Like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, this alien-contact movie starts with scenes from all over the world. Like The Day the Earth Stood Still, we see the shadow of a ship darken the Mall in Washington, D.C. Huge spacebuggies hover over major cities a la Childhood's End -- and Independence Day's massive saucers make the Death Star look like a Hyundai. So, yeah, the Stargate team responsible for Independence Day -- director/writer/producer Roland Emmerich and writer/producer Dean Devlin -- are familiar with the entire sci-fi canon.
But this is not your usual cheery saved-by-the-aliens feature. Emmerich and Devlin seem to have studied not only science fiction, but also The Dialectic of Enlightenment. In Independence Day, as in the Adorno/ Horkheimer book, superior creatures who descend upon less advanced beings do not come to share; they come to advance their own selfish purposes. Klaatu barada nikto? Phone home? Hah! What these ETs have to say to us is, "Die!"
They swarm Earth, and the Emergency Broadcast System says this is not a test, run like hell. At this point, the shooting and explosions begin, and characters become important because two and a half hours of sorties and fire storms would be a computer game, not a movie. At the top of the character heap, we have President Whitmore (Bill Pullman), a "Gulf War hero" who spends the movie squinting, worrying about his horrible wife (horrible Mary McDonnell) and finally getting tough with his intergalactic adversaries. At the president's side is one General Gray (Robert Loggia), doing the stalwart Army guy thing. We've also got star-crossed lovers, super genius David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) and presidential aide Constance Spano (Margaret Colin). David breaks the aliens' code; Constance alerts the prez.
Those roles are all okay -- the government guys and science types do the sort of things you'd expect them to do if bug-eyed monsters were trying to exterminate us -- but this movie would be nowhere without Will Smith as the obligatory young hotshot fighter pilot, Captain Steven Hiller, and Harry Connick Jr. as his good-natured sidekick, Jimmy. This comedy team single-handedly saves the movie, if not the planet. Smith's short-tempered sarcasm gives Independence Day what little edge it has, and Connick has a healthy amount of screen time, time for a generous dose of funny lines read in the crooner/funk artist's sweet-as-molasses drawl. Trading wisecracks and gags in the best buddy-movie tradition, Hiller and Jimmy make the movie watchable. Them, and Randy Quaid as the lovable wet-brain who saves the day.
Well, he saves the day with help from the men and women of our military. When the chips and satellite frequencies are down, our troops resort to Morse code, hiding and good old American know-how. With these low-tech methods, American fighting forces (and the help of one knee-walking drunk crop-duster pilot) defeat the evil locust with tentacles.
In production, too, Independence Day doesn't always exploit latest-release technology. Cloud tanks and models are used for many of the exploding city and exploding space craft scenes, and it shows.
Perhaps the best effect is Captain Hiller's landing. After a long (too long) spell of space-craft-against-fighter-planes and fireballs in the sky, Hiller has to eject. His parachute landing, which follows dozens of megawatt explosions, is impressively lifelike. His bone-crunching bounce in the desert drew gasps from everyone in the audience.
Despite the wealth of sci-fi references, Emmerich and Devlin's stated purpose is to revisit an unlikely genre -- the multicharacter disaster movie. That's right. Independence Day was made by men proud to call themselves Airport fans. (I'm sure their love of '70s disaster movies has nothing to do with how much money Airport made.)
Probably because storytelling is not part of the filmmakers' goal, Independence Day is a little disappointing. Summer movies are like Christmas presents: a lot of the fun is anticipation -- wondering, waiting and hoping. This year's summer movies are like gifts from rich relatives: somebody spent a lot of money and made a lot of promises, but did not think about what you wanted. Independence Day is only another summer movie, and like the rest of this year's crop, only worth matinee prices.
Directed by Roland Emmerich. With Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, Mary McDonnell, Randy Quaid, Harry Connick Jr. and Brent Spiner. Rated PG-13.