Tempest in a Saucer

Independence Day isn't dull--it holds the attention for all of its 144 minutes. Sometimes, it does so through the shocking gracelessness of its dialogue, or the weird jumble of its cast, or the simple astonishment over what cliches it isn't above trying to put past us, but it never bores. As for those tiresomely touted special effects, however--well, they're the best that money can buy, and they're impressive. What they are not is mind-blowing.

For the blessedly benighted few: Independence Day is about city-size alien spacecraft which arrive on Earth on July 2 and start trashing the place with apocalyptic death rays. A ragtag band of survivors of the initial attack searches desperately for a way to retaliate, and takes its shot at it two days later, on the title holiday.

The nationalism extends past the title. Though we're told that it happens to all the world's major cities, the three whose destruction we see are all American--New York, L.A. and D.C. (this film could probably induce orgasms in militia members). They're wiped out in gigantic spreading fire storms, each aimed at a famous edifice--the Empire State Building, the Capitol Records building, the White House.

As well-done as these sequences are technically, there's no hint of alien strangeness to them. They're just technically superior blitzkriegs. Why couldn't some other sort of destructive force, something freaky and otherworldly, have been used? Why couldn't the aliens have melted the cities, or frozen them, or gassed them, or swept them away with wind, or crumbled them with sound waves, or inundated them with killer fungus or something?

For a special effect to be truly mind-blowing, it must be more than technically superb--it must stir the imagination and the emotions. It must, in short, be art as well as technology. Twister's plot and dialogue are as feeble as those of Independence Day, but at least Twister's effects have some whimsy and magic to them. ID's spaceships are drearily prosaic--ugly, utilitarian black discs, like gargantuan versions of something you'd buy at Radio Shack. Even Ray Harryhausen's whirring, ray-belching ships in 1956's Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (of which ID is a virtual remake) have more personality than these.

Besides, even if we don't demand great plotting and dialogue from movies like this, does it follow that the plotting and dialogue should suck? The actors in ID seem visibly embarrassed at times. Only Will Smith, as the daredevil fighter-pilot hero, gets by unscathed; with his jovial affability, he makes a reasonable modern equivalent to Smilin' Jack. But Bill Pullman is steamrolled by the role of the heroic, young president, especially on the eve of battle, when he urges his few warriors into the breach in a flatulent version of the Saint Crispin's Day speech from Henry V. Watching scenes like this, and considering that ID is one of the major cultural events of the summer, may give you the subversive thought that civilization deserves what it gets in this film.--M. V. Moorhead

Independence Day: Directed by Roland Emmerich; with Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, Judd Hirsch, Robert Loggia, Harvey Fierstein, Viveca Fox, James Rebhorn, Randy Quaid, Raphael Sbarge and Mary McDonnell. Rated

 
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