The other night I was flipping through Netflix looking for something I hadn’t seen and happened across Transformers: Age of Extinction.
I remembered the first Transformers film being shit, but screw it, I wanted a loud pile of explosions and fast cars, so on it went. The thing that struck me wasn’t how bad it was – I wasn’t expecting Ibsen – but how unengaging it was.
The exploding things looked like fireworks, obviously staged in some Hollywood backlot. There was no danger, no edge, no… fun. Despite the relative charms of Nicola Peltz’ short shorts and Marky Mark’s emoting, I switched it off. And reached for my hard drive, where a real blockbuster awaited.
Independence Day (or ID4, as it was incongruously labelled by the studio, and now lazily typed by me) gets a bad rap. It doesn’t have the greatest acting in the world. The plot has holes large enough to pilot a Death Star through, and yes, we all know about the Mac Virus thing at the end. On the surface it doesn’t have a lot going for it.
But what separates it from the modern pyrofests it inspired is obvious: a sense of fun, and a shit ton of goofy heart.
As the sans-Will Smith sequel gathers steam, it as good a time as any to revisit the original, and in retrospect it turns out that this is now more than just a big, dumb alien invasion flick: It’s an Important Film.
At this point I’m sure you’re rolling your eyes and assuming I’m going to cram some rubbish about post 9/11 narratives or patriarchal destructive womb imagery (it’s a ‘mother’ ship, destroyed by an alpha male ramming his rocket into it and causing a huge explosion. That shit writes itself) down your throat – yes, I took film studies. You didn’t think I had a real degree did you? – but that’s not my style.
What I want to talk about is how well this thing works as a fucking movie, unlike its modern descendants.
Something that’s easily forgotten is how radical the film actually was when it arrived. It may have been almost thirteen years since George Lucas last blew up any teddy bears, but the shadow of Star Wars still loomed like a capital ship over big screen sci-fi (I’m not saying SF, because it doesn’t make it any more literary if I do. Embrace your dorkery).
For most of those years, only Star Trek had really attempted to pull off widescreen intergalactic action, while most Sci-fi had been more concerned with robot cops and sentient war machines. So for Hollywood to throw so much cash at the project is surprising in itself.
Emmerich had some previous success with Stargate, but the step up from directing the likes of Universal Soldier and Moon 44 was still immense. At this point he was by no means a dead cert. Likewise, co-writer Dean Devlin had a similar track record at this point, and while the movies hadn’t quite entered full-on sequel mania just yet, commissioning an original script from the pair took a fair amount of studio ballsyness.
Watching it now, there’s no getting around the fact that the film has dated. It drips with 90s-ness, from Bill Pullman’s khaki slacks to the frankly quaint computer scenes, but if you can buy into it, then it’s a warm snuggly gonzoid of a movie that loves you right back. It’s the filmic equivalent of the loud bearded friend in a Hawaiian shirt at your barbecue (You know the one. He sold you drugs at uni).
The jingoistic, very American patriotism is both hilarious and weirdly endearing as well. It actually paints a unique picture of the weird, fist-pumping jingoism that the country was notorious for, and makes you realise that, thanks largely to the internet, the USA is far less insular than it was. Globalisation runs both ways.
Incidentally, there are lots of other nations in the movie, but they are also products of that isolationism. The plummy Brits in the desert are the worst/best example, but to be honest they made me laugh out loud in the cinema, and they still do now.
Earlier I mentioned the realistic but unthreatening explosions in Transformers. ID4 goes completely the other way. Its explosions and laser blasts look hopelessly hokey, but damn they have IMPACT.
One of the best things in the entire film occurs just after the aliens finally shoot their wads. We’re treated to close-up images of the White House and the Empire State Building being blown to smithereens in an orgy of destruction, Vivica Fox leaping to safety at the last minute before the screen goes black.
And then we see the words ‘July 3rd’ appear on screen.
It’s a simple enough device to separate the movie’s three acts, but it also underlines the sheer devastation that we’ve just been treated to. Act one is a rushing, weaving thing, piling on characters and events in a breathless run, but it never feels rushed. The characters may as well come wearing t-shirts with their personalities on them, but they’re all given just enough screen time to make us actually start giving a shit before they’re hit with atomic death beams.
The destruction is worth noting too, as it’s a true product of it’s era. I know I said I wouldn’t do this, but try to imagine any post-war on terror (or post 9/11 for that matter) filmmaker blasting the whole of New York flat, and showing the human consequences up close. Although it’s being destroyed, it’s a product of a country supremely confident in its internal safety. That’s the sort of thing you can only show people who are positive it could never actually happen.
One thing that doesn’t do so well is the humour. The (relatively) subtle, character-driven stuff from Jeff Goldblum and on-screen dad Judd Hirsch still bears up, but the winking, to-camera nods from Brent Spiner and particularly Randy Quaid’s ‘wacky drunk’ shtick is embarrassing to watch. My how sophisticated we’ve grown, eh readers?
And then there’s Will Smith. At the height of his powers. He’s belligerent, he swaggers, he shouts, he has… well, some pretty shitty lines to be honest, and you never really believe in his relationship with Fox (to be fair, you don’t believe in any of the romantic relationships much, but that’s not really the point of movies like this), but he’s still a winner, coasting by on sheer personality and likability.
It’s something of a shame that he’s made such safe choices since (Wouldn’t Django have been interesting?), but as an actor he’s often said that he doesn’t take it seriously, so perhaps he can be forgiven. He’s certainly lighting up the screen here.
The main point here is that this B-movie effectively rewrote the rules for summer tentpole movies, but retains just enough of the commitment to character that defined earlier films to win on both counts.
It doesn’t take itself seriously either, meaning you aren’t forced to groan under the portentous bollocks that Emmerich has been serving up ever since. This isn’t a movie with a message (unless the message is ‘Man, Earth is the most badass planet there is! Fuck yeah!’), but it is pure, joyous event cinema that still has the power to leave you with a huge shit-eating grin plastered all over your face.
I’m willing to admit that it’s probably best watched when you get home pissed after a heavy night out, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not lightning in a bottle, and it certainly knocks anything Michael Bay has grunted out in the last decade into a cocked hat.
Grab it from you preferred physical media retailer, open a cold one and watch it on the largest screen you can find, with the sound turned waaaaaay up high.
Now that’s what I call a close encounter.