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Heaven and earth

Independence Day has the best of both worlds

by Gary Susman

INDEPENDENCE DAY. Directed by Roland Emmerich. Written by Dean Devlin and Emmerich. With Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Mary McDonnell, Judd Hirsch, Margaret Colin, Randy Quaid, Robert Loggia, James Rebhorn, and Harvey Fierstein. A Twentieth Century Fox release. At the Cheri, the Fresh Pond, and the Chestnut Hill and in the suburbs.

Believe the hype. Forget Twister, Mission: Impossible, The Rock, and Eraser. At the end of the summer, Independence Day will be the only action blockbuster anyone will still be talking about, or lining up around the block to see. It's not just that the movie provides two-hours-plus of quality thrills, chills, and spills. It's not because of the special effects, which are top-notch but will also remind you of two movies from 20 years ago: Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It's not even in the childlike glee of seeing landmarks like the White House and the Empire State Building blown up, or the sure-fire crowd-pleasing destruction of those capitals of sin, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, DC -- hell, even the hundreds of New Yorkers I saw it with cheered -- or the demise of the First Lady, all of which will have zeitgeist-chasing editorial columnists chattering for weeks. For all of Independence Day's mayhem and apocalyptic body count (hundreds of millions? billions?), the film's secret is that it's not the least bit mean-spirited.

That distinguishes it not only from this summer's action fare but from the comedies (The Cable Guy, Striptease) as well. Beneath its pyrotechnics, Independence Day actually creates human characters, makes you care about what happens to them, and brings them together in a situation that confirms the screenwriters' atypically optimistic view of human nature. It's not just about giving us a ride (which it does expertly), but about giving us some small measure of hope as well. I'm not suggesting there's anything especially noble or highbrow about a film that is, after all, designed to be a summer money-minting machine. But at a time when Hollywood movies fail to deliver on even the most modest expectations, Independence Day offers some of the best of what we still gather in darkened theaters for.

The film posits a July Fourth weekend that begins with the appearance of 15-mile-wide flying saucers over Earth's major cities. Bill Pullman is President Whitmore, a young, seemingly ineffectual, inescapably Clintonesque commander-in-chief who hesitates fatefully when the aliens appear. (Mary McDonnell is his Hillary-esque wife.) Will Smith is Captain Steven Hiller, a gung-ho Marine pilot called back from leave to prepare for the worst. Jeff Goldblum is David Levinson, the slacker hacker who is the first to decode the aliens' signal and realize that the worst is exactly their plan.

Director/co-writer Roland Emmerich and writer Dean Devlin have made several science-fiction epics together, most recently Stargate, a goofy pastiche of various sci-fi classics (notably 2001: A Space Odyssey) and the Egyptian sand-and-sandals sagas of the '50s and '60s. Here, in a rigorously classical, three-act screenplay, they finally get the right balance of sweeping drama and tongue-in-cheek homage. The plot is essentially an update of George Pal's 1953 version of War of the Worlds, but there are clever allusions to many other genre favorites, from The Day the Earth Stood Still to The X-Files, in the dialogue, the visuals, the music, and even the casting of such performers as Goldblum (The Fly, Jurassic Park) and biologist Brent Spiner (Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation).

The other model is Irwin Allen disaster movies of the '70s -- The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. Like those classics, this film features a large cast of B-list actors, so that we don't know which of the supporting characters will survive and which won't. The difference is that this movie is almost free of camp; the comic-relief characters are funny on purpose. As Goldblum's dad, Judd Hirsch (in the Shelley Winters role) gets a lot of comic mileage out of some hoary ethnic shtick, but he also invests the character with some hard-earned pathos.

It's the performers' successes at making their characters worth caring about that put Independence Day over the top. There are no human villains in this film, no one whose death we're sadistically compelled to root for. At the darkest hour, President Pullman rallies the troops with a pep talk as stirring as Henry V's St. Crispin's Day speech, and they overcome their petty differences and human weaknesses and rise to the occasion. Who'd have thought that an action blockbuster would be the feel-good movie of the year?

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