Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The invaders weren't from Mars this time---how could they be? After 360 degree photos from the Martian surface, invaders from Mars could only be a joke---as in Mars Attacks! It's even more ridiculous in 2005, when we have rovers sending back photos of meteors that landed on Mars.

But the basic story was the same: the alien invaders, resisting communication, wanting nothing but the death of humanity. It was as if several decades of Star Trek hadn't existed! Aliens were back to being mindless things, monsters that travel light years to rage and destroy.

And they were big. Really big. As big as multinational corporations, and with all their warm human feeling. But just as in Wells, they could be defeated by a virus. A computer virus this time, but still...

There's one scene that is so directly ripped off from the Pal movie that the art director had to leave a secret signal that he knew it was. Just as in the Pal movie, the last ditch effort is dropping nuclear bombs on the aliens. It doesn't work, which is revealed in a scene that's lifted from Pal, as the dust clears and a forward observer in a tank sees the alien machines rising out of the Bomb's destruction. If you look closely, you'll see in the background some twisted lampposts that look exactly like the bent necks of the Martian machines in Pal's War of the Worlds.

But while Wells' novel was consciously making a political point, and the Orson Welles and George Pal versions made theirs unconsciously, this one---the only one in which the president is a lead character-seems to have no particular point at all. Sure, the president in the fighter-pilot getup may remind us today of a certain 'you're with us or you're a dirty alien' guy, but that's life imitating art.

Independence Day seems instead a fairly daring attempt to orchestrate grand, obvious and at times absurd movie themes to create real human emotion. It's as if Shakespeare had grown up on Hollywood movies. There's movie romance, movie adventure, movie spectacle and movie comedy. And there's classic structure, almost mythic themes, heroes, villains and clowns. There is one couple ended by death, and two couples brought together in peril, with a perfectly Shakespearian double wedding, just before the President King goes out and make his Henry V speech.

When this movie overcomes the predictability of its character moves and the cringe-worthy aspects of the story, it's usually because of the good rhythm and the blessing of good and well-matched actors (some of the best lines were apparently improvised.) All the pairs that needed chemistry (including Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum, and Goldblum and Judd Hirsch as his father) had it.

It is worth pointing out as well that a point made in the Pal movie of "War of the Worlds" and made more concretely in this film is that when facing a common threat, humanity sees its common identity and works together. It's interesting in that regard that this is the first science fiction adventure movie I can think of with a black hero; moreover, that he is black is never mentioned. Of course, some boundaries remain: the two couples are racially unmixed.

I'm not sure what we are to make of the idea, though, that after defeating the alien invader, the fourth of July becomes humanity's Independence Day. Shouldn't it be interdependence day? Or do we always need aliens to define us? And do they always have to be hostile? Must they always represent pure evil so we don't have to face our own complex mix of good and bad within us? Just what are we independent of? We will determine our own destiny when we face up to what and who we really are.

But I guess we all know what America will be doing this Independence Day.

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