if you're sapping the minds of the young, you might as well hit their bodies, too.

This early summer proved promising - if that's how you want to look at it. As of early July, three films had already done lavish business: in five weeks, The Rock, in which Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery free hostages held on Alcatraz (with mighty violence and explosions), had grossed $110m; in seven weeks, Mission: Impossible - making no sense, no matter how many times one saw it - had grossed $169m. Then there was what seemed the ultimate special-effects movie, in which several young people "for the sake of science" rushed like lemmings to enter the core of tornadoes. This was called Twister: its phenomenal weather effects co-existed with a radical absence of story - and in nine weeks, Twister had taken $225m.

Evidently, the public was more than usually disposed to behave like idiots. And so the people at Fox decided to move their opening up one day: they would reveal the picture on 2 July in a series of "special" preview screenings. The local advertising in every city suggested a privileged opportunity to get ahead of the crowd - yet these "previews" filled more than 2,880 screens, or nearly all that were lined up for the regular opening.

Pre-empting their own announced opening was filled with cunning. With 4 July a Thursday, the holiday week was vulnerable to people and offices being inclined to take most of the week off; so there were plenty with time on their hands. The extra day would also leave Fox six days of business before figures were announced: that gave them a real chance of beating the record held by Jurassic Park - $78.5m grossed in seven days - and being able to boast of it at the start of their second week.

In many cities, there were screenings through that first night - 6.30pm, 9pm, 12midnight, 3.15am. In San Francisco's Coronet Theater, as at many other places, those four screenings were sold out. When Nicholas and I went in for the 7am show we had no trouble, but the theatre was still close to half full. We watched amid the litter of the night's orgy - with spilled popcorn like gravel on the floor. The theatre had the warm, chaotic feeling of an unmade bed. And on the faces of the theatre attendants there was that haggard look of those exhausted by the mob's strange passion. Those early screenings had been riotous, I heard, with people cheering, talking back to the movie and treating it all like a party.

When we came out at 9.20am or so, there was a line from the box office and all around the car park waiting for the 10 o'clock showing.

"How is it?" the people in the queue asked.

And we just gave them the well- fed grin of people who have been there first.

All over America, these preview screenings racked up $11.1m. The previous record for a preview day had been Die Hard 2 with $3.7m (while playing to about 1,000 fewer screens). By the morning of the following Monday - after six days of business - Independence Day had broken every record by doing $94.6m. Of course, they'd yearned for 100, but the negative cost of the picture had been covered in about five days. Ahead there lies not just another seven weeks of summer, but the foreign market, video and television. To say nothing of sequels - the aliens get toasted this time, but you have to know that, at these numbers, Hollywood has the technology to bring the wicked devils back with fresh moves.

How is the movie? Well, it's passable fun, and so very satisfying to the above-average six-and-three-quarter-year-old that a parent can get a kick out of being so close to innocent delight. It was exciting to be there, in a buzzing crowd, and in a movie theatre with a screen fit for wonders. Nicholas has a taste I cannot fathom: he prefers television; he thinks I'm nagging when I go into raptures about screens the size of buildings. But he was impressed by a trailer shown before Independence Day. Next year, on the 20th anniversary, the Star Wars movies are being re-released in theatres. Nicholas knows them from video, but the trailer showed a TV-sized image of Star Wars that burst out to hold the full screen - we were in the sixth row, halfway there. He liked that; he wants to see that. The size thrilled him, and his father felt encouraged.

Then we saw Independence Day. The Earth is suddenly threatened by alien spacecraft. They hover over major cities, and a bright, divorced, computer expert (Jeff Goldblum) realises from the math in their signals (don't even think of asking what this means) that they plan to destroy everything in sight. Jeff's ex-wife just happens to be on the staff of the President (Bill Pullman), so in seeking to get his lost mate to safety (he loves her still), Jeff saves the President.

The aliens pulverise the big cities in set-pieces that had been given away in the trailers. Nowadays, not only are the trailers shorter and better than the movies, they take priority - they need the big scenes to sell the picture. So, as you watch Independence Day, you discover that you know the "story" already. The Pres and a handful of characters are moved out to Area 51, a mythic site in Nevada where the US government is supposed to keep the UFOs that have landed on Earth. From Area 51, the last great battle is staged, with Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith taking a captured alien spacecraft into the mothership to place a virus that will ruin its computers (you promised you wouldn't ask).

This blithe nonsense was written by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, and directed by Emmerich. (The two men made Stargate together as a prelude to this.) The script could easily have taken a weekend's work. The movie is fatuous, simple-minded, jingoistic, and fun. It makes a gesture towards universality by having the President address his brave fliers in a kind of Crispian's Day speech to the effect that Independence Day will no longer be just an American holiday, but a mark of the coming together of all nations against the common enemy. And so, tattered air-forces (even that of Iraq!) combine in the final assault. In the same way, the group of leading characters includes whites, Jews, blacks, Hispanics, white women, black women, a dog, a homosexual, a drunken bum ... did I miss a handicapped person, or do we the audience fill that role?

There's no need to hammer the picture into the ground. In fact, the lack of content in Twister makes this seem like an abridged classic. Despite some bad language and a few grisly moments with the aliens, you can take a kid to Independence Day without anxiety, and when the rude words come up some six-and-three-quarter-year-olds chuckle to let you know it's cool. No, it isn't Red River, which this father was moved by when he was seven years old. But Red River and its like are not coming back, and we might as well recognise that Independence Day does more than just its numbers.

There is a genuine novelty, or revolution, in the way it is made. If I cast my mind back to Red River, I'm not sure that there is a shot in the film that was not simply photographed. What do I mean by that? In that 1948 western, actors pretended to be characters doing and saying things so that they could be recorded and photographed. They wore "costume", they spoke "lines". You can argue that the story was fanciful and romantic, yet the process owed so much to reality - the look of John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, their own presence, the spectacle of so many cattle, and the passage of light over the places in the Arizona location where they shot. The film had a claim on reality. As a movie, it was shot; a world and its life were put on film; what you saw happened.

Independence Day is not like that, but it is characteristic of a growing number of the most successful movies made today. An extraordinary number of the images in the film take photographic elements which are then matted in or digitally blended with electronic effects. Where something could not be photographed - because it might involve the mutilation of actors or physical impossibilities - then photographs have been given that unreal life by the computer. Very little of what we see ever happened. The actor Will Smith was on television the other day describing the odd way of shooting. He plays a pilot in several dogfights. He has to look this way and that to register fear, elation, whatever, at things he was "seeing". But he never saw them; they were splashy effects added in later. The actors seldom engaged in the kind of real or pretend-real confrontations that mark Red River. Physical and human plausibility have yielded in Independence Day to anything the technology can accomplish.

These new movies are not really photographed: they are morphed, mixed and conjured up by computers. Their action is less like the struggle of will and force between Clift and Wayne than the spasms of video games. The violence in Independence Day is not cruel, not exploited or revelled in - as it is in many modern movies - but it is thoroughly artificial. It suggests that violence goes unfelt: indeed, millions are killed in Independence Day, but the loss is felt as numerical. I know how unreal this is, but I'm not sure how well a six-and-three-quarter-year-old understands it.

Even before Independence Day opened, the general order in Hollywood was for more films of the same kind. The system is less and less interested in small, human, difficult subjects (like Leaving Las Vegas or Dead Man Walking), the commercial potential for which is adult and therefore limited. The money is going to a few, increasingly large, electronic spectacles that deal with impossibility - we are seeing things that could not be.

I do not necessarily reject that kind of material. After all, it gave us The Wizard of Oz, La Belle et la Bete and even Citizen Kane (a film rich in special effects). It is also the basis of films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars, the artistic godparents to Independence Day, and films with a far larger sense of imaginative wonder. There is no denying special effects (sound and colour were once effects). There is no escaping the "magic" inherent in movies. But the medium is also pledged to reality, real light, real faces, real words, human truths - the essence of Renoir, Ozu, Mizoguchi, Rossellini, Dreyer, Bresson, Bunuel. You can call the result photographed theatre or enacted literature; you can call it old-fashioned. But in surrendering photography, the medium of film risks a final estrangement from human nature that no triumph of numbers can mask. Our six-and-three-quarter-year-olds are not being given people to believe in, or lifelike situations to learn from, and they can hardly grasp why or how their parents cling to the warped fatherhood that John Wayne offered in Red River. So they do not see the need to cheer Dad up on the way home from the summer sensation.

! 'Twister' (PG) opens in London on Fri. 'Independence Day' (certificate to be confirmed) opens 'everywhere' on 9 Aug.

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