Out of Nowhere Commentary: "Independence Day" isn't a great movie by any stretch. But its glorious battle fills a void left by the end of the Cold War. Humans feel the need to hate, to fear, to destroy and, clearly, to watch this film.

July 13, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

Barring the remote possibility that record numbers of Americans are lining up to see "Independence Day" under the impression that at last one of Richard Ford's novels has made it to the screen, what does explain the extraordinary success of the film?

I mean, it's a hoot, but one would be hard put to argue that it's really that much better than anything else out there.

But then excellence has never been a prerequisite for movie success.

Still, one must begin by conceding the following: that in a very real way, "Independence Day" does what no other big summer film manages. It delivers on its premise. It also packages that premise in a savvily-engineered narrative structure that's simple enough to follow and kinesthetic enough to get your adrenaline gurgling. Equally, what's at stake is always certain: there are no hidden agendas. The movie, despite its abundance of high-tech effects, is the most stubbornly old-fashioned film of the season; it's about storytelling at the strongest, purest level.

In that sense, it's always much closer to journalism than to entertainment: You always know the classic five W's: who, what, where, when and why. Consider that pleasure in contrast to the narratively clotted "Mission: Impossible." You could stop "Mission: Impossible" at any point in its running time and ask the audience: "What is happening and what is at stake?" Most questionnaires would come back blank and those few that were answered would be fabulously amusing. Nobody knows what's going on in that movie: you just sit there watching the plot spin by, waiting for the next big action set piece.

"Twister," seemingly an adaption of "The Bickering Bickersons" with stormy weather added, is equally unsubstantial. Cheesy domestic drama intercuts with the spectacle of tornadoes, but most people can figure out what's going to happen next, even as they're wondering why they should care. As my daughter observed, in the toxic sarcasm that only a 15-year-old can muster, "Oh, when the last tornado turned out to be an F-5 whatta surprise!" "Eraser" is so weightless and vapid it hardly exists; its best special effect is Vanessa Williams' surgically fitted blue jeans.

Of the big four, only "The Rock" came close to delivering the consistency of story, character and spectacle that "Independence Day" achieves, but it's probably limited to the $100 million mark by its bloodiness. It's simply too full of close-up killing with small arms to transcend the hardcore male adolescent audience. That's ironic: its body count is probably one one-millionth of "Independence Day's," but because "Day" is conjured on such a vast scale, we never feel the weight of all the bodies entombed in all the ruined cities. "Independence Day" is a holocaust without the depressing weight of tragedy.

But it's also fair to say that the movie appears to touch hidden chords in the body politic or the corpus sociological. Most great popular successes do just that: they stroke or caress some sunken value in society and provide pleasures and meanings that go beyond simple narrative mechanics. They echo, they resonate, they have meanings beyond their actual material. There's got to be a subtext, even if the normally trustworthy and prescient James Walcott argued in the New Yorker that the movie had none.

So a number of heavy thinkers have busily been trying to decode the meanings under "Independence Day" and its extraordinary success. One theory sees in the invasion theme the metaphorical specter of AIDS, another killer that seems to have come from nowhere and thrown its ugly shadow across the land.

There's always the possibility that the movie is also drawing some of its subtextual power from another "invasion" theme, which is the problem of illegal immigration, a bane to us all but one that's so perplexing it almost can't be discussed. No one wants to seem a bigot, so the great tide of illegals pouring into the country goes unremarked upon in polite society, unless you live on the border and have seen your job eaten up by illegals.

But there is a deeper pleasure still to "Independence Day," which in my estimation is the core of its hidden appeal. It's a fairly complex idea and one would think that those great inventors of words, the Germans, would have a term for it. After all, they came up with such nifties as schadenfreude, for the joy one takes in the misfortune of others, weltschmerz, for world-weariness, weltanshauung, for world view and the wondrous zeitgeist, for spirit of the times. But they are of no help here.

Warning: New word ahead

So let me invent a German word for my concept, untroubled by the fact that I do not speak German. I am a critic: I get to do such things. This is what they pay me for. It's a tough job but someone's got to do it. But kids, remember: I'm a professional. Don't try this at home.

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