Mother Ship

The familiar aliens of Independence Day.

Independence Day

Directed by Roland Emmerich

Released by 20th Century Fox; running time, 144 minutes

The flying saucers, of course, steal the show. Not that the trailers didn’t prime us with the most tried and true suspense devices in the Hollywood arsenal: shadows. Big, fast, creepy ones. They sweep up Park Avenue, occasioning accidents; they swallow the White House whole. The opening scenes of the movie do much the same thing: One minute there’s an American flag flying bravely on the moon, then blotto! A shadow cancels it out. Not until we’ve moved up the chain of military command and through a tour of the known world–in other words, a couple of minutes into the film–do the skies part in flames and belch forth their unholy secrets. These turn out to be several brown discs the size of small cities and the texture of computer chips, with all the maneuverability of giant tour buses. Graceless and vaguely turdlike, they park over every major urban area on the globe and hang there for the next two hours, with nothing to do but drop open now and again and wipe a few million people off the face of the earth.

It’s the saucers that make Independence Day exactly what its director/producer/co-writer Roland Emmerich must have wanted it to be: a wholly satisfying Saturday-afternoon sci-fi/disaster/fighter-pilot/video-game experience. Craggy, heavy, impossibly airborne, the alien ships raise to the level of consciousness the pleasing weightlessness of everything else. Skyscrapers, automobiles, highways, heliports, humongous naval aircraft carriers? Tinker toys to be demolished as brightly and loudly as possible. Characters? Caricatures, more like it, who make no claim on your emotions. They’re information-spewing cogs in the rush to victory, to be crushed, rescued, killed off, or married as the plot’s triumphalist logic requires. Aliens? They’re spiny, gooey, and possessed of whiplike tails; they jump out of one another’s stomachs; in short, they’re indistinguishable from their much scarier counterparts in the Alien series, with all the ballast of an undergraduate film-student reference. But the plot line is the most lightweight of all: Aliens invade the earth and plot to destroy every person on it; the president of the United States (Bill Pullman), a dysfunctional scientist (Jeff Goldblum), a young fighter pilot (Will Smith), and the air forces of every quasi-developed nation on earth overcome their differences and team up to free the world.

This giddy unconcern for such anachronisms as the laws of space, time, and dramatic plausibility sets the perfect tone for a movie whose climax consists of the rousing spectacle of the U.S. commander in chief himself leading a fighter-plane squadron into battle with the aliens and, yes, scoring a hit. But the real surprise of Independence Day is the ever-underestimatable Bill Pullman, who, beneath the noise, delivers one of the more interesting performances of the blockbuster season. Pullman is the president, an actually likable guy, and between dodging exploding government buildings, firing conspiratorial defense secretaries, and trying not to punch Jeff Goldblum in the glasses, he manages to imbue the role with more gravitas and sex appeal than the strutting Michael Douglas ever did in The American President.

Pullman appears to be the only actor who understands the movie he’s in. He’s not being asked to put anything out; he’s being asked to take things in. He’s a bad-news-processing machine who makes a world-historical decision a minute but still is loving and strong for his little girl when the first lady, wounded internally in a helicopter crash, bleeds to death. Pullman, always a rich and complicated actor, uses flatness here the way other actors use expression, and that’s appropriate, since what’s happening ought to be beyond expression. His voice–monotonal except when it cracks–makes him sound like William Holden. He’s decent, urbane, not alarmingly bright, and in his 1940s war-movie woodenness, he’s the only character with whom we can identify.

The idea that acting in a cheesy epic like this requires an actor to scale his performance down to toy-soldier size is not one that stars with higher ambitions embrace willingly. (Gene Hackman is another who can pull it off without seeming reduced himself.) Jeff Goldblum, for instance, prefers to pretend that he’s in a movie movie, which is to say, not a video game. As David–the underachieving Jewish nerd who conveniently used to be married to the president’s press secretary (so that when he figures out how to defeat the aliens, he can get this information to the president in time to save the world)–Goldblum delivers his lines like a recent graduate of the Actor’s Studio. He slams his fist down on a counter and cuts off his sentences in the middle so he can finish them with important softness. Will Smith, on the other hand, doesn’t bother–or doesn’t know how–to act. The few efforts made by the star of TheFresh Prince of Bel-Air to impersonate a swaggering Top Gun pilot–the black foil to Goldblum’s Jew, his co-conspirator against the aliens–just leave him looking young, like a suburban kid who can’t fill out his uniform. (Yes, the Jew and the black take all the risks involved in the global rescue effort; but it’s their affable WASP overlord who gives them that assignment.)

What about the women? There are some, of course–a hemorrhaging first lady (Mary McDonnell), a spunky Los Angeles stripper (Vivica Fox), the president’s press secretary (Margaret Colin)–and we realize early on that by the end of the movie, they’ll all be married or dead. Among other things, Independence Day is what philosopher/film critic Stanley Cavell would call “a comedy of remarriage.” One of the happy byproducts of saving the world appears to be that social cohesion is restored. Should mankind survive, Jeff Goldblum and Margaret Colin will get back together, and Will Smith and Vivica Fox will stop living in sin and tie the knot. The president loses his wife about halfway through, but we all know what wish is being fulfilled there. As in all blockbusters of this genre, the women aren’t given much to do. Mostly, they nag the men about all the chances they’re taking, and that ultimately makes them superfluous. Independence Day already has more than its share of very large, very visible maternal superegos hovering just overhead, and it is one of the film’s secret pleasures that it puts this apocalyptic thought across with irresistible immediacy: If the men of this planet don’t clean up their act, overcome all divisions of nation, color, and creed, and steer their little war planes straight, extraterrestrial supermoms will blow them away.