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Independence Day (1996)::rating::3::rating::3

Make no mistake:  Independence Day is one of those movies that should have a high resistance to criticism.  After all, it’s junk-food entertainment of the first order–blustery, big-budget silliness.  I mean, there’s Randy Quaid, staggering around like Otis from Andy Griffith.  And, you’ve got President Bill Pullman rallying the troops with the fury of Henry V at Agincourt.  As a snooty critic, how I can perforate something that already knows how deliriously goofy it is?

And yet, a-here we go!  Those empty calories seem to get a little emptier with every new viewing.  The dialogue gets a little clunkier.  The plot grows a little more contrived.  And then there’s the barrage of amateurish little choices.  (Could they have picked a more on-the-nose song to open the movie than R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It”?  During the initial invasion, could Quaid’s family be watching something more dead-on than the 1951 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still?) All that’s to say nothing of Roger Ebert’s complaint of how convenient it is for the alien hordes to have a countdown measured in Earth hours, minutes, and seconds.  With classic movies, time seems to gloss over the blemishes.  Here, they’ve become magnified, like a bug frying in the sun.

Filmmakers Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich (who would dry hump the Godzilla franchise into oblivion for their next magic trick) squish War of the Worlds, Close Encounters, and The Day After into a blender, and then puree it into an unrecognizable goop.  For good measure, they build a cast of characters right out of Airport ’74:  We’ve got the Studly Hero (Will Smith).  The Doomed Sidekick (Harry Connick Jr.).  The Hem-Haw Nerd (Jeff Goldblum).  To round things out, let’s toss in the Love Interest (Margaret Colin), the Drunken Comic Relief (Quaid, duh), and…uh, The President of the United States (Pullman).  But my favorite cliche of all are the old guys they always get the play the Joint Chiefs–or, you know, whatever they are.  These square-jawed, buzz-cutted dudes who inevitably march into the War Room, chomp stogies, and growl at each other.  (“Get me the Secretary of Defense.  THEN WAKE HIM!!!!”)

Naturally, this ragtag group of actors is all we have against a legion of invading squid-monsters.  In the opening scenes of Independence Day, the alien mothership breaks into smaller ships.  The attackers must have consulted a few tourist brochures, because they line up above our precious landmarks:  The Empire State Building, the White House, and the U.S. Bank Building in L.A.  (The filmmakers should’ve studied those brochures a little more, as the Empire State Building doesn’t actually line up with 5th Avenue.)

The aliens’ little egg timer goes off, and they start blowing up all the major cities.  After that, it’s just a matter of which actors are too expensive to die.  Devlin and Emmerich settle the film into a long, talky second act.  The movie focuses on Goldblum, and his attempts to out-nerd the monsters.  Once the writers have pumped enough dialogue to make their script nice and plump, we get a big, nutty conclusion.  If you live to see Randy Quaid whoopin’ and a-hollerin’ like Yosemite Sam, then Independence Day is just your bag.

Your only hope of enjoying any of this overblown hooey is to put your brain in idle mode.  Then, you can focus on some of the good things:  Sturdy, old-fashioned 90s special effects.  David Arnold’s brawny, brass-driven score.  Also, James Rebhorn–the late, great character actor–is perfect as the sniveling, squinty bureaucrat who manages to be an absolute jerkwad, even when It’s the End of the World As We Know It.  (Additional kudos to Robert Loggia, who delivers his ridiculous dialogue with deadly conviction, as if his character was fighting The Battle of the Coral Sea.)

With all that said, I simply couldn’t shut my brain off this go-around.  The flimsy storytelling was just more than I could handle.  (If the aliens are light years ahead of our technology, why do they need our HBO satellites to coordinate an attack?  Also, if their computers are a thousand years more advanced, wouldn’t they be able to handle a Trojan Horse virus uploaded from a Macbook?)  Anyway, I know this Independence Day is beloved.  When it came out, the teenage version of me probably would’ve slapped four stars on this review.  Maybe more.  Alas, age and cynicism has forced me to take it down a notch.  Maybe I’m just much more aware that too much junk food is actually a bad thing.

145 min.  PG-13.  Hulu.


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