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NEXT EXIT: AREA 51

 
Would Independence Day be a better movie without all that Area 51 bullshit? Did director Roland Emmerich and his co-writer Dean Devlin get their filler by watching those sci-fi nuts on Larry King’s TNT special? (I confess to seeing it—twice; anyone who imports a desk and uses the sunset in the near-Roswell desert as his backdrop is a showman deserving of an encore.) Would ID4 be more receptive without Bill Pullman mouthing perfunctory lines that flash in our heads before his cue? Without Randy Quaid’s boozer-turned-hero? Without Will Smith a little too conveniently landing his chopper at his decimated base to be greeted by his gal pal? Let’s face it: like Jurassic Park, ID4 is just okay. Enjoyable on its own junk terms up to a point, we all probably begin to quietly mumble Oh no, Emmerich’s not going to let them do that and sure enough Harvey Fierstein and Judd Hirsch do their super toxic schtick, and Oh God, it's another tiring mutation of Ridley Scott’s aliens—this time much smarter: they’re hegemonic invaders. We watch ID4 to see the long-advertised special effects, which are, in succession, wowie, good and then blurry. There’s one huge collective disappointment: the mother space ship and its 15 mile-in-diameter babies. We never get near enough to them for clear-eyed views; just when we think we will—like when one of the midget terrors comes out of its fiery Close Encounters cloud over a New York City bridge—it’s gone; this magnificent “phenomena” isn’t held long enough for us to perceive its paralyzing other-world majesty. It should have been one of those “Wow!” moments that only movies can provide. And inside the mother ship, things get awfully hazy, we can’t get a techno fix. (We get better views of the movie in the MVP licensing publication Independence Day, the Official Collector’s Magazine.) The lack of the luxury to linger is a mistake; this movie really is all about the terror of technological awesomeness and in order to feel the fright and panic, in order to respond to what’s pretending to be larger than we are, we need some realistic impressions—we need to be convinced of the expensive razzle dazzle we’re watching. On this level Jurassic Park succeeds: if we’re unavoidably aware of the mechanical contraptions and computer-generated effects, we marvel at how Spielberg and his Merlinettes give their monsters (who only have about seven minutes on screen) a real charge. In ID4, we want to oooh and aah too, we want to get caught up in the War of the Worlds, yet we’re detached—we’re watching roughly fifty minutes of FX that initially intimidate, only to become elusive to our senses; they stay “out there” for too long. (And sometimes the effects are shoddy, like the exteriors of the Air Force One model, and the aliens’ humpy fighters look like those plastic HairWiz cutters you buy at Walgreen’s. Many of the special effects in Emmerich’s boobish The Day After Tomorrow are pretty shabby, too.) Actually, ID4’s trailer, which kept Fox from having to spend much money on ads, has been out there for too long: our politics aside, when the White House explodes, the audience I saw the movie with didn’t cheer or react demonstrably in any way—not like it was reported from theatres during first screenings. We’ve been too prepared for it; even people who haven’t gone to the movies in years have the scene burned into ever-lasting memory. The explosion works against the picture in another way too: it’s pop ’em sock ’em sci fi pyrotechnics but it’s also pop culture debasement, different from the intentional laughs of contempt Sylvia Sidney gives us in Mars Attacks when Congress gets blitzed but not too different from women in Stars & Stripes halter tops. (A wit who saw the movie early in its release observed, “Titsnflaggers who want a Constitutional amendment outlawing flag burning seem to be the ones hooting it up the most when the White House gets it.”) What laughs there are come out of a peculiar embarrassment: I got a good one over the fact that there’s little objection to nuking my hometown Houston to bits. No one will win any blue screen acting awards, with the exception of a Razzie nomination for Quaid. And what extraordinary good luck for Jeff Goldblum to be cast in blockbusters. Pullman’s wonderfully gravelled voice helps alot, as does the “comeback kid” persona. Playing his Dee Dee Myers, Margaret Colin’s a pleasant clone of Mary Louise Parker and Elizabeth Perkins. ID4 has made its virtual three hundred million dollar domestic gross in the same way Jurassic Park did—by giving summer movie audiences the stories they love but movies they end up feeling indifferent about. A loving update of Ray Harryhausen’s Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, it’s not much more than a joint of Roswellian hemp from which outer space buffs can get a so-so buzz.

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