“Now that’s what I call a close encounter.”

The Daughter and I watched Independence Day last week. It’s the first time I’ve watched the entire movie in ages, and my impressions haven’t changed one bit. I’ve never been one for the idea of “guilty pleasures”, which I take to mean “Things you like even though you know you shouldn’t”; why should I ever think I shouldn’t like something that I already like? Makes no sense to me…but Independence Day (or, famously and quite oddly, ID4 for short) is about as close as I come to having a real guilty pleasure. I like the movie a lot, and yet, there’s so much that’s wrong with it!

(Hmmm, in that sense, it’s not unlike Star Trek 2009 in that regard.)

ID4 is a movie that piles plot hole after plot hole on top of implausibility after implausibility. It’s a movie that posits the horrible deaths of tens of millions of human beings on Earth, and yet is lots of fun to watch. It’s a movie that has the President of the United States personally leading the fighter plane attack on the alien ship at the end of the film, hours after he’s watched his wife die. There is so much stuff in ID4 that doesn’t make sense in any way, and yet the movie is so well-made that it almost never matters. It’s the Teflon movie. I can sit here and rattle off a long list of things that are wrong with it, and yet, when I watch it I get excited at President Whitmore’s cheesy “St. Crispin’s Day” speech; I laugh when the Defense Secretary has to speak up and tell the President that yes, there is an Area 51; I choke up with cropduster pilot Russell Case sacrifices himself to destroy the aliens; et cetera.

I assume anyone reading this far into this post remembers the plot of ID4: aliens attack earth, blowing up city after city while humanity reels. A plucky group of survivors, including the President of the United States, gathers at Area 51, where they figure out how to strike back against an enemy whose ships all have impenetrable shields. Finally the resident computer genius (Jeff Goldblum, of course) figures out how he can use his 1995 Apple Powerbook to infect the entire alien fleet with a computer virus that will lower the shields, and the humans attack. Lots of explodey-spaceshippy-goodness ensues.

I got the DVD out of the library, not realizing that it was one of those “Revised Director’s Cuts” that put about ten minutes or so of stuff back into the cut, so while watching the movie, I kept realizing I was seeing scenes I hadn’t seen before. In some cases, those scenes actually helped smooth over some of the plot holes.

Some random thoughts from the recent viewing of ID4, then:

:: It’s interesting that the film goes out of its way to avoid establishing whether President Thomas Whitmore is a Democrat or a Republican. I have no idea, and based on the evidence in the movie, I couldn’t even hazard a guess.

:: Implausibility watch: Of all the geniuses who are surely working on analyzing the aliens’ signals and transmissions, only the cable teevee genius in New York (Goldblum) is able to figure out that they’re running a countdown?

:: Early on, as the Mother Ship is entering orbit, an Earth satellite is destroyed when the mother ship moves into its orbital path. I never noticed before, but the satellite has “CCCP” painted on its outside. Is that actually supposed to be the Mir space station?

:: Implausibility watch #2: In the event of massive public panic in the largest cities in the world, it’s still possible to drive from NYC to Washington, DC in less than seven hours. (The “Director’s Cut” adds back a bit of footage that shows the drive being less easy than it appeared in the original cut, but it’s still hard to buy.)

:: Implausibility watch #3: One of the closest advisors to the President of the United States would really keep her cell phone number listed “for emergencies”? What kind of emergency would that be? In the original cut, when David (Goldblum) calls Connie (Margaret Colin) on her cell, her first words are, “How did you get this number?” I’ve always thought that odd, since she keeps it listed! But the Director’s Cut fleshes this out a bit, with David having to look up the number, but realizing that she hasn’t listed it under her current real name. (She used his last name, as she is his ex-wife, but she didn’t take his name when they were married.) This still doesn’t explain how it would be useful to her to be listed in the phone book under a different name, but the movie was written and made in 1995 when cell phones were only starting to really take off, so I’ll give them a pseudo-pass on this. It always stands out, though.

:: A couple of additional scenes with Russell Case (Randy Quaid), the drunken cropduster, establish that he didn’t actually father those kids but married their mother. (At least one of them, anyway.) This explains the somewhat troubled relationship between Russell and Miguel, the oldest kid. The scenes also establish that the younger boy is sickly and needs constant “medicine”.

:: Implausibility watch #4: So, Capt. Steven Hiller (Will Smith) can apparently deliver a punch so hard that it knocks the alien unconscious even through the protection of his “biomechanical suit”, and it knocks him out for hours. Although, we do see Hiller later on kicking the crap out of the alien when he gets frustrated, so maybe he’s been periodically beating on the alien in the interim. Plus, the alien is no doubt injured from his crash landing. And besides, it’s a cool moment on screen anyway — Hiller has about half-a-second of “Yeesh, what the hell is that?!” reaction when he first sees the alien, and then he punches it out. Yee haw!

:: Implausibility watch #5: Area 51 has been kept secret for decades, but Capt. Hiller knows it’s there because he saw it while he was flying over it at top speed trying to evade fire from an alien spaceship. Sure!

:: Implausibility watch #6: Backing up a bit, the fire-wave in the tunnel should have killed Jasmine (Vivica Fox). Why would it sweep past an open closet without filling it with flamey-goodness?

:: Added scenes: We get to see a bit of where Dr. Okun (Brent Spiner) is showing David what they’ve learned about the alien technology. There’s even a line in there about computer compatibility, which I suppose is intended to make the stuff about the computer virus later on feel a bit less hand-wavey. Does it work? Maybe.

:: Implausibility watch #7: Capt. Hiller suddenly decides to grab a helicopter and fly off to his old air base so he can…what? Why does he do this? Sure, it enables him to reunite with girlfriend Jasmine, who has also coincidentally found the injured First Lady, but seriously, why does Hiller fly there? This makes zero sense.

:: Unnecessary developments: I can’t imagine how the death of the First Lady is in any way necessary, except to end the film’s second act on as down a note as possible so the third act can be all about redemption and whatnot. It still feels to me like a narrative cheat: the First Lady is injured badly, she barely gets to the company of doctors in time…to die anyway? This is the part of the movie I like least, actually.

:: Implausibility watch #8: Yeah, the computer virus. Sure, fine, whatever. I’ve made my peace with it. Still, like I said a couple months back, it makes me wonder how a sequel might work.

:: OK, have the aliens made zero modifications to their ships in fifty years since that scout ship crashed at Roswell, NM? Hiller and Levenson (the Goldblum character) fly that ship up to the mothership, which allows it to dock and then ignores it until it’s trying to fly away again, and only then do the aliens investigate that ship? The alien control-room guy doesn’t think, “Hmmmm, according to records, that ship’s been gone for fifty years. Should look into that.”

:: Implausibility watch #9: Not so much an implausibility, but I always wondered why, instead of a massive fighter attack, they didn’t wait until the shields were down and then nuke the alien ships. Fifty ships worldwide means fifty nukes.

:: The fighters sure waste their missiles by firing them at enemy fighters instead of concentrating them on the big ships, don’t they? Especially later on, when it turns out that the fighters’ machine guns can also blow up the enemy fighters. Why didn’t they use the machine guns on the fighters in the first place? Then maybe they’re not down to exactly one missile when it comes time to take out the big ship’s “primary weapon”.

:: Had Bill Pullman played his cards right, he really could have become the heir apparent to William Shatner as King of Geek Cool. Instead, fourteen years after ID4, Nathan Fillion is Crown Prince to The Shat. Kind of sad…but Pullman’s performance as the President is all kinds of geek-masculine cool, especially with lines like “Hang on, General. I want another shot at it!” and “We need to give Mr. Case some cover, Gentlemen, let’s plow the road!” Great stuff, there.

:: I remember noticing Devon Gummersall’s name in the credits when I saw the movie the first time, and I didn’t remember him in the movie. He’d been cut, it turns out. He shows up in the Director’s Cut in two fairly forgettable scenes. (Gummersall was the kid with the stringy blond curly hair, Brian Krakow, who had the unrequited crush on Claire Danes’s Angela Chase in My So-Called Life, which was made two years before ID4.)

:: I’ve always wondered why a single nuclear missile would destroy the entire alien mother ship, which we’ve been told is “one fourth the size of Earth’s moon”. There’s no shot of that missile hitting the mother ship’s reactor or anything, just the missile, sitting stuck in the wreckage of the last wall it punched through. I assume the writers did this because otherwise you’d still have millions of aliens ready to invade Earth, but still….

:: Why, with widespread panic about an alien invasion taking place, would The McLaughlin Group still be on teevee?

:: Hey! Assuming that the aliens have been blowing up major cities in order of population, I have to think there’d be a good sporting chance that Buffalo would still be intact after the aliens have been destroyed at the end. And heck, if being one of the only cities still standing after the defeat of an alien invasion can’t help the Buffalo economy rebound, then nothing can!

:: And yet, after all that, what a fun movie!

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6 Responses to “Now that’s what I call a close encounter.”

  1. Cal's Canadian Cave of Coolness says:

    I totally love this one too. Like 'Resident Evil' and 'Armageddon' I can watch them anytime and I think it's because everyone is so PLUCKY. Even Jasmine's dog that was gonna die but made the jump at the last minute…AAAAAAAAA…had that spirit to fight back. Damn stinkin' alien assholes.

    That was not JUST a cable tv repairman that was JEFF GOLDBLOOM who will all know in real life has more intimate knowledge of alien cultures than we ever should ask him about.

    I love the way your posts are a full meal. I just feed people candy.

  2. Lord Chlorus says:

    Did you ever post a commentary on "Star Trek 2009"? A quick search of your archives didn't reveal one, but I might have missed it. (I am going to have to go back, though, and read your comments on "Battle Beyond the Stars".) I'm curious as to what you thought was wrong with ST 2009. I just got around to finally seeing it, about a month ago. After all the panegyrics I had read since it first came out, I was surprised to find it a heavily flawed movie (although still extremely enjoyable.)

  3. Call me Paul says:

    Yeah, this movie falls into the same category for me, too. Yes, it's really, really bad, but, hey, it's tons of fun! Also in that group for me are Armageddon, and Highlander.

  4. Kelly Sedinger says:

    Lord Chlorus: I wrote about Trek '09 here and here.

  5. Lord Chlorus says:

    Many thanks! I think you covered most of the items that nagged at me from my first viewing. Now, I need to watch "ID4" again…

  6. Jason says:

    I like ID4 as well and have never understood the animosity so many have toward it. I've seen stupider movies that were better liked.

    Anyway, the thing I've always found interesting is that nobody ever seems to recognize this movie for what it really is: a near beat-for-beat remake of the 1953 version of War of the Worlds. Think about it: aliens arrive and attack, the military tries to repel them and is easily repelled; the lead character crashes his plane and shortly thereafter encounters one of the attackers outside its invincible spaceship (Gene Barry in WotW,
    Will Smith in ID4); the encounter results in this character obtaining some physical evidence which he transports to scientists to examine; the humans deploy their ultimate weapon, the atomic (thermonuclear in ID4) bomb, to absolutely no effect (the shot of the alien spacecraft emerging from a wall of smoke is virtually identical in both movies); and finally, the "littlest thing" bringing down the bad guys, a computer virus in ID4 vs. a virus-virus in WotW. Throw in a bit of Star Wars at the end, voila, the biggest movie of 1997…

    in WotW, Dr. Forrester crashes an airplane

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