Tuesday, July 27, 2010

23 days too late

Not only 23 days, but also 14 years too late, but who had a blog back in 1996? Not this guy. So if the G4 network sees fit to air the movie Independence Day a full three-plus weeks after the titular holiday, I think I can dedicate a post to the flick a decade and a half post-theatrical release, inspired by the fact that I got sucked into watching the last half hour or so on cable this past weekend.

Aliens, man.  They are all about the overkill.
I really love this movie, and it’s not terribly noteworthy (from my perspective) that I fell into watching a tv broadcast of it because (a) it’s one of those cheeseball classics that every cable station owns a copy of and airs on a semi-regular basis and (b) I tend to set down the remote and watch at least a few minutes of it whenever I flip across it. Every. Single. Time.

Of course Independence Day is utter brain candy, and by that I mean it’s the equivalent of compressed sugar tablets with trace amounts of fruit flavoring which you would never seek out but which you can’t seem to stop eating if they happen to be right in front of you. The characters are all the tropes I grew up on with exactly zero added nuance and nary a fresh quirk to be seen (the misunderstood genius? the cocky fighter pilot? the stripper with the heart of gold? COME ON!) but it’s probably that whole I-grew-up-on-those-stock-types that makes them feel so right in the middle of the outsized end-of-the-world plot. And the fact that the plot unsubtly hits each and every beat you would predict if you heard the synopsis “alien invasion disaster movie with happy ending” just adds to the overall addictiveness.

I did notice a couple of things this time around, though, or maybe not so much noticed as allowed certain ideas to crystallize. One was just how much Independence Day is a product of its time, in every conceivable way. And perhaps I am biased toward overly mythologizing the mid-90’s in which I graduated college and came of age and so on, but I think that even taking that into consideration you have to marvel at the high concentration of zeitgeistiness on display. If someone asked me to compile a pop culture time capsule of the 1990’s (or possibly even of the entire previous century) I would absolutely include a copy of this movie and let it speak for itself. There’s the cast, just for starters, with Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum, who you really couldn’t get away from in that decade, all the way down to some of the supporting roles: Harry Connick Jr.! Brent Spiner! Will and Jeff are still with us but Harry and Brent were pretty much peaking at that point. (There’s also a young up-and-comer playing the commanding Air Force officer at Area 51, who has one of my favorite lines in the movie, when the President asks if the glass separating the alien autopsy room from the observation theater is bulletproof, and the major says “No, sir!” just before shattering the window by unloading a full clip into the alien’s bug-eyed head. That’s Adam Baldwin! AKA Jayne Cobb from Firefly and also AKA John Casey from Chuck! And that guy is eerily ageless, as he looks pretty much exactly the same.) And there’s the ham-fisted themes about natural resource conservation and government cover-ups and conspiracies and even a moment when Earth is mounting its final resistance and Israeli and Arab fighter pilots give each other grudging looks of respect across the airstrip from one another (hey, remember when it seemed like the Mid-East Peace Talks might actually go somewhere?).

But then there’s the movie as an artifact itself of how blockbusters were made in the 20th century. They actually built miniature sets of the various downtown areas that get blown up by the aliens, and set off explosives inside the model skyscrapers and filmed it and slowed it down to get realistic destruction shots. I will always remember being a little kid and sometimes catching specials on PBS about the miniature model-makers who worked on Star Wars, thinking that sounded pretty much like a dream job. But Independence Day has to be one of the last movies to use those kinds of old school effects rather than CGI. And of course the events themselves, as depicted or enhanced by the special effects, having to do with attacks on and mass death and destruction in American cities – I know we’ve had movies do similar things in the post-9/11 world (hell, Emmerich himself has helmed them) but it’s so gleefully done back there in 1996. And of course the whole glorious mess ends up being so unapologetically jingoistic in holding up the indomitable, invincible USA as the saviors of the world that it should be embarrassing today, given how much humble pie we’ve gorged on since the millennium.

And it is a little embarrassing, but not enough to ruin the movie. The movie is just one big naked manipulation of the audience’s emotions from the first frame to the last. And I’ve always smirked at that aspect of it but what I realized this time was that I was a lot more susceptible to the button-pushing. This is actually part of a larger phenomenon my wife and I have been noticing lately, which we’ve taken to calling Everything Is Different Now. This is nothing earth-shattering, but however universal it may be it’s still somewhat disorienting (though usually just amusingly so) to experience it firsthand. To boil it down, we find ourselves having visceral emotional reactions to things we formerly only had more cerebral reactions toward, such as the cheap dramatic technique of placing children in peril. Obviously this is because we now have a child of our own, and as a result … Everything Is Different Now. It’s particularly apparent when we re-watch something we’ve already seen, back in the pre-parenthood days. Case in point, the BTVS project, where we recently re-watched the first ever Buffy Halloween episode, in which all the little kids who bought costumes at a certain shop turn into little monsters when the shop owner casts a spell. My wife and I both remember thinking this was an entertainingly silly lark of a storyline, but watching it again we both felt cold little knives of fear in our bellies despite being well aware not only that we were watching a piece of fiction but knowing exactly how it ends! (The kids, shocking spoiler alert, are all saved by Buffy.) Independence Day shares in this effect as well. The President leads a fighter squadron against the alien battleship and returns in triumph … to give his little girl a hug. Meanwhile Randy Quaid’s character is the one who had to sacrifice his life to achieve the victory, which marks the first time in the course of his troubled relationship with his son that the boy has been proud of his old man, and over in yet another story arc Jeff Goldblum’s character and his difficult dad played by Judd Hirsch find some common ground when Goldblum crashlands back on earth after taking out the mothership. It’s really borderline insulting how over the top these father-son intergenerational feelgood moments are but they just about slayed me this time around. I still recognize, intellectually, what’s going on and how hacky it all is, but now in addition to that there’s this wellspring of feelings that surge up unbidden in response.

And that is just me getting mortifyingly misty-eyed at the climax to a deliberately dumb movie. Don’t even ask how I’m able to function like a normal human being in the face of real-life tragedies that happen to children in the news every day, because I’m still figuring that one out for myself. It probably goes to the point of why I’m more likely to be watching G4 than CNN on any given weekend afternoon, though, brain candy addict that I am.

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