Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Independence Day

4/4

Starring: Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Margaret Colin, Vivica A. Fox, Judd Hirsch, Randy Quaid, Mary McDonnell, James Rebhorn, Brent Spiner, Harry Connick Jr.

Rated PG-13 for Sci-Fi Destruction and Violence

For me, my first movie love was "Independence Day."  Not "Star Wars," which I enjoyed but not as much.  Perhaps it's because I saw this in the theater first.  Regardless, it became quite an obsession for me at the time...I even dragged my family to see it on vacation at one point.  It's been 20 years (!)since it came out, and my love for it has not diminished.

It's not hard to see why it would appeal to an 8 year old boy.  Or anyone for that matter (for a time, it was the second biggest moneymaker ever, right behind "Jurassic Park").  The action is spectacular.  The characters are fun.  The script is smart (as far as big budget spectaculars go) with a number of insanely quotable lines.  And some big laughs, as in explosively funny lines and gags.  There are thrills and chills, triumph and tragedy, and a true sense of awe and adventure.

SETI has received a mysterious signal.  It can only mean that it is evidence of extraterrestrial life, but that's when things get stranger and stranger.  As the news travels higher up the political food chain to President James Whitmore (Pullman), spaceships that are 15 miles wide begin to hover over the largest cities in the world.  At the same time, a cable TV guy named David Levinson (Goldblum) has found a signal that the alien ships are using to communicate with each other, and what he finds is a countdown to destruction.  Now after the major cities of the world have been destroyed, the remaining humans have to find a way to fight back...or face extinction.

One reason why the film works is that the characters, from top to bottom, have life and personality.  That's different from being three-dimensional, which they aren't (there isn't time).  But they are likable and interesting enough to get us invested in their fates.  We care about them.  In a movie like this, we don't go for characters that Daniel Day-Lewis would play.  We go to find people like these that we like from the beginning and want to see through to the end.

Will Smith got his big break as the cocky yet superstitious fighter pilot Steve Hiller.  It wasn't his first action movie (that would be "Bad Boys" the year before), but it did put him alongside the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, and the other big action stars.  Ironically, he nearly wasn't cast.  Director Roland Emmerich had to fight hard to get to cast Smith in the lead role.  The studio wanted a white guy.  His co-star, Jeff Goldblum, is also very good.  As the nerdy but lovelorn David, Goldblum underplays his character while at the same time not getting lost amid all the special effects. Bill Pullman nicely plays the President in his reliable low-key way, although he lets loose fire and brimstone in his great speech right before the climax.  Everyone else does their jobs well, but the scene-stealer is Randy Quaid.  Playing the unhinged, alcoholic cropduster Russell Case, Quaid has some of the film's funniest and kookiest, moments.

But the film's undisputed star is Roland Emmerich.  No one does action movies like Emmerich.  While it could be argued that Michael Bay has overtaken him in the explosions and destruction department, that would imply that we actually cared about the characters in the "Transformers" movies.  Plus, Bay works with budgets that are nearly 3 times what Emmerich got from Fox, and if I do say so myself, "Independence Day" looks better.  It's not as metallic, the color contrast isn't as jarring, and he uses more than orange and blue.

Is "Independence Day" great art?  Certainly not.  But it doesn't try to be.  Nor should it.  Leave that for people like Alejandro Innaritu.  A movie like "Independence Day" can only be expected to entertain, and on that level, it is a tremendous success.

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