Saturday 14 May 2016

Movie Review: Independence Day (1996)

An alien invasion science fiction extravaganza, Independence Day packs a globe-full of carnage into the story of yucky invaders intent on destroying Earth, and the human efforts to repel them.

With July 4th approaching, a menacing armada of mammoth alien spaceships arrives over Earth, disrupts all satellite communications and takes up station above major cities. US President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman), a former air force pilot, is unsure of the aliens' motives and whether or not to order an evacuation. His advisors include the stoic General William Grey (Robert Loggia), excitable Secretary of Defense Albert Nimzicki (James Rebhorn) and Communications Director Constance Spano (Margaret Colin).

Constance's former husband is David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), an intellectually gifted MIT graduate whose lack of ambition has landed him a job as a satellite technician at a television station. David decodes the aliens' inter-fleet communication signal, revealing their countdown towards a massive hostile attack. David and his father Julius (Judd Hirsch) rush to the White House to try and warn the President. In Los Angeles, Captain Steven Hiller (Will Smith) is a cocky air force pilot, debating whether to propose to long-term girlfriend Jasmine (Vivica A. Fox), an exotic dancer. He interrupts his vacation and reports back to base upon witnessing the alien spaceship above LA.

The aliens do indeed attack as predicted by David, causing massive loss of life and the destruction of entire cities. The President is hustled off on Air Force One, but the First Lady (Mary McDonnell) isn't so lucky. Hiller joins an air force counterattack, but the advanced technology of the invaders proves too strong. President Whitmore faces a monumental challenge to save the human species, and the path to unlocking an effective military counter strategy passes through the government's secretive Area 51 facility in the Nevada desert.

Directed by Roland Emmerich, Independence Day is a throwback to 1950s style humans vs. aliens sci-fi thrillers. With the advantage of glitzy special effects and charming actors radiating heroism, the film rides a cool groove of action and devastation, set against end-of-the-world excitement. The film takes its time in the first 30 minutes to establish an interesting set of characters, and once the aliens reveal their intent, Emmerich kicks off more than two hours of merriment and mayhem around a simple question: how will humans fight back when faced with nothing less than a surprise war of annihilation with superior extraterrestrials.

For all the sound, fury and glib one-liners, not all of Independence Day is as slick as it would like to be. The scenes of massive spaceships hovering over cities are impressive, but never quite satisfying with the enemy craft rarely fully defined. In general the computer-generated scenes of destruction are hit-and-miss, with the scale sometimes appearing suspect. To maintain family-friendliness there is a notable absence of corpses in scenes where survivors stumble through the wreckage of cities reduced to rubble. The technological key to defeating the aliens, once found, is barely explained, with star charisma expected to be more important than even an iota of scientific discourse.

The romance elements are standard fare for the genre without getting too much in the way, while the independence day hokum about the rebirth of humanity on America's birthday is adequate for easily excitable patriotic young minds, but is best not dwelled upon.

But star charisma is what Independence Day is all about, and the combination of Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum does not disappoint. Smith oozes star power, gets the best lines and the snappiest attitude, and emerges as a hero as both an ace pilot and a man sticking by his exotic dancer girlfriend. Goldblum plays perfectly off his persona as the geeky-but-potentially-cool science guy cultivated around The Fly and Jurassic Park. Bill Pullman is adequate but lands in more bland territory compared to his two co-stars.

The secondary cast adds plenty of texture and is better than the regulation stock characters. Robert Loggia adds stature as the General standing by the side of the President, James Rebhorn is his counterweight as a Secretary of Defence playing politics at the wrong time, and Judd Hirsch get an expanded presence as David's slightly overwhelmed but still thoughtful father. Randy Quaid achieves one his better supporting roles as an alcoholic crop duster with a colourful history related to the aliens, and eventually finds his inner Slim Pickens.

Flashy and furiously fun, Independence Day has much to celebrate.

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