Americans celebrated the Fourth of July, 1996, not only with fireworks and parades but by cramming into movie theaters to see a movie about the United States' being conquered, its major cities incinerated, and its national monuments blown to smithereens. And yet somehow Independence Day evokes an odd sense of patriotism.
For all of the special effects and science-fiction mystification, the film, like its companion summertime hits Phenomenon and Eraser, owes its real charm to its portrayal of ordinary human beings acting with moral principle.
In Independence Day, scriptors Ronald Emmerich and Dean Devlin have written and Mr. Emmerich has directed what will probably be the blockbuster of the year-maybe the decade. In addition to noise, noise, noise and ever more amazing special effects, the movie plays with a pantheon of heroes and heroines designed to appeal to many philosophical persuasions and dumps Homeric disdain on both cynics and New Agers who look to UFOs for salvation. This vision of the future presents not a golden age, but an apocalypse.
While paying humble homage to his predecessors in the alien-invasion genre, director Emmerich eschews the '50s formula of making the audience wait for an hour before presenting the "monster-ex-machina" and launches his story with the arrival of a massive alien battleship whose shadow eclipses the lonely American flag that was planted on the moon.
Cutting between a cable-TV computer whiz (Jeff Goldblum), a broken-down alien-abductee turned town drunk (Randy Quaid), a top-gun fighter pilot (Will Smith, in a refreshingly non-racial piece of casting), and a vacillating president (Bill Pullman) who keeps emoting about the aliens' coming in peace, the filmmakers create a human context as the enormous flying saucers block out the sky over America's major cities.
Carefully pacing the horrific with light comic relief and non-stop allusions to science fiction trivia, Mr. Emmerich proceeds to create a sci-fi benchmark with the aliens' devastating attacks on New York (with innocent commuters trapped in traffic jams), Los Angeles (complete with loopy citizens dancing on the rooftops to celebrate the aliens' arrival), and Washington, D.C., (where the White House and the Capitol are utterly destroyed).
Although some audiences had been noted for cheering when a brief cut of the exploding White House was screened in trailers, everyone in attendance at a suburban St. Louis screening reacted with rapt silence. Within the context of the film, these scenes are awesome and disturbing. To be sure, some might think that America would be a pretty good place without Washington, New York, and L.A. But the aliens' easy destruction of supposedly powerful human institutions is a healthy reminder of the fragility of the American republic and of the things of this world. The spectacle of the Statue of Liberty lying face down in the bay is a haunting emblem of the loss of American ideals.
The movie, having destroyed America, goes on to suggest a rejuvenation. The president becomes a decisive and self-sacrificial leader. Government scientists become not the sinister villains of X-Files conspiracy theories but key defenders of the planet. The fighter pilot shows old-fashioned military courage as he rediscovers family values. Perhaps the biggest hero emerges out of the trailer park crowd in their RV caravan. Ordinary citizens pull together in the face of a common cause.
Nevertheless, several elements will put off conservative Christians. The pilot lives with his girlfriend, who works as a stripper (though as the characters change in the crisis, they get married). After lampooning the loony optimism of the New Agers, the movie resorts to some gratuitous globalism as the president declares that the Fourth of July will now be a world holiday. The alien "autopsy" and other gruesome scenes will make most people squirm. Above all, the scenes of mass destruction on the scale of nuclear holocaust-presented for entertainment with little sense of moral or emotional proportion-are unnerving.
Independence Day reverses the Lucas/ Spielberg premise that extraterrestials are our friends (though the notion was before that proposed by C.S. Lewis, who pointed out that we earthlings are the ones who have fallen). To its credit, the movie suggests that something more deadly than aliens threatens to destroy humanity: bad character. Our champions must conquer their character. As in several other recent releases, this film hails ordinary men and women who put the interests of others ahead of their own, faithfully love their spouse and children, and embody the virtues of friendship, patriotism, and compassion.
But ultimately, despite the movie's popular appeal and good intentions, the plot takes the humanist's road to salvation. (See Soul Food, p. 26.) More extraterrestials and virtuous ordinary folk can be found in another summer hit, Phenomenon, starring John Travolta being zapped by a light from a UFO, giving him extraordinary intelligence and psychic powers. Here is the familiar contemporary fantasy of aliens as our benevolent spirit guides, which Independence Day so refreshingly debunks.
Playing the part of friendly farmer-and-mechanic George Malley, Mr. Travolta and director Jon Turteltaub ask audiences to "believe" the power of the human brain to alter reality for the improvement of humanity.
The script follows sweet-tempered George as he attempts to win the favor of his lady love, Lace Pennamin (Kyra Sedgwick), a newly arrived single mom. She rebuffs his advances for reasons never revealed, so George finds comfort among his friends who fete his birthday at the local beerhall.
While taking a brief respite outside, he is struck down by an intense light and returns a changed man. He starts to display strange behaviors that include sleeplessness, increased energy, a voracious hunger for reading and research of all subjects. He learns new languages in a matter of minutes, predicts earthquakes, finds lost children, and makes inert objects move by asking them to cooperate with his thoughts. His reaction is fear and generosity toward his fellow man. His fellow men react with fear and alien tabloid tales.
Though Mr. Travolta's grinning, nice guy persona is refreshing, and though the Forrest Gump-like theme has its appeal, the underlying worldview appears to owe much to Scientology, the religion of UFOs, past lives, and positive thinking. The inevitable sappy resolution of George's dilemmas remains true to its religious roots by dianetically babbling about the human spirit to the accompaniment of insipid pop music and jerking tears from a contrived crisis.
The ordinary folk dramatized in Arnold Schwarzenegger's latest film, Eraser, are much more satisfying. Though Arnold cranks up the artillery and blows away bad guys by the dozen-as usual-beneath the conventions of the mindless action movie are some genuinely good people crawling out of the wreckage.
As John Kruger, a U.S. marshal in the Federal Witness Protection Agency, Mr. Schwarzenegger's mission is to protect what in Hollywood productions is a rare bird: an honest corporate executive (Vanessa Williams) who is helping the FBI expose a web of traitors reaching from her employers to the top of the Washington, D.C., food chain. Kruger uses his special ability to "erase" her existence, protect her through trial, and then give the witness a new identity and a second chance at life.
The best qualities of this version of the Arnold-against-a-small-army-story include a hero who bases his actions on a strict code of ethics and sticks to it, with no gratuitous sensuality (nothing more than a hug of appreciation), and a heroine who is attractive, intelligent, and chaste. There is even a quick but respectful mention of repentance and serving God. These are seasoned by effective acting by James Caan as Kruger's nemesis, Robert Deguerin, plenty of action, and spectacular stunts (such as the amazing conflict between Arnold and an airplane).
The drawbacks are the obligatory spilling of blood and guts (including a jarring suicide), the introduction of players exclusively for purposes of the body count (I lost track somewhere in the 20s), shallow characterization, fewer punch lines than normal, a repetitious storyline, potholes in the plot, and contrived time locks designed to give Mr. Schwarzenegger the opportunity to thrill audiences with his last-minute defiance of impossible odds. These are all conventions of the genre. But this Arnold flick gives us a little more than what we expect.
Perhaps Hollywood production houses are finally realizing that audiences still take traditional values seriously and are longing for virtuous, self-sacrificing heroes. Filmmakers who may be confused in their own worldviews sometimes still extol noble ideas-and in the process rake in record profits.