Independence Day

on July 03, 1996 by Kim Williamson
   A sprawling, brawling mess of a movie that has a Germanic celebration of the gargantuan not only in the size of its set pieces but also its nearly two and one-half hour running time, "ID4" has the same pluses and minuses of the Irwin Allen disaster flicks on which it's partly modeled. (Audiences will also espy influences from the likes of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Star Wars" and "War of the Worlds.) It's a tale of a planetary "Poseidon Adventure," with the world seemingly turned upside down by the July 2 arrival from outer space of city-sized saucers that, grave-like, cover over all the world's capitals--and then on July 3 begin a relentless destruction bent on scripting earth's tombstone. On July 4, with time winding down for the human race, a spirited band of individuals (Americans, of course) mount a last-ditch, all-the-marbles counterattack against the mighty foe.
   Peopling the massive narrative like character bric-a-brac are Will Smith as Cpt. Steven Hiller, a saucy Marine fighter pilot who's trying to decide whether to marry his exotic-dancer girlfriend Jasmine (Vivica Fox); Bill Pullman as President Whitmore, a one-time Gulf War hero who as the free world's leader has seen his poll standings plummeting (the public feels "they elected a warrior, but they got a wimp," evaluates his press aide Constance, played by Margaret Colin) but now has the perfect opportunity to unfurl his true red-white-'n-blue colors; Mary McDonnell as the President's Hillary-like wife, whose role feels so truncated one suspects a Republican cutter at work; and Jeff Goldblum as acerbic computer geek David Levinson, who can unravel alien digital code more easily than he can his relations with Constance, Levinson's estranged but loving wife. Supporting cast members range from a good Judd Hirsch, as Levinson's yarmulke-wearing Jewish father Julius, to Robert Loggia and James Rebhorn as the one-dimensional Gen. Grey and Secretary of Defense Nimziki, to an overdone Randy Quaid as Russell Casse, a Vietnam vet turned alcoholic crop duster and believer in UFO abductions who joins the earth's ragtag militia. In one sublimely ridiculous moment in which thousands of alien fighters are phasering their "green s---" at everything but the one plane actually endangering their mother ship, with Casse casually carrying on a lengthy radio conversation with all who'll listen, he gets to be the film's unlikely hero.
   Consistent with the subgenre's usual thinness, the characters are less people than problems, and only the roles of Smith and Goldblum have any human spark to them. As a director, the German-born Emmerich certainly knows how to marshal the architectonics of action cinema, and Dean Devlin as a producer makes the reported $71 million budget play (if not always look) like twice that onscreen. But what the "Stargate" duo need is a real writer, and even more than that MGM hit this new offering displays their lack of literary abilities. Large as it is, the narrative has some underdone plot pointing; e.g., when it's revealed that the extraterrestrial rumors about the military's Area 51 base are true (gasp!), one wishes Emmerich/Devlin had gone deeper, making the Area 51 rumors actually a cover for something even more sinister, and thus surprising us.
   Also, written in a month, the "ID4" script even sounds as if it took at least half that long; if there's a Shelley Winters lumbrously swimming through the movie, it's the dialogue. Case in point: The meant-to-be troops-rallying scene that opens the film's climax. No one expects a "we happy few"-like speech the level of Shakespeare's St. Crispian's Day effort in "Henry V," but the banality of Whitmore's call to arms is still audience deflating--as is the simple demise of the supposedly superior alien force, not only helpless at but totally done in by one viral keystroke. Still, carried along by its dreadnought presence, "ID4" will go ka-blam! at the boxoffice, both here in the U.S.A. and (despite its to-the-Republic-for-which-it-stands zeal) throughout the action-lovin' overseas.    Starring Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum and Mary McDonnell. Directed by Roland Emmerich. Written by Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin. Produced by Dean Devlin. A Fox release. SF. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi destruction and violence, and for brief strong language. Running time: 143 min.
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