If you’ve heard Orson Welles’ brilliant radio hoax The War of the Worlds — which sparked a national panic — you know it’s scarier and more exciting (even in a visual sense) than the boring, demoralizing Independence Day. The movie arrives wrapped in the biggest “event” hype yet. Forget government conspiracies about aliens — what about the entertainment media’s conspiracy to persuade America that this movie doesn’t suck?
Independence Day is another retro hunk of cheese from director Roland Emmerich, who co-wrote it with producer Dean Devlin. These men, who also made the hit StarGate, have been credited with resuscitating the sci-fi genre. If empty movies like these are what sci-fi needs, it deserves to die. ID4 (as the ads call it) is abysmally written and indifferently directed, with long stretches of tedium. On opening night, I felt the anticipation of the audience rapidly turning to disappointment.
Like StarGate, ID4 swipes from blockbusters of recent decades. Despite the ostentatious three-chapter structure, there are really only two acts: (1) Aliens strike; (2) We strike back. Kaboom! Take that! The aliens, whose goal is simply to kill us, so closely resemble the critters in the Alien trilogy that H.R. Giger may have grounds for a lawsuit. Giger will have to stand in line behind Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, from whom Emmerich steals without shame. Suffice it to say that the big alien craft is a Mother Ship Death Star.
ID4 is never more pathetic than when it pretends there are human beings on the screen. Capable actors like Bill Pullman (as the can-do President), Jeff Goldblum (as a computer wonk), and Will Smith (as a gung-ho pilot) seem to be playing action-figure versions of themselves. Goldblum and Smith make an engaging team, but Goldblum recycles his dry inflections from Jurassic Park (he even reprises his line “Must go faster”), and Smith’s rowdiness is marred by sentiment. Decent female roles? Not in this boys’ club. Sigourney Weaver, where are you when we need you?
Does the movie deliver? There are perhaps ten minutes of slam-bang annihilation, spread out over a yawning two and a half hours. (Most of the movie is guys pacing and worrying.) Independence Day may own the holiday weekend, but I can’t see it doing much repeat business. There’s no magic in this kind of shallow, adrenalized commerce. Once you’ve seen the heat-death of an entire city, a jaded numbness sets in. ID4 goes all the way into video-game nihilism. There goes New York! There goes L.A.! Bang, bang, we’re all dead! Isn’t this fun?
Well, no. Even allowing for my usual crankiness towards these thunderdome movies, Independence Day made me angry. Partly it’s because it made the covers of Newsweek and Time the week before it opened, as if it were some zeitgeist spectacle (“America Is Hooked on the Paranormal”) instead of The Day the Earth Stood Still on ‘roid-rage. Mostly it’s because its purpose is to deliver a loud, crappy good time, and it fails — it aims low and misses. A movie can commit no greater sin.