Plan 1999 From Outer Space

           Publicity abounds for Independence Day, although the movie itself seems a mere promo reel for 1996--the much-touted final chapter in 20th-century electoral politics. Indeed, the Clintons should get a boost from this timely story of a weak-willed president who toughens up while fighting a massive alien invasion. And with its subplot about a divorced couple putting aside their differences and falling back in love, pop-culture critic Bob Dole is bound to deliver a positive review of the film's family values. Imagine: Approval ratings, box-office grosses, and military enlistment figures will all go through the roof--God bless the aliens! True, these creatures do invade our airspace, disrupt the flow of traffic, and obliterate the White House before vaporizing a half-dozen major cities. But let's face it: New York and L.A. were beyond repair anyhow. And these tough E.T.s deserve props for their considerate flight plan relative to our other enemies: The spaceships first appear as a Desert Storm brewing over Northern Iraq; their next stop, of course, is Moscow.

           Actually, this $70-million B-movie owes as much to Ed Wood as to Lucas and Spielberg. But that shouldn't hinder its ability to win hearts and minds. Endowed with the puniest of intellects, the so-called "ID4" erects a wall-to-wall blitzkrieg of exploding buildings, overturning cars, whizzing spaceships, and seething reptilian space creatures, rendered in sporadically effective computer simulations and incessant bass-in-your-face Dolby boom. The volume of digital images is unprecedented (reportedly involving some 3,000 effects shots), but even an alien could ID the film's antiquated models. From the cheesy dialogue and paranoid conservatism to the gleeful defilement of national monuments, this is Earth vs. the Flying Saucers from 1956--albeit updated for the '90s via Star Wars, Alien, Top Gun, and T2, and then filtered through the '70s disaster genre and that awful TV movie from the nuclear-scare era, The Day After. And what about the characters? It's telling that the loudest cheers at ID4's advance screening were reserved for an acrobatic golden retriever.

           Nevertheless, the ensemble cast is multifarious, the better for the film to exploit demographics and express its sympathies. So we have a dim-witted but earnest president (Bill Pullman); a cocksure Marine captain (Will Smith); a lovesick scientist (Jeff Goldblum); a white trash alcoholic crop duster (Randy Quaid); a Keanu look-alike (James Duval); an endlessly kvetching old Jew (Judd Hirsch); and a scaredy-cat neurotic (Harvey Fierstein, working the "sissy" archetype he praised in The Celluloid Closet). The film's few women include a First Lady (Mary McDonnell), a Demi-style showgirl and mother (Vivica Fox), and the president's "communications director" (Margaret Colin), a.k.a. personal secretary. The thrill of Smith's black Han Solo is nearly undone by the image of African tribespeople raising their spears in honor of U.S. military might, while the sissy's early exit confirms the sanctity of yuppie (re-)marriage. Even amid the threat of apocalypse, we Americans keep our priorities intact--one alien-busting confrontation is preceded by a quick trip to the altar. This is a matter of survival: Having exterminated millions of Earthlings in the first hour, the movie feels compelled to reinstate a new set of breeders.

           Still, whether intentional or not, there's plenty of evidence to suggest that the human race isn't worth saving. One of ID4's more realistic concepts is to depict the president as an uncharismatic, cliché-spouting dolt. "The people elected a warrior and they got a wimp," says a TV newscaster. In other words, he's soft on aliens. When the spaceships pull up to the edge of D.C., the president naively sends a "welcome wagon" of helicopters equipped with disco lights.

           But this isn't Close Encounters--or Courage Under Fire. "In the Gulf War, we knew what to do," our leader proclaims, "but it's just not that simple anymore." Gradually learning to exercise force, he grabs the secretary of defense by the scruff of the neck, issues a galvanizing speech ("We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight!"), and flies in an attack mission himself after urging, "Let's nuke the bastards!"

           While the film is busy pumping its men full of that old wartime spirit, it accidentally acknowledges its most primal fears. What would Jacques Lacan make of ID4's preoccupation with helpless Earthlings staring up at the Mothership as she spreads open and spews hellfire? Or the image of the Statue of Liberty lying on her stomach? The fate of this movie's independent First Lady evinces Hillary hatred more profoundly than any scandal, but the president isn't exactly clean either: His best means of penetrating alien defenses turns out to be a computer virus.

           So, is this the end of the world as we know it? Or just the continuing death of that fragile life-form known as cinema? How can we possibly survive? If nothing else, Independence Day does offer teenage boys the perfect pick-up line with which to propagate the species: "Hey, babe, this could be our last night on Earth."

           Independence Day is playing at area theaters.

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