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Close Encounter of the Special-Effects Kind

Want to hear a recipe for competing in the summer movie marketplace? First, dig up $80 or $90 million. Add 3,000 (yes, 3,000) special-effects shots depicting stuff like the fiery destruction of the Empire State Building, the U.S. Capitol and the White House, a couple of major air battles between hundreds of American jet fighters and a fleet of alien spacecraft that look like big snack crackers with dabs of onion dip on top of them, and an autopsy performed on a huge, slimy, multi-tentacled monster from outer space that (surprise!) turns out to be very much alive and doesn't appreciate being sliced up like a piece of halibut.

Add a youthful U.S. president who served as a combat pilot in Desert Storm, a smarty-pants scientist with a queasy stomach who figures out how to save the planet by infecting the attacking mothership with a computer virus, and a couple of cute kids. Throw in that folklore about the Defense Department's secret "Area 51" installation out in Nevada--and its captured spacecraft. Then fill big, goofy Randy Quaid full of bourbon and have him impersonate a wobbly crop-duster pilot who claims to have once been abducted by aliens. Later, stick him in the cockpit of a supersonic fighter so he can exact a little revenge. Doesn't matter that he's never flown anything but a ninety-horsepower biplane--he's a quick learner.

Mix in a lot of jingoistic flag-waving and at least one member of every racial, ethnic and sexual-orientation group in America--so that everyone will want to buy a ticket, including devotees of Harvey Fierstein, the author of Torch Song Trilogy. While you're at it, don't forget to blow up New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Washington and Houston before prevailing in the final shootout with evil. Let the Israelis, the British and the Russians in on some of the action--we are all Earthlings here, aren't we?--then roll the credits.

There you have it: Independence Day.
Nothing more really needs to be said except that writer/director Roland Emmerich, who earlier meandered around the heavens in Stargate, hopes to have made the ultimate disaster movie. To be sure, this festival of computer-generated mayhem and ear-splitting explosion out-wrecks the tornadoes of Twister, out-blasts the commando battles of The Rock and out-careens that train-in-the-tunnel thing at the end of Mission: Impossible.

But the whole enterprise is a bit overwrought, and it lacks both charm and intelligence. In the Star Wars trilogy, for instance, space battle was waged between likable heroes and carefully drawn villains, and those two delightful robots filled in the technical end with style. With the possible exception of fighter pilot Will Smith, Independence Day doesn't have anybody you really care about, and The Enemy has no personality at all. The Star Trek TV series (and the movies) created its own cosmos and its own complex set of values; Independence Day relies on us-versus-them cliches and clunky dialogue. For instance: When it finally dawns on the president, played by Bill Pullman, just what kind of threat the world is facing (the audience has it figured out a half-hour earlier), it's like a dim bulb going on in his head. "Soooo," he concludes. "It's an organic life form." This is the leader of the free world?

Almost from the moment that slabs of city-sized alien spacecraft cast their shadows over our major metropoli, a similar shadow is cast over the movie itself. It's technically adept but witless, and for all the noise and dazzle up there on the screen, you rarely hear the beating of a human heart. Even in an earlier time, when monsters invaded the earth on tiny budgets, the sets were patently fake and the flying saucers had that flaming pie-plate look, the fear and paranoia of the invadees seemed real enough. Here, everybody from the president on down to the masses huddled in their Winnebagos has to play second fiddle to Emmerich's effects--all 3,000 of them--and his facile indulgence of coincidence.

That's Jeff Goldblum as the scientist with the secret solution, Mary McDonnel as the sappy First Lady, Margaret Colin as the snippy White House aide and Judd Hirsch as Goldblum's kvetching father--one of the broadest Jewish caricatures in recent movie history. As for Fierstein's brief turn as a doomed scientist cowering under his desk, gay cliche hits bottom here.

Meanwhile, President Pullman simply pulls on his helmet and leads the jet fighters into the final battle himself. There's an election-year commentary if you've ever heard one, and it's probably not the kind of thing Bill and Hillary are going to take sitting down.

--Gallo

Independence Day.
Screenplay by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich. Directed by Roland Emmerich. With Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, Margaret Colin and Randy Quaid.

 
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