Joe’s $1 a week cinema #2: Independence Day
Directed by: Roland Emmerich. Spoiler alert: The Americans win.
The 1996 documentary Independence Day represents a watershed moment in low budget fly-on-the-wall film making.
How the crew managed to be simultaneously at a dozen different US landmarks at exactly the same time as the aliens blew them all up remains one of cinema verite’s great logistical accomplishments.
Of course it later turned out that America wasn’t really invaded by giant interstellar locusts and that the whole exercise was just a propaganda tool to distract attention from the Monica Lewinski scandal. But fictitious or not the film has had an enormous impact on geopolitics and contains within it a lesson on almost every moral and political dilemma one can encounter in modern life.
First and foremost – and I say this in all seriousness – there can be little doubt that Independence Day gave Osama bin Laden the idea for blowing up the World Trade Centre Towers on September 11, 2001.
This is not to be flippant: The magnitude of destruction contained in the film – in which flying saucers blow up entire skyscrapers with a single hit – had a visual impact never before seen on the screen. The physical scale of the explosions was jaw-dropping and the image of a symbol of American might such as the Empire State Building being disintegrated in an instant was shocking and compelling.
The film took America’s political, military and economic global supremacy as its benchmark and then envisaged a scale of invasion so awesome and unexpected as to render it completely impotent.
Even the marketing campaign was based around apocalyptic images of the toppled icons of American power, including a crumbled Statue of Liberty, being flashed ominously onto television screens without explanation. The emotional and psychological message of the whole package was chilling and deliberate: What if America fell?
Being the biggest film in the world at the time it seems impossible that a student of American decadence like bin Laden would not have been aware of it. How could it not have given him food for thought?
Away from these somber contemplations, Independence Day also offers parables for more trivial political considerations. For example, when Will Smith’s character wins a dogfight with a flying saucer he flips open the spacecraft’s cockpit to reveal a grotesquely ugly and frighteningly tentacled alien being. After a moment’s shock and hesitation he decides the best course of action is to punch it in the face. “Welcome to Earth,” he says.
This sort of cheerful and direct approach has always struck me as similar to The Daily Telegraph’s take on life. I remember Kevin Rudd asking me just after he had been made Labor leader why the Tele was running front pages kicking the crap out of him before he had even made a single decision.
I explained that when we were presented with something strange and potentially threatening our first response was to punch it and see what it did. Then we would decide whether we liked it or not. And just like on the screen such prudence is necessary: As it turned out the alien being was a purely evil force intent on ravaging the planet of every natural resource and destroying all life on Earth. But enough about the Garnaut report.
Other observations in the film are equally salient. Jeff Goldblum’s greenie scientist character realises the planet is in trouble when he finds a signal in Earth’s own technology. “They’re using their own satellites against us!” he warns. It is a thoughtful reminder that any emotionless machine with no human sense of morality can be used for evil just as easily as it can for good. Just look at Joe Tripodi.
Goldblum’s ex-wife, who left him to become a presidential aide, also offers an insight into many modern relationships when she says of her broken marriage, “Love was never the problem” – a rumination on the tendency among power couples to place individual concerns over their emotional connection. Was she also remorsefully contemplating the neo-feminist myth that a woman could have it all, only to realise too late that her child-bearing years are drawing to a close and her one significant relationship has been sacrificed to a career that, however outwardly altruistic, was also driven by self-interest? We can only presume so.
The question of President Bill Pullman’s political affiliation is also ambiguous. We see early in the piece that he is being criticised for being too soft, hinting that he’s a Democrat. But we also know he was a Gulf War fighter pilot, which suggests hawkish Republican. Likewise Will Smith’s black stripper girlfriend tells the First Lady “I voted for the other guy” – and if Bill isn’t pulling the black vote he’s definitely a Republican. However Will Smith is also a fighter pilot and so possibly Republican himself. If he and his homegirl both vote GOP and she tells the First Lady she didn’t vote for Bill then he has to be either a Democrat or Ralph Nader.
There is also the undeniable fact that Jeff Goldblum is a massive lefty and if his wife is working for the prez and he’s still in love with her then she must be a bit left of centre and therefore Bill Pullman is too – unless of course he has a kinky thing for extreme right-wing chicks, which believe me I understand. In the final analysis however it has to be remembered that no matter what the president’s allegiance he is still Bill Pullman and therefore nobody cares.
And so from the most horrendous and violent political act to the most subtle socio-cultural nuances, Independence Day offers a rare and sophisticated insight into the human condition. And lest Osama bin Laden feel smug at his hijacking of the film for his own evil ends – using our own satellites against us – he would do well to remember two things: One is that the concept he plagiarised came from the very place he despised the most, proving that extraordinary ideas are more likely to come from western liberal democracies than stone age desert caves. The second is that the Americans still win in the end. Americans always win because they are too stupid to know how to lose. It just never really occurs to them that it’s possible.
And that is the kind of side I want to be on.
Rating: 50 stars (and 13 stripes)
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