My first act of pop-culture protest came at age 4. When my parents took me on a Ferris wheel ride that stopped at two twirls, I yelled out, "What a gyp!" Shamed, the operator gave us another two go-arounds, which may have led me to overrate the power of criticism. After all, once the fun grinds to a halt in the latest amusement-park movie, Independence Day, you can scream "What a gyp" till you're red, white, and blue: You still won't be able to rejigger the picture's facetious blend of paranoid sci-fi and cheesy melodrama into something witty or compelling.
Independence Day is the kind of fantasy film that reviewers feel obliged to say "will give audiences their money's worth" because it's packed with gimmicks -- flying saucers so big they're more like flying Lazy Susans, or squidlike aliens that would look equally at home in outer space and the "Outer Bay" exhibit at the Monterey Aquarium. But its effects are without affect. Although it yearns to be flag-waving entertainment -- flying banners for both the U.S. and the U.N. -- it doesn't raise enough storytelling wind to rustle a streamer.
Director/writer Roland Emmerich and producer/writer Dean Devlin did hatch the germ of a good idea: reinvesting creatures from deep space with the force-of-evil status they had in baby-boomer classics like Invaders From Mars. But the germ never develops into anything remotely infectious. Rather than exploring novel ways the aliens might menace us, Emmerich and Devlin simply up the scale: Their Mother Ship out-mothers Spielberg's in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, containing three dozen son- and daughter-ships 15 miles in diameter, and swarms of well-armed grandkid-ships fully loaded with firepower and protective shields. And, loyal to their principle of More Is More, Emmerich and Devlin assemble a sprawling cast of characters modeled on those of '70s disaster films. Unlike '50s sci-fi, the disaster genre didn't need reviving.
Even at the beginning, your heart may sink when Jeff Goldblum, as a computer whiz working for a cable-TV company, and Judd Hirsch, as his Yiddishe papa, kvetch over Goldblum's three-year refusal to sign divorce papers; his estranged wife turns out to be Margaret Colin, the press handler for U.S. President Bill Pullman. You may squirm as Harvey Fierstein dithers through the cable company in the time-tested manner of sacrificial homosexuals, or as the movie transforms the president into an unlikely amalgam of Bill Clinton and George Bush, with a tough, noble first lady (Mary McDonnell), an adoring daughter, and a record as a Gulf War flying ace. But for 40 minutes out of 135, you stick with the movie, because the team of Emmerich and Devlin conveys enveloping doom with shadows and fire clouds, and they make it pay off with ever-closer views of the gigantic ships and the mass destruction of the world's major cities. Unfortunately, after this Apocalypse Tomorrow, the filmmakers merely fill out the disaster-movie form: The characters either harmonically converge or die. (The harmonic convergence site is Area 51, Nevada -- the fabled secret government base for the study of a crashed UFO.)
This format allows Emmerich and Devlin to hurtle from one grandiose setup to another while disguising their incompetence as plot-makers. When it comes to narrative, they can't get from A to B -- even with enormous capital letters. But they can give unsuspecting audiences the idea that they're really holding things together by cutting from Goldblum and Pullman to, say, loony Vietnam vet Randy Quaid (doing Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove), or sassy fighter pilot Will Smith and his foxy lover (played by the aptly named Vivica Fox), who happens to be a stripper and a noble single mother. A lot has been written about the way this film echoes the movie past. (One theft has gone overlooked: Smith and Goldblum striding out of the desert at the end like Sam Shepard's Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff.) With Goldblum and Colin sustaining marital repairs under pressure like Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton in Twister, and Fox doing her own rendition of Striptease, Independence Day also plays like a sampler of every property that made the big-studio circuit in the mid-'90s.
The melange of retro and contemporary is meant to bring smiles to grown-ups without puncturing kids' belief in the movie's pumped-up emotions. Too bad the tactic nose-dives. At first, when the filmmakers inflate the Gulf War into the equivalent of World War II -- as if Saddam Hussein had burned up in a bunker and the Middle East had become democratized -- adults can take it as foolish comedy and youngsters can, well, take it. But when President Pullman pulls on his fighter duds to lead a Renewed World Order against the invaders, it's hard to envision American tykes standing up and cheering. The president gives a July Fourth version of Henry V's St. Crispin's Day oration while the Earth is on the verge of being crisped -- and all the writers can hand him is the proclamation that "we will be fighting for our right to live." In this ultimate dumbing-down of American culture, "Live free or die" gets simplified to "Live, or die."