Why I Love ‘Independence Day’

x538            When Independence Day came out, it was a huge hit, but ever since then it’s kind of become the poster-child for the big, dumb, CGI-fueled blockbusters of the late 90s. And, yes, in a way it is, but…well, that’s kind of beside the point.

The Story: On July 2nd, a massive alien craft appears in orbit around the earth and sends out an armada of city-sized flying saucers that take up position above several of the world’s major cities, including Los Angeles, New York, and Washington D.C. We then see the unfolding war of the worlds through the eyes of four American men and their families: underachieving New York cable company technician David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), Los Angeles-based Marine pilot Steven Hiller (Will Smith), drunken Californian crop duster pilot Russell Casse (Randy Quaid), and the youthful President Whitmore (Bill Pullman).

So, is this movie pretty stupid? Sure. This is light science-fiction pulp, of the kind you might find in Amazing Stories, or in a drive-in theater in the late 1950s, only given a massive budget and an all-star cast. Granted, a lot of those classic films were better than this one (The War of the Worlds in particular does many of the same things while being an overall superior film), but none achieved the same sense of scale and grandeur as this one.

As for me, I’m glad we have it.

This is the movie that Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, or Invasion of the Saucer Men, or those 1940s serials dreamed of being. It’s cheesy pulp sci-fi done as epic: national and world-spanning in scope, drenched in apocalyptic dread and patriotic defiance, with implacably hostile collectivist aliens pitted against scrappy, courageous, freedom-loving humans. This may or may not sound appealing to you, but to the film’s credit is unambiguously knows what it’s trying to be and doesn’t make any apologies for it.

There are a lot of things to like about this movie. In the first place, it’s huge. Four main characters, each one carrying a small cast of supporting characters, a world-spanning plot involving a large-scale alien invasion targeting the major cities of the globe, huge airborne battles…it’s just a grand, glorious spectacle. Yet, amazingly enough, the film still manages to keep the focus largely on the people involved: we see these events through their eyes, and the real story of the film is how it affects them. It’s not done brilliantly, but it works; we very rarely leave the perspective of one of our leads, and then only briefly to illustrate things that they are talking or thinkings about. For instance, late in the film we have a brief glimpse of various armies around the world receiving and responding to the President’s call for a united counter-attack, but we quickly cut back to where the President and his military aids are receiving the answers.

At the same time, though, the four interconnected storylines make the film seem anything but constrained. On the contrary, the multiple-perspective format gives the story an epic feel that few subsequent blockbusters (Armageddon, Transformers, etc.) have successfully imitated. This is in stark contrast with Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, which though in some ways a better film was rendered all-but unbearable by the fact that we spent the whole thing welded to three boring and irritating characters.

The leads here, meanwhile, are all charismatic and likable (though some might find Jeff Goldblum’s stammering speaking style annoying), as are most of the supporting characters. They’re not especially original, but they’re pleasant enough company. I particularly like Robert Loggia as the President’s right-hand general and Judd Hirsch as Goldblum’s father.

More than that, though, it’s just a really good story and well-done adventure. It’s grand and epic, but also keeps focused. Appropriate for a film about the Fourth of July, the theme is pitting freedom and the American way of life against the encroaching forces of collectivist aliens backed with all-powerful technology. When, after the opening salvos, we see the Statue of Liberty lying broken in New York harbor we understand what the battle is really about.

The film’s theme plays out in the lives of its characters, who all start off having forgotten what’s really important, which they rediscover throughout the film, even as they have to defend the American way of life from the implacable hostility of the alien menace. Levinson and his wife have divorced due to their divergent career paths, with her working on the White House staff while he wastes his talents at a dead-end cable job. Whitmore’s caught up in politics and has lost his authority. Hiller dithers about marrying his girlfriend for fear of how it will affect his career. And Casse is a drunken wreck who can barely take care of his family. All the characters are then forced to reexamine their lives and ‘re-center’ on what really matters: family, faith, and country.

The four leads provide an interesting cross-section of American society about the mid-nineties: blue collar, white collar, military, politics; Black, White, Jewish; married, unmarried, widowed, divorced. The film is thus about as representative of the American way of life of the time as could be asked for. We see that the characters in the opening don’t appreciate what they have in that way of life, being lost amid their petty concerns and self-destructive behavior. It’s only when their world is threatened that they begin to re-orientate their lives around the values they’ve neglected for so long, and it is this that gives them the power to strike back.

On the other hand, the aliens prove to be the reverse of those values; they’re a kind of hive-mind, with little or no individual personality, each subject to the collective. They have no home and no land of their own: they simply move from planet to planet taking whatever they need like locusts and moving on when they’re done. When asked if there’s any possibility of the two species co-existing, they bluntly respond that there can be no peace between them.

In this context, it’s significant that the film explicitly describes the aliens as having bodies ‘just as frail as ours.’ All men, and aliens, are created equal; the aliens just have better technology that allows them to impose their will upon the earth. Once mankind figures out a way around that technology, the fight becomes more even.

The specifics of that method have justly been called out as ridiculous, but, again, that’s not really the point. All they needed was a semi-plausible excuse to bring down the alien shields, and a computer virus works as well as any other (the fact that the aliens were previously established to have been using the Earth’s satellites in their attack lends it just enough pseudo-validity to work in context). The important thing was how the idea was given (amid a heart-to-heart between Levinson and his father about the need to go on hoping) and what it leads to (a last-ditch battle for freedom).

I could go on about it, but suffice to say, I think it’s a really good movie. Yes, it’s kinda stupid, yes it’s cheesy and overblown, but at the end of the day it succeeds in being exactly what it sets out to be, which is a big-budget, large-scale version of a classic sci-fi b-movie. It has pleasant characters, great visuals, and tells a simple, but solid story. All in all, it’s one of my favorites.

So…What Do I Get for my Income Tax?

A scene from the 1938 Frank Capra classic (pardon my repetition) You Can’t Take it With You. 

The sad thing is, the things listed here would actually be worth paying for. I’d kill to have my income tax only go to pay for battleships and government salaries.

The clip is also interesting for featuring a really incredible set of star-power packed into five minutes of film. That the legendary Lionel Barrymore as Grandpa Vanderhof, the all-but-immortal Charles Lane (who was still making films in the 1990s) as the IRS man, James Stewart as young Kirby, and the inimitable Jean Arthur as Alice. Meanwhile, in the background, you can see character actors Ann Miller, Spring Byington, Samuel S. Hinds, and Halliwell Hobbs.

Amazingly enough, that doesn’t even come close to exhausting the familiar faces in this film: Eddie “Rochester” Anderson (most famous for the Jack Benny Program, and probably the premier Black comedian of the time) is on hand as the shiftless boyfriend of the family maid, hamtastic character actor Mischa Auer is a mad Russian ballet teacher, Edward Arnold is Kirby senior (giving the stand-out performance of the film), Donald Meek is another house guest, and H.B. Warner (one day to be Mr. Gower in It’s a Wonderful Life) shows up as a ruined businessman. And all directed by one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.

Of course, the real point of the above scene is that Grandpa doesn’t need anything from the government. In fact, they don’t need anything from anyone. Interestingly, part of the reason they don’t need anything is because they have the right to private property; Grandpa owns the house in New York City that they live in (truly the past is another country) and can basically do what he likes with it. If he wants to invite any interesting stranger to come and stay, and if they happen to stay for decades on end, well, what of it? It’s his house.

This is a frequent theme in Capra’s works; skepticism of the rich is blended with a strong regard for property rights, because, in Capra’s view, the right to own property ensures individual liberty. The Vanderhof family can do as they like and ask nothing from anyone because they own their own house.

Owning their own property also allows them to be charitable and contribute to society. The Vanderhof’s aren’t idle bums; they (in Grandpa’s words) “Toil a little, spin a little, and have a barrel of laughs.” Everyone produces something, and no one asks for charity (well, except for Rochester’s character, who’s a lovable bum…but so is Micha Auer’s character).

This calls to mind Ephesians 4:28 “He that stole, let him now steal no more; but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have something to give to him that suffereth need,” which brings me to the other reason the Vanderhof’s don’t need anything from the government: faith and family. They support each other, and God supports all of them. Grandpa makes this explicit right off the bat when asked who takes care of them; “The same one who takes care of the lilies of the field,” and further emphasized by the scenes of him offering grace that bookend the story.

Personally, I’m very skeptical of Chesterton’s notion of ‘Distributism.’ Brilliant as he was, he had a glaring blind spot as far as economics were concerned (something he shared with many other brilliant men, including Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. It seems the qualities that make for philosophical genius tend to create gaps as far as economics are concerned). However, as an ideal for individuals, a self-sufficient household that asks nothing and produces worthwhile goods to support itself is something worth striving for. It is a very Christian and Biblical notion; each family supporting itself and providing charity to those in need from its own property, bound together by shared faith and love.

Property, faith, and family are the trinity that allows for individual liberty. In our world, we’ve largely lost all three to the extent that we hardly know what we have lost.

Seven Things that Were Good About the ‘Super Mario Brothers’ movie:

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m something of a connoisseur of video game movies, so of course I’ve seen Super Mario Brothers many, many times. As far as the genre is concerned, that’s the big one: the first major video game franchise to be adapted for the big screen.

Too bad it’s a really terrible movie. The script is awful, the set design and art direction are hideous, the Blade Runner-for-kids tone is jarringly out of place, and its connections with the world of the games, even such as it was at the time, are tenuous at best. Mario himself is sidelined while Luigi takes center stage as the romantic lead, Bowser/King Koopa is nothing but Dennis Hopper in a bad haircut, the Mushroom Kingdom is a dystopian nightmare covered in mold (Mario himself dubs it “A building with athlete’s foot”), and there are strange and disturbing sexual innuendoes, as when Mario ends up dancing with a huge, terrifying woman and trying to bite her necklace out of her cleavage.

All that being said, I retain a small, sneaking liking for the movie. Partly that’s nostalgia (when I was a kid I loved it, since, hey, it was a Mario movie!), but partly that’s because there are good things here, buried like jewels in a pile of diseased, pulsating mold.

Here are my picks for the top seven good things about the Super Mario Brothers movie:

7.Dennis Hopper. He goes low on the list because of how horribly botched the character is, but really, Dennis Hopper as Bowser is a pretty good casting choice. You’d have to digitally tweak his voice down a bit, but Hopper excelled at playing hammy, arrogant bad guys who were fun, but undeniably evil, which is exactly the persona Bowser should have. If, that is, they had actually, you know, tried to put him on screen.

All that being said, Dennis Hopper was far too talented an actor to completely humiliate himself even here. Though he’s clearly embarrassed by the role he does his best and his scenery-chewing performance remains entertaining throughout.

6.The Fire Flowers. The movie’s attempts to transition game elements into live action for the most part are either utter failures or just plain stupid. One triumphant example, however, is the film’s version the fire flower. Instead of being an actual flower, it’s a combination shotgun-flamethrower with a vaguely flower-like muzzle. They’re pretty cool weapons and, amazingly enough, actually function more or less like the fire flowers in the game, shooting a series of fireballs.

5.The Special Effects. With a few exceptions, the special effects are often very impressive and were cutting-edge for the day. Unaccountably hideous, yes, but very well executed. In fact many of the digital effects (such as Daisy’s face appearing in stone) were actually invented for the movie. The goombas are incredibly stupid conceptually, but the mechanics involved in their creation are undeniably impressive, and the final shot of the Mushroom King turning back into Lance Henriksen is really fantastic.

Note: the great Mr. Henriksen would have ended up on this list if he’d had more than ten seconds of screen time. Even so, they’re a bright ten seconds and he has more fun with his cameo than most of the cast has with the whole film.

4. Some of the Humor Just Works. Yeah, the script is terrible and most of the attempts at comedy are simply cringe worthy. That said, some lines just work, whether because they’re actually good or because the cast is talented enough to make them work. Some bits that I thought were actually funny include Mario and Luigi’s reaction upon arriving in the dystopian ‘Dinohattan:’

Luigi: “Maybe we fell asleep for a thousand years and this is Manhattan in the future.”
Mario: “Or the Bronx today. No wonder they tell you never to come down here.”

Another good bit is the brothers’ reaction to their mug shots, and I also like Mario’s griping in the Koopahari Desert:
“Yeah, that looks good. Let’s die there!”

So, the film is mostly terrible, but every so often it genuinely makes you laugh. On that subject…

3. Big Bertha. Yes, her scenes are completely inappropriate for a Mario Brothers movie, but Big Bertha is just so bizarre and over-the-top that she almost can’t help being entertaining. She’s this huge, terrifying woman dressed all in red spikes who just comes out of nowhere and begins throwing people around like ragdolls while flirting with Mario in a manner that suggests she plans to eat him. Of the many completely inexplicable elements in this film, she’s one that at least gets some laughs.

2. Yoshi. No, he’s not quite the character he was in the games (being too small to ride), but the movie Yoshi nevertheless remains the lovable, stalwart ally he ought to be, complete with his inexplicably long tongue for reeling in enemies. In addition, the puppetry effects that bring him to life are nothing short of fantastic: almost on a level of the Jurassic Park animatronics, allowing the other characters to physically interact with him and making him a real presence on screen (today he would be done with CGI, but I think the puppet is more effective). All in all, compared to how botched almost everyone else is, Yoshi’s probably the character that survived the transition to live action most recognizably himself.

And the number one best thing about the movie:

1. Bob Hoskins as Mario. If you were to choose the best possible actor to play Mario in live action from any time period, I think Bob Hoskins circa 1990 would have to be near the top of the list. Not only was he a phenomenal actor (and, God bless him, he tries his hardest here), but he had exactly the ‘everyman’ persona that Mario ought to have, yet could play a romantic hero at need (see Who Framed Roger Rabbit). Seeing him in costume, he looks like Mario, and I can easily picture him carrying the film as the hero of a fantastic adventure…

Only, of course, that’s not the movie we got, and one of the most perfect marriages of actor and video game characters was thrown away.