Red, White and WHEW! Review: Cities explode and bodies pile up as ET's nasty cousins try to wipe us out. Then "Independence Day" really gets exciting.

July 03, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

"Independence Day" is like a Tom Clancy novel on steroids from outer space.

Big, loud, long, cornball, F-18-crammed, indisputably exciting, patriotic as an anthem, it's something for everybody and, most of all, unstoppable.

It doesn't really have a plot, only a situation, with which anyone who has watched TV is familiar: World meets invaders, world loses to invaders, world gets invaders. It's 1956's "Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers" on an A-budget of millions, bigger and brighter, and with enough computer-generated effects to make Bill Gates' eyeballs go tilt. But the movie is still irredeemably tacky. I mean, what do you expect when you do a cheerful adventure flick with a body count of about 200 million?

Actually, its absolutism is one of its charms. When They finally come, They are not benevolent critters with the fuzzy eyes of Steven Spielberg's warm and Popsicle-flavored dreams, but slimy, geeky space Nazis with no agenda for our frail species save the crematoria. We have it, they want it -- the Earth. No peace, no justice, no negotiation: just flat out, kick-butt interspecies warfare to the last man or ectoplasm.

H. G. Wells still did it first and best, but Roland Emmerich, when he isn't staging living Marine Corps recruiting posters, can be stirred to a high level of pictorial splendor. Indeed, "Independence Day's" best thing is its sense of spectacle. The invasion force appears to have been designed by the inventor of the original Frisbee, but these Frisbees are 15 miles wide and festooned with skyline. Think of New York City wrapped around a pie plate that stretches from Towson to Columbia.

Emmerich gets great mileage out of shadows as the big ships maneuver, separating earth from sun: the ominous slide of darkness as it envelops structures that we humans envision as grand but are instantaneously revealed to be dwarfish vanities when compared to the scale of the saucers. The early game is strategic, not violent: The ships slip into position and hover over their targets, communicating and mysteriously coordinating.

The movie, in typical disaster-flick fashion, flashes back and forth among the human beings at various levels of society. The president, played by Bill Pullman, blandly handsome enough to be believable in such a role, is dismayed but hopeful. His press secretary (Margaret Colin) is plain scared. A cocky Marine pilot (Will Smith) salivates at the prospect of combat, but his girlfriend (Vivica Fox) is also scared. A drunken ex-'Nam fighter jockey and current crop duster (Randy Quaid) gets drunker. A SETI researcher (Jeff Goldblum) tries to figure it all out. All are good; the only loser in the bunch is Judd Hirsch, as Goldblum's father, overplaying the kvetching Jewish Daddy thing to the point of excess.

Meanwhile, back in the plot, it's Goldblum who deciphers the code and realizes that the bad boys are getting set to pull the trigger. In one of the film's endless litany of brain-dead coincidences that help tie the untidy story together, he just happens to be the press secretary's estranged husband, so he's able to get through to the White House just in time to get the national leadership out of danger before the aliens fry the cities.

A good portion of the subversive fun of "Independence Day" is indeed watching the saucers throw a few more burgs on the barbie, just as it was in both Ray Harryhausen's "Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers" and George Pal's excellent 1953 film version of "War of the Worlds." I'm not sure what obscure human need it satisfies, but the audience (of which I was an enthusiastic member) really tripped out as the Empire State Building and the White House were deconstructed into napalm meringue. What is so comforting about the end of civilization as we know it?

In the rubble of the first attack, the president tries to rally the troops while the various other components of the story try to crack the case.

The movie is artfully constructed to play to marginal space-freak fantasies, including the one about the recovered saucer from Roswell, N.M., being stored at the mysterious installation called Area 51, don't you know? All the dysfunctional drifters who've been sustained by this fantasy over the years will find that "Independence Day" is their wish come true.

It's at Area 51 where various mad scientists and cocky Marines and concerned leaders finally crack the case, and figure out the inevitable last gambit that will save the Earth. Hmmm. Somehow I think that the makers of this movie have seen a couple or so other movies set a long time ago in a galaxy far away.

But because the imagery and rhythms of the climax of "Independence Day" are borrowed from the "Star Wars" movies doesn't make it any less effective. Emmerich cares enough to steal from the very best. He's no deep thinker, but he's an incredibly dynamic filmmaker and the movie mounts and mounts in electric tension as it hustles to its explosive and picturesque ending. He even gets the president into the cockpit of an F-18 to lead the last airborne charge.

But, I kept thinking, winning a war didn't get Bush re-elected, so what good's it going to do Bill Pullman?

'Independence Day'

Starring Bill Pullman, Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum

Directed by Roland Emmerich

Released by 20th Century Fox

Rated PG-13

***

Pub Date: 7/03/96

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