Why'd They Have to Kill Space Opera?
I enjoyed Independence Day the first time I saw it, enough so that I saw it again the very next weekend. There were extenuating circumstances.
It was the summer of 1996, and the internet was something a couple of us had at home, but not the endless source of movie news and rumors that it would quickly become. There was a sweet spot of age in which you were just too young to have seen the original Star Wars trilogy in theaters, but just old enough to have spent the late eighties wearing out the VHS tapes. By 1996 there were rumors that a prequel trilogy was coming, but then we’d heard for our entire lives that a sequel trilogy was just around the corner. So we shuffled into Independence Day; we were in the theaters most weekends anyway, and this was something to be excited about: genuine alien invasion, fleets of spaceships, explosions, dogfights, Ian Malcolm and the Fresh Prince.
And on the enormous 70mm screen, the Lucasfilm logo appeared, something familiar to us more from video games than movies. A television screen appeared, tiny and centered in the middle of the acre of projection. We stopped paying attention, grumbling at the (at that time) new trend of showing ads before the trailers. X-wings were skittering around the little box, the movie trailer guy intoned “until now,” and the X-wing roared out of the television and across the entire screen. The fanfare flared and the cataclysmic nerdgasm left us in such sweltering afterglow that we were eminently entertained for the next two hours by Independence Day. We saw it again the next weekend as much to see that trailer for the theater re-releases of Star Wars than the actual film to which it was attached. That’s the level of desperation we stooped to in the days before YouTube.
But sweet Jesus, does Independence Day get worse and worse every time it comes on TNT.
The film relies on a perfect storm of idiot protagonists and idiot antagonists. The human good guys are so stupid that in the film’s universe it is impossible to believe that they evolved from primates because monkeys massaging their own feces onto their own nipples would be eminently more qualified to fight a war against alien aggressors. And the aliens? The ones in Signs who were fatally allergic to drops of water and decided to invade in the nude a planet made 70% of H2O could still give a three day clinic on everything these morons did wrong.
Let’s fly from solar system to solar system with a fleet of spaceships the size of Manhattan. Should we nuke the primitive little planet from orbit, send our million fighter UFOs down to nuke it from the ground, or invade it with our billion soldier dudes the old fashioned way? No don’t be silly, let’s just go down and hover for a couple of days, shoot a laser thingie to blow up the city, and then fly at a few miles per hour over to the next city. That’s more dramatic. Really? interstellar spaceflight, flying saucers the size of cities, and the best they can come up with is something that works ludicrously less well than what we can already do to ourselves? One head of state makes a phone call and we’ll have a thousand cities popping like zits within half an hour, but whoa, these guys with their ray guns can make it happen in a couple of weeks. Now that’s fucking technological progress.
And don’t forget the MacGuffins! We need there to be stuff for the protagonists to do! So let’s send out a bunch of fighter UFOs to dogfight with the quaint little F-18s. And instead of coordinating our communications ourselves, let’s hack into the quaint little communications satellites they’ve got and put in a countdown that’s clearly a countdown. It’s not like we have any little spacecraft of our own to float out there in orbit to relay communications. And it would be far too simple even if we insisted on hijacking the Earth satellites to just put in a voice saying “three, two, one” in our alien language, then how could the clever yet sexy Earth scientist figure out what was going on?
Don’t think you’re getting off easy, protagonists. You are so overwhelmingly incompetent that the only way you could manage to beat back the alien invasion was if it just so happened that it was being waged by the only species in the universe stupider than you.
The legendary Powerbook hack? Hey PC users, try sitting down at a Mac that has been swapped to Chinese language settings and figure out how to check email. Can’t figure it out? Yeah but the computers of two different species, we’ll figure that out in less time than a montage. And not just that, we’ll figure out how to tell the alien mothership to shut down the shields of all the other ships. Was “how to remotely shut down all of our ship’s shields” in their OS’s FAQ? OK Broderick, why don’t you just tell it to play tic-tac-toe while you’re at it?
It’s believable though because the character who accomplished this feat of epic savantry has already been proven to be brilliant with his rant of “Oh no we can’t use nuclear weapons! There will be nuclear winter and the environment will something and all our unmarked graves will be cold!” Yeah, shit, someone think of the children you fucking hippie. But not to be outdone, the grave military masterminds try to use the only weapon we have that might work and shoot a single one at one of the bad guy ships. It doesn’t work, oh crap, we give up, the hippie was right. When a bear tries to maul a caveman, and he stabs it once with a spear and it doesn’t work, does he: a) shrug, throw the spear down and wait for death, or b) stab it again with the ten thousand other fucking spears he has sitting around? Some lieutenant probably chimed in during a deleted scene: “Hey, what if it takes two nukes to get through the shields?” but was promptly courtmartialed for hating mother Earth.
Ah, but Dr. Malcolm’s magic plan works with the help of Clinton’s cigar and the Fresh Prince’s aw shucks pilot jiggery. What should we do now that the alien ships don’t have shields? Nuke them? Shut up, Lieutenant Shits-in-Dolphins’-Mouths, we’ll bring them down the old fashioned way by having the President give a speech about how America kicks ass and then shove a crazy veteran up their laser vagina. And we’ll use Morse code to tell all the other countries what to do since they have all been sitting around waiting for the red white and blue to tell them what to do. And luckily they all also had a secret stockpile of suicidal Randy Quaids.
This movie is so catastrophically stupid that every single scene, every word of dialog can be pulled out and marveled at for sheer incomprehensible idiocy. No character manages to go thirty seconds without doing or saying something so dumb that they should be sterilized on principle. The fact that this is the Grand Canyon of B-movies is not something to be ashamed of, B-movies are AWESOMELY hilarious and entertaining. If you wanted to lampoon Independence Day, you could just release it unchanged but with the addition of a laugh track. But the studios and advertising to this day treat Independence Day as a straight up action sci-fi film. The next time TNT intones that it knows drama and proceeds to tell me it will be airing the epic sci-fi blockbuster of all time the next three nights running, I’m going to swallow my own tongue.
Star Wars was a sci-fi blockbuster, I watched Star Wars, I memorized all the dialog to Star Wars, I played jedi using a flashlight as a light saber, and you sir, are no goddamned Star Wars. And now you want to make a trilogy too, eh? Oh Emmerich, your characters might be adverse to nuclear weapons, but let me assure you, we are not so weak, and we are legion.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.
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