May the Fourth be with you
Sunday 11 August 1996
Unless yours is an intellect vast, cool and unsympathetic - to borrow the adjectives H G Wells applied to the invading Martians in War of the Worlds, the uncredited deep source for Independence Day - you'll probably have quite a good ride, too. All the bangs and booms are gloriously noisy, the light-storms are duly dazzling and the movie doesn't stint for a moment on those deep and guilty pleasures promised by many a cheesy sci-fi flick of the 1950s but never before delivered with anything like such lavishness: the gratifications of watching the familiar landmarks of our (well, America's) civilisation being blasted to smithereens. This is high-class disaster porn, with the demolition of the White House as its ultimate money shot.
In fine, ID4 - its alternate title - might be seen as a monument to what Susan Sontag once identified as the "peculiar beauties to be found in wreaking havoc, making a mess". Intellects V, C & U may prefer to stay at home on a Saturday night, while the rest of us are gawping and guzzling popcorn, and reconsider Sontag's prophetic essay "The Imagination of Disaster". Written more than 30 years ago, it is the most searching review of Independence Day one could wish; her plot outline of the five phases for a typical sci-fi movie might have served as an early treatment for ID4, even though the film declares itself as divided into three acts, each announced with a date title.
This three-act structure is, however, not quite the same one promised by those devastatingly alluring trailers. On 2 July, they arrive and attack; on 3 July, we stage pitifully ineffectual, if thrilling, counter-attacks (only a grump would deny that the director, Roland Emmerich, can put on a mean aerial dog-fight); on 4 July, an unlikely alliance of American brain (Jeff Goldblum, boffin), American brawn (Will Smith, fighter pilot), American decency (Bill Pullman, President) and American redneck lunacy (Randy Quaid, alcoholic) comes together to "whup ET's ass". Actually, you sense the whole film's going to be a bit of a stormer from the very first sequence, which opens with a shot of the American flag - ID4 is littered with patriotic bric-a-brac - from which we pull back to recognise Tranquility Base and the remains of the Apollo 11 mission. A close-up shows the famous inscription on the plaque: "We came in peace for all mankind". But then the soil starts to quake and tremble, and a terrible black shadow falls across the scene. We have company.
Since the camera then reveals the vast underside of a mothership en route to Earth, we also have a reference to the overture of Star Wars, and the first of Independence Day's long roll-call of allusions to, and jokes about, other space and science-fiction movies, including Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Alien, The Thing (John Carpenter's version), The Day the Earth Stood Still, 2001, Dr Strangelove, The Right Stuff ... all of which the audience is expected to catch, and laugh at. Hommages used to be the preserve of the French New Wave directors and other arty types. Nowadays they seem essential components of cheerful junk, and if you are too young or too reclusive to spot the movie buffery, there are plenty of other, more self-explanatory gags. (In the first scene set on Earth, the radio is playing REM's "The End Of The World As We Know It".) ID4 is never really scary because, like an over-protective parent, it can't stop shouting in your ear that it's only a movie.
That arch spirit infects the performances, such as they are, since not a great deal of the arcane film-making skill known as "acting" manages to make itself visible through the pyrotechnics. The four male leads are all likeable enough, and fortunately so, as there are certain scenes - such as the one in which Will Smith takes a minute out to get married to his stripper girlfriend before dashing off to save the planet - which engender sufficient disgust with the human race to have you rooting for the aliens. Smith, who seems to have pumped up for the role, serves as the agent of the film's displaced aggressions, and the bearer of our collective virility. (You'd have to be very young not to twig that ID4 is offering America the chance to square up against some supremely satisfying foreign baddies.) He's royally fed up with the invaders, whose genocidal plans have spoilt his whole weekend, and after he manages to pull down the first alien fighter-craft, he yanks out the tentacled pilot, punches it in its face-equivalent and shouts, "Welcome to Earth!". The crowd goes ape.
The decision to cast an attractive young black actor like Smith in this role is far more than just shrewd marketing, though. In so far as it has any overt political agenda, ID4 is a dream about how all us humans could get along just fine if a big enough bully showed up out of the cosmos. President Reagan once articulated just such a dream, and here it's echoed by Bill Pullman in an eve-of-battle speech which is part Henry V, part Dylan Thomas, and wholly embarrassing. (Pullman is a gifted actor, but as a Gulf war hero turned wimpy pinko President, he paces anxiously through ID4 with a grimace of introverted pain that suggests not so much ethical anguish as a nasty case of piles. When his wife dies, the film allows him to mourn her for all of eight seconds before climbing back into his old flight suit and leading the counter-attack.)
The union of brawn and brain between Smith and Goldblum is also a union of African-American and Jewish-American. The film labours Goldblum's ethnic background just in case you'd assumed (not such a wild assumption, given his other-worldly screen persona) that he was actually Venusian. Thanks to the saucer attacks, the chaps buddy up in the biggest way, and also learn to get along with the women in their lives, as if alien invasion were a kind of drastically efficient marital therapy. Goldblum's estranged wife, delighted that he's finally shown some ambition, runs out of the desert to smother her hero with kisses as glowing debris falls from the sky, providing the gentlest of the film's many fireworks shows. What a moment. It's the first ever feelgood movie with a death toll in the billions.
The long, circular shadow cast by ID4 obscures the other releases almost completely, though at least one of them deserves plenty of daylight. John Sayles, who may be the most decent man now working in American cinema, began his film career writing cheapo science-fiction movies for Roger Corman, and could probably make 50 features for the money spent on Independence Day, each of them with a dozen times the substance. His latest, The Secret of Roan Inish (PG), is the first he's made for an audience of children, though it carries a sufficient freight of memories about Ireland's colonised past to read differently for adults.
Sayles's work is so far removed from the short-attention-span rhythms and nervous jokes and gadgetry of many modern kids' films that it seems to have come from another era - the late 1940s, perhaps, which is when its story takes place. Fiona, played by the gravely beautiful Jeni Courtney, is a little girl sent to the West Coast to live with her grandparents after her mother dies. Through a series of tales, dreams and strange experiences, she learns the story of her ancestor who captured and married a Selkie - part seal, part woman - and guesses that this strange inheritance may have something to do with the disappearance at sea of her baby brother.
Sayles treats his tale, adapted from a book by the late Rosalie K Fry, with a respect bordering on solemnity - his other films show a fine dry wit, and a little more of that spirit wouldn't have soiled the magic at all. His cinematographer, the veteran Haskell Wexler, catches all the poetry of sea life, from lolloping seals to predatory gulls, that was squeezed out of Flipper, and shoots the flashbacks and reveries in a golden shimmer that plays beguilingly against its unsentimental content. It's possible that adults will be more captivated by this than children, but if you have ever moaned about the Disney empire's world franchise on modern childhood, your duty is clear.
August (PG), Sir Anthony Hopkins's transposition of Uncle Vanya to Wales, has been getting a bit of a drubbing, but has its share of quietly eccentric pleasures, not least the chance to see that great man Leslie Phillips in the Serebryakov role of Professor Blathwaite. It is certainly a good deal funnier than The Stupids (PG), John Landis's astoundingly misconceived new effort, a live-action film in garish cartoon style about a family of dolts whose innocence leads them to investigate a non-existent conspiracy and unwittingly thwart a real one. Oddly enough, if you can sweat out the first half-hour or so of desperately misfired humour, it takes on a kind of morbid fascination. At the very least, it could be used as telling evidence in an argument with those who maintain there's no such thing as a distinction between bad trash and good trash.
Cinema details: Going Out, page 10.
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