The day the earth held hands

A film about pulling together and learning to achieve inner growth. Oh, and the aliens have landed. By Adam Mars-Jones

Independence Day is nonsense, naturally, but it's gloriously no- nonsense nonsense. The soundtrack seethes with martial music from the first frame, which saves us the trouble of wondering whether the space ships that arrive from another world might be coming in peace. After that, we hardly need the sequence where helicopters try to communicate with one craft using flashing lights a la Close Encounters - a light show that prompts some very destructive criticisms.

Early scenes in the film tend to show icons of Americana - the Statue of Liberty, the White House, the Hollywood sign - entering the sombre shadow of the giant ships. We get the message: it's not just the fate of the world that's at stake, it's the American way of life.

Independence Day, brought to us by the makers of Stargate (director Roland Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin, who collaborated on the screenplay), has both the courage and the caution of its budget. The special effects are excellent, combining hi-tech image manipulation with unfashionably extensive use of models. The movie explosion is now an art-form in its own right - people feel cheated if they don't see every pane of glass making a separate departure from the building when a bomb goes off. If aliens landed and unleashed an unspectacular mode of death, the casualties would feel very let down.

Caution comes in with the decision to provide something for everyone: epic, disaster movie, action picture, romance, comedy and, in one abrupt sequence, horror film. In practice, epic and disaster movie just don't mix. A disaster movie that affects the entire world leaves no one in the vital role of anguished spectator, urging the survivors on, and there are just too many people in mortal predicaments to follow. The predicaments are also often fairly basic and short term, like being trapped in your car as a sheet of liquid flame surges towards you. Not much scope there for grace under pressure.

The film does follow the genre blueprint of panic and disorder in the background, heroics and responsibility in front of shot. The algebra of expendability remains immutable - the logic whereby a named character's dog is more likely to survive than a person who has failed to establish a characteristic. Where Independence Day fights shy of the conventions is in its coyness about actual death, visible bodies. The destruction evokes awe without the adulteration of grief. No tears are allowed to rinse the butter off our popcorn. This may be part of a (successful) attempt to secure a relatively junior certificate for the film, or because its creators genuinely want their lavish hybrid of genres to have a high feelgood factor.

Still, it's disconcerting, after we've seen holocausts unleashed on Los Angeles and Washington that must, repeated worldwide, have brought about hundreds of millions of casualties, to hear the President of the United States (Bill Pullman) say, "A lot of people died today," as if he were talking about motorway madness rather than megadeath. He prefers to concentrate on the combat casualties, which number in the hundreds. And it's positively bizarre that the film does without the traditional scene of a little girl being told mummy didn't make it. The little girl in Independence Day has worked it all out for herself. Have they been doing bereavement drill at nursery school?

Emmerich and Devlin are sceptics about extraterrestrial life, but they aren't fools. They know what sells. They tap into the X Files mindset by having their invading creatures (designed by Patrick Tatopoulos, but very much in the slimy, Alien mould) turn out to be bio-machines containing within them core creatures like the hominids in the supposed Roswell autopsy. This is the cue for impassioned speeches along the lines of: "You knew then, and you did nothing!" "Well, not exactly nothing. We did build this neat underground lab to study alien technology."

The film has three heroes, one Jewish, one black, one Wasp: David (Jeff Goldblum), representing the brains of America, who cracks the aliens' code and works out how to outwit them (anyone who has ever tried to make a shaver work in a foreign bathroom will be surprised to learn how easy it is to get your laptop interfacing with extraterrestrial technology). Then there's Steven (Will Smith), representing the heart, the fighter pilot who manages to capture a specimen (Smith is the only one of the leading actors who can be accused of extending his range). And the blandly gruff President embodies America's soul.

What this means in practice is that he's willing at a moment's notice to rehash his State of the Nation addresses as State of the Planet ditto. He's always conscious of how he will go down in history, even when it looks like there won't be any, hesitating before he orders a nuclear strike over American soil as if he thought his hesitation would be entered in the record. There are satirical touches scattered through the screenplay - like a news flash on local TV in LA asking people please not to fire guns at the interstellar space craft - and it would be nice to think this was one of them. But no. The President is meant to be for real. It's just he need to re-examine his life, and get in touch with his inner hawk. He's an ex-pilot himself, you see, even a war hero, but behind the desk in the Oval Office he's lost his manhood. The film allows him to get back in a plane during the final conflict, which is corniness beyond the call of duty. Still, if he can't get re-elected after a photo-opportunity like that, there's no justice.

Everyone else is getting in on the personal-growth act, big time. It's as if alien invasion were the short sharp shock everyone needed to clear their heads and understand what's really important. David's dad ("I haven't spoken to God since your mother died") brushes the cobwebs off his yarmulke and starts to pray. Steven learns to commit to his girlfriend, even if she is an exotic dancer who will spoil his chances of getting to fly a space shuttle. David's estranged wife decides to give their marriage one last shot, now that he's shown a little ambition at last. The President's daughter and the exotic dancer's son console each other, reaching out across the barriers of race, class and plausibility.

Independence Day manages the difficult trick of being knowing but not too knowing. It even successfully reworks the redneck-riding-a-bomb sequence from Dr Strangelove, itself an almost definitive reworking of imagery - only this time, the redneck is going up. Millions have already submitted to these slightly blank thrills without coming to any harm. It's only afterwards that we wonder how we could not have noticed that an object with a mass a quarter of the moon's has parked itself inside the lunar orbit, and television transmission has been affected, but not the tides. Still, that's very us. That's very human being.

n On general release from Friday

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