Everyone knows the story--"July 2... they arrive. July 3... they
attack. July 4 is... Independence Day--the day we fight back." The
question remains, does the hype monster ID4 live up to its massive buildup?
In a word, no. Despite some awesome effects, the just OK Independence Day
is done in by too many uninteresting subplots and not nearly enough action.
The major players in this '90s-era disaster tale of alien invasion
(told in three labeled sections: "July 2," "July 3," and "July 4") are: Air
Force fighter pilot Steven Hiller (Will Smith, cool as ever); his stripper
girlfriend Jasmine (Vivica Fox); scientist David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum,
doing another variation of his roles in Jurassic Park and Powder); his
father (Judd Hirsch in an embarrassing Jewish stereotype); alcoholic
cropduster pilot Russell Case (an excrutiatingly hammy Randy Quaid); United
States President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman, back in boring mode); his
wife (Mary McDonnell); and the White House communications director (Margaret
Colin). As in the tradition of '70s disaster flicks, these and other
characters lead their own dissimilar lives until a larger-than-life disaster
(in this case, a hostile worldwide alien invasion) unites them.
And there lies ID4's ruinous problem--director/co-writer Roland
Emmerich and producer/co-writer Dean Devlin (the people who perpetrated
StarGate) spend too much time (and, in the process, bloat the running time
to nearly two and a half hours) establishing these frankly, with the
exception of Smith's engaging wisecracker, boring characters and even more
boring problems. I like a good soap as much as the next person, but ID4's
"human element" is not a good soap--uninvolving and devoid of any interest,
not to mention credibility straining and, at times, unnecessary: was it
really necessary to have Goldblum and Colin's characters be ex-spouses? If
Devlin and Emmerich were smart, they would have just let Goldblum be just a
scientist and Colin just a presidential adviser, in the process shaving off
15 minutes of interminable screen time devoted to their relationship
problems. The same can be said of Quaid's drunk pilot and completely
colorless trailer park family, all of whom appear to have wandered in from
another film. Their "bittersweet" storyline, along with the "tearjerking"
one of the President and the First Lady, are supposed to add some human
"emotion" to the proceedings, but the melodramatic moments feel forced and
are not the slightest bit involving.
Devlin said recently at a Los Angeles comic book/science fiction
convention that special effects don't matter if you don't care about the
characters. However, the spectacular visual effects and production design
mattered much more to me than the cardboard space fillers passed off as
characters. ID4 only comes to life during the elaborate effects sequences,
which _do_ deliver. The explosive annhilation of New York and Los Angeles
truly must be seen on the big screen to be believed (I shudder to think how
all the spectacular effects would look on the small screen,
panned-and-scanned, no less), as do the gigantic, cavernous interior of the
mothership, and the two aerial battle sequences, which brings me to another
problem with the picture: lack of action. Those two battle scenes, one in
the middle and one at the end, are pretty much all ID4 have to offer in
terms of action. That would be acceptable if (1) the film weren't so
aggressively hyped as a big action extravaganza and (2) there were something
interesting going during the down time; alas, all we get are a few good
lines from Smith, by far the breakout star of the film, and the excrutiating
"human dimension." For the slam bang action connoisseur, ID4 is a bust.
The script also gives the aliens the short end of the stick. With
the exception of one violent lab scene reminiscent of Alien, the audience
and the earthlings never experience any up-close terror with the aliens;
virtually all of their damage is done via their massive spacecrafts, and, as
a result, they aren't nearly as terrifying and menacing as they should be.
What is missing is more direct contact with the invaders. In the end, it is
more a question of whether or not the humans can defeat the alien technology
than defeat the aliens themselves.
My lukewarm reaction to the film appears to be in the minority, for
ID4 has already grossed a truly astounding $95 million in its first 5 1/2
days, and general audience opinion has been ecstatic. But, as with all
insanely popular films, some sort of backlash is bound to happen sooner or
later. Here's hoping it's sooner, for the mega-hyped ID4, while not
especially bad, is far from anything great.