Gypped

Independence Day Directed by Roland Emmerich. Starring Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, and Will Smith. Courage Under Fire Directed by Edward Zwick. Starring Denzel Washington and Meg Ryan.

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."

The humans are so dumb that you may think they deserve to die, including Star Trek: The Next Generation's Brent Spiner as a mad scientist in Area 51, who cuts open a live (if stunned) alien without posting an armed guard in the operating room. As for the stroke of genius that ends up disabling the aliens' computer system -- gee, I wouldn't want to give away the climax, but if we were playing Password I'd say, "It's not a flu, it's a ..." There are a couple of choice camp moments. I love when the stripper tells the president's wife she's a dancer. "Ballet?" asks the first lady. "Exotic," answers the babe. And the affable, humorous teaming of Smith and Goldblum sets black-Jewish relations back 40 years -- a good thing, too.

Nonetheless, did Smith's girlfriend need to be a stripper? And did Goldblum's father have to be an impossibly wise old crank who can recite UFO lore as well as the liturgy? You don't have to be black or Jewish to hate Independence Day. But it helps.

In the days of Darryl F. Zanuck (who personally produced The Longest Day), 20th Century Fox had a reputation for saluting the military. With the nearly simultaneous release of Independence Day and Courage Under Fire, the new regime exhumes that tradition. Courage Under Fire is somber and accomplished, but it gyps moviegoers as much as its gaudy sci-fi cousin. Denzel Washington stars as Lt. Col. Nat Serling, a Gulf War tank commander who kills his best buddy in a friendly fire incident, then faces down his demons as he investigates the first woman nominated for the Medal of Honor for combat heroism. Again, the movie peaks in the initial 40 minutes -- with devastating candor, it contrasts the sleek video image of the Gulf War with the blood-and-sand actuality, refusing to kowtow to PC by diluting the xenophobic language and attitudes of soldiers in battle.

At the start, Serling gives a send-off to his troops with the aplomb of Colin Powell, and for a few moments this movie's war is so phenomenally swift and sure that it could be straight out of one of Norman Schwarzkopf's press conferences. Then it turns too swift and not so sure, as Serling's tank goes under fire, and in a nocturnal tumult of sand and smoke, he fatally attacks one of his own. So long as the movie is salvaging the real agony beneath the Gulf War image, the director, Edward Zwick (co-creator of TV's thirtysomething and My So-Called Life, best-known as a filmmaker for Glory and Legends of the Fall), shows a new, muscular incisiveness. And he goes from strength to strength when Serling opens a file on the late Capt. Karen Walden (Meg Ryan), the chopper pilot who led a medevac unit in defense of Americans pinned down in a fierce pocket of Iraqi resistance. Serling and Zwick re-create her story in an intriguing Rashomon-like style, from fragmented and often contradictory testimony.

But the present-tense story -- about Serling's alcoholism, his emotional inability to live with his family, his intransigent search for the facts, and his strained relations with the troubled survivors of Walden's unit -- becomes improbably hyperbolic, reaching its nadir in a car-and-train crash. And the resolution of what happened to Walden rests on a tricky coincidence. The more melodramatic punches the movie throws, the more force it loses on the follow-through. What's frustrating is that the time-jumping form -- keenly handled by Zwick -- promises a complexity the movie can't deliver. Patrick Sheane Duncan's script exhausts what it has to say about the messiness of war and the dangers of military pride long before Serling closes Walden's case. (To be fair, judging from Duncan's published novel, his script underwent considerable reshaping; early production notes listed thirtysomething scriptwriter Susan Shilliday as a contributor.)

Matt Damon (who gave an underappreciated performance as an untested frontier soldier in Walter Hill's Geronimo: An American Legend) is touching as Walden's conscience-stricken closest friend; Lou Diamond Phillips indulges in macho preening as an obstreperous gunner. In her small, crucial role, Meg Ryan comes through as an embattled commander; she brings off at least one moving, complicated moment when she explains to the doubting men that her tears derive from tension. Still, like Duncan's last produced script, Mr. Holland's Opus, this is primarily a one-man show. And Denzel Washington gives a clutch performance, providing Serling with variety, dimension, and a simmering prickliness that makes his teardrops sting. Washington has enough dash and command at the git-go to demonstrate how much Serling's mistake costs him. When he plays depressed, he doesn't become inexpressive. As a drill instructor might say, what he does is outstanding. He changes his emotional baseline, so that his character's range of thought and feeling never loses breadth or subtlety, even when it starts (and finishes) on the negative end of the spectrum. Washington is sly and avuncular with Damon, assertive and combative with Phillips, and his own trembling conviction makes Serling's predicament heart-rending. Yet the reflections that Serling finds in his investigation of Walden form too convenient a mirror image; the script stymies this inspired actor from dredging up startling revelations.

A subplot about a Washington Post reporter (played by Scott Glenn with refreshing briskness and sympathy) exists first to pressure Serling, then to clear him of any wrongdoing -- it's as if Zwick thought we'd be too bummed out otherwise. In general, this director has a propensity for psychological "closure" that blinds him to other imperatives of a story. The way Zwick does the movie, it comes down to a homiletic message: The truth shall set you free. The view of reality he presents is too soft at the core to accept as truth -- Serling sees Walden's (and his own) case whole, then goes home. And the drama is too centered on this soldier's personal justice to offer proper debate of the political issues it raises. Serling may declare to his superior that the dead can't be honored until the unvarnished tale is told, but the facts, as far as we know, remain hidden.

I did respond to Serling's urge to complete his investigation because he wanted to take an assignment and for once "get something right." Getting something right after a lifetime of errors is a rich theme for American artists, since they operate in a country that pretends people can get things right the first time. (It's a central theme of the greatest American movie, The Wild Bunch.) Courage Under Fire left me irritated and unsatisfied, but it did lead me to feel that, sometime soon, Zwick just might get a movie right.

Independence Day screens daily at area theaters. Courage Under Fire opens Friday, July 12, at area theaters.

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