Thursday, March 27, 2014

Independence Day

Filming continues on Flying Down to Reno and I had a hectic morning on the set as we began the camera set-ups for my big solo number, I Could Have Crashed All Night. My make-up call was something of a nightmare as the Chuck E. Cheese cleaning crew had misplaced my jars of Lesterene Strawberry Pancake Number 2 and the Avocado/Shrimp cleanser that I absolutely must have to be my radiant and lovely self on camera. Fortunately, I had a spare Lesterene Spam/Pineapple exfoliant in my bag and was able to start with that while the production assistants searched the dumpster for my beauty products. They were eventually found beneath a partially gnawed slice of pepperoni pizza and I was able to put on my face without further ado.

I had a call from Joseph, my manager, while in the make-up chair. He's been working with my lawyers, Fajer and Hellmann, on the situation with the VickiWear factory. Mr. Carducci, the manager, has apparently been embezzling quite a bit of money from the whole operation. He has been removed and replaced with a new team, imported from Nike, who promise to get the Indonesian seamstresses back on schedule so that all my fans will get their stunning new summer outfits prior to Labor Day. Madame Rose, my publicist, was able to keep the bad publicity to a few column inches in the back of the Style section, thank heavens. I have been told that the seamstresses, on being informed that Mr. Carducci would not be returning, staged an impromptu conga line across the parking lot and served barbequed satay in the boiler room.

Celebrations being on my mind, I descended to the home theater to find a film that ended with humanity in a jubilant mood. My search through the collection revealed Independence Day, the blockbuster popcorn film from the summer of 1996 which featured explosions, evil aliens, embarrassingly bad dialog, and interstellar fireworks for a finale. The new collector's edition DVD includes a new cut of the film with an additional ten minutes and a bunch of other goodies so I settled in to the couch to cheer on the good guys and whoop it up at scenes of mass destruction.

Independence Day falls into the class of 'big and stupid' films where size and spectacle take precedence over plot, character, internal coherence, and the like. It's H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds reimagined as a late 1970s disaster flick where, instead of fighting to escape a sinking ship or burning building, our plethora of quasi-stars are fighting to escape green laser beams of energy that shake and bake everything in their path. The film comes from writing partners Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich; Devlin produces and Emmerich directs. They had slowly been moving up the studio food chain from Moon 44 to Universal Soldier to Stargate and this was their shot at the big time.

The film is huge with multiple plot lines and hundreds of speaking parts (most of whom get fried after the first hour). An alien species sneaks up on earth in a huge mother ship that looks like a giant cockroach, using the moon as cover. From this base they send a number of large discs that look like giant sand dollars to hover over major population centers. While mankind dithers, the aliens methodically begin eliminating cities with evil green energy blasts and no human weapons seem capable of stopping them. In New York, we meet brilliant physicist David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), an underachiever who works for the local cable company. He realizes that the aliens are using the satellite cable feed to coordinate their attack. He warns his coworker Marty (Harvey Fierstein in a truly embarrassing career low performance), pairs up with his father Julius (Judd Hirsch), and heads off to DC to get the attention of his ex-wife (Margaret Colin). The Levinsons,pere et fils then go off into various bits of Yiddish theater vaudeville routines that predate Harrigan and Hart while driving south. They continue to do this throughout the film despite the fact that a) it's not funny and b) completely unneccesary.

The ex-Mrs. Levinson is press secretary to president Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman) who is trying to rally a country in a state of panic with the aid of a loyal general (Robert Loggia) and a whiny secretary of defense (James Rebhorn). David Levinson crashes the White House, shows some computer graphics of a ticking clock and everyone panics and heads for the hills with Air Force One making it out of DC with our heroes on board just as the city disappears in flames. Off they go to the mysterious Area 51 in Nevada where secret government scientists, led by a wild eyed, wild haired Dr. Okun (Brett Spiner, trying to make up for all those tics Data wasn't allowed to have) have been studying the aliens for forty years.

Meanwhile, on the west coast, Captain Steve Hiller (Will Smith) and his girlfriend Jasmine (Vivica A. Fox) awaken to an alien ship hovering over LA. It's back to El Toro for the good captain so he can take his place in a useless dogfight against the alien ships and so his best buddy (Harry Connick Jr.) can be killed in the onslaught. Hiller crashes in Nevada, captures one of the aliens, and turns up at, you guessed it, Area 51. (Which seems to within walking distance of both the Bonneville salt flats in Northern Utah and the Grand Canyon in Northern Arizona). Meanwhile, Jasmine, who lives in a lovely home with a gorgeous view paid for on her salary as a stripper(!), is caught in the destruction of Los Angeles, but she and requisite cute kid and cute dog survive by hiding in the maintenance area of a tunnel during the firestorm. I assume they were all able to hold their breath for a very long time to make up for the lack of oxygen in the atmosphere during such events. It's also interesting to note that the dog is able to outrun the firestorm. As Air Force One barely made it on take off, I assume the pooch is capable of speeds in excess of three hundred miles per hour. Jasmine plows through the debris of Los Angeles and stumbles over the first lady (Mary McDonnell), whose escape chopper was also caught in the blast. She survived without a scorch mark and with her eye makeup fully intact. They all head off for El Toro where the obviously psychic Captain Hiller finds them and choppers them off to Area 51 for a tearful reunion.

In one last major plot thread, a drunken ex-Vietnam pilot (Randy Quaid) with a bunch of adolescent kids (led by James Duval) claims to have been abducted once by aliens. He's gratified to see that he's finally believed but one of the kids is sick with Addison's disease and there's no medicine to be had. Off they all go in the Winnebago with other survivors of the LA area and, guess what, they turn up at Area 51 as well.

Now that the cast has gathered, they have to save the world. Those who have been to enough Hollywood action epics should know that 1) the president will turn out to be a true leader 2) the aliens will be defeated 3) the drunken bum will save the day 4) Hiller's wish to become a space pilot will be realized 5) Levinson's computer brain will come up with a way to counter attack and 6) there will be at least one tragic death. It is no surprise, therefore, when all these developments fall into place. We even get a 'St. Crispin's Day' speech using 'Independence Day' as the theme, a noble suicide, and a tragic death where the dying person was obviously not so unwell that she couldn't redo her mascara.

The film has enough plot and characters for about three movies so its to Devlin and Emmerich's credit that the audience can keep the various stories straight. They never let things slow down. If they did and you actually thought about what was happening, you'd never buy it for a moment. The dialog is strictly second grade variety. I might be tempted to say watch it as a silent film but then you'd miss all the nifty rumbles when they blow something else up. The best word for the whole enterprise is bombastic. It's loud. The visuals are expansive (and expensive). The score (David Arnold), with its overtones of Sousa and Copland, is such that you expect the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to make a cameo singing 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic'. There's no Americana image the two don't exploit and the whole thing has a rather nasty jingoistic feel as if no other country could possibly do what we can do.

The actors are encouraged to ham it up to the level of the rest of the production. Only Mary McDonnell and Robert Loggia turn in relatively restrained performances. Everyone else seems to be going for that mystical 11 on the scale of 1 to 10. Judd Hirsch is by far the worst offender. His Jewish papa becomes so annoying that you begin to hope that the rest of the cast will leave him on a mountain top with a large sign reading 'Aim Here'. Will Smith shows his natural charisma in the hero role. He's at his best when the script and director get out of his way and allow him to do a little improvisation with tongue in cheek. Jeff Goldblum, like in Jurassic Park gets all the pseudo-science exposition. That may be why he was hired. He does it well and if they hadn't saddled him with the Hiller and Diller routines, he might be bearable. Bill Pullman doesn't have the charisma to truly be presidential but he tries and has a couple of nice scenes.

The longer cut on the DVD adds about ten minutes to the original theatrical cut. The additions include no new sequences, but rather extended takes and snippets of scenes that were cut for time. They're mainly more of the Hirsch/Goldblum comedy hour (not a welcome addition) or treacly melodrama involving Randy Quaid's children (the girl gains a boyfriend, the younger son's illness is gone into in more detail).

The DVD has a marvelous picture transfer with a crystal clear image and wonderful 5.1 Dolby Surround sound. There are two commentary tracks, one with Emmerich and Devlin (self congratulatory and not terribly informative) and one with the visual effects supervisors (fairly technical). A second disc contains the original ending (in which Randy Quaid saves the day in a biplane rather than an F-18 and which was junked for being 'unrealistic'(!)) and several behind the scenes documentaries which consist of standard press junket interviews and the like. One, which is set up like Orson Welles' The War of the Worlds is kind of cute.

This is not a great film but it's an entertaining one. It moves quickly, it blows up lots of cherished landmarks, and it has evil space aliens. What else do you want?

Coke product placement. Chess references. Gratuitous exotic dancing. Oval office conferences. Exploding helicopters. Exploding White House. Exploding Empire State Building. Exploding Los Angeles. Winnebago caravan. Aerial dogfight. Biomechanical suits. Gratuitous 2001 reference. Computer viruses. Telepathic aliens. Gratuitous Star Wars references. Gratuitous Godzilla references.

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