Independence Day
directed by Roland Emmerich
(20th Century Fox, 1996)

How many times the world has been invaded by flying saucers is hard to say. The invasions began shortly after World War II and didn't let up till the early '60s, when Kennedy and Krushchev called for the first thaw in the Cold War.

Now the saucers are back, bigger and badder than ever, with a new spin and some old jokes, many things borrowed and a few things blue: It's Independence Day.

Just where Independence Day fits in the pantheon of flying saucer films it's too soon to say. But already it's assembled an impressive list of firsts:

• First big-budget interstellar invasion of the post-Cold War era.

• First big-budget interstellar invasion film to focus on the heroics of an African American pilot.

• First interplanetary invasion film in which audiences rooted both for and against U.S. forces. (Note how theater crowds cheered the aliens when they blasted the White House. This would have been unthinkable in Hugh Marlowe's heyday.)

• First time an interstellar invasion force had to face the father-son team of Judd Hirsch and Jeff Goldblum.

The plot, or what passes for one, is remarkably similar to plots of UFO epics of ages past: Nameless, faceless aliens park their intergalactic craft over several large American cities, casting shadows on the White House, wreaking havoc with satellite communications and causing panic everywhere except in Los Angeles, where it's assumed the aliens will either get hung up in traffic or be mugged.

While the earthlings debate whether the aliens have come for good or evil -- no one considers the possibility they've just stopped in to do a little shopping -- TV technician David Levenson (Jeff Goldblum) accidentally cracks their code. The message is not a cheery one: The aliens plan to incinerate every major city on the planet faster than you can say Stanley Kubrick.

From this point on, of course, the nation, not to mention the world, is in panic mode, though not too panicked to have a little fun. Because fun is what Independence Day is ultimately about.

Forget the cardboard characters: a president (Bob Pullman) who's afraid to take on Congress but gladly goes one-on-one with a whole host of invading aliens; would-be shuttle pilot Steve Hiller (Will Smith); and the obligatory mad scientist (Brent Spiner), who looks more like Howard Stern than Carl Sagan.

Forget the disaster-film subplots: Randy Quaid as a crop duster who claims he was taken prisoner by the aliens years earlier; Margaret Colin as Levenson's estranged ex-wife; Vivica A. Fox as an "exotic" dancer who's competing with the aliens for Hiller's attentions.

Forget the unrealistic milieu: Anyone watching Independence Day would think there are only two children on the planet, both of them well-behaved.

Independence Day succeeds by being silly: Hiller punching out an alien whose ship he's destroyed; a flotilla of Winnebagoes descending on a top secret U.S. military base; even the aliens themselves, high-tech locusts who not only hop from planet to planet destroying everything in their path without a second thought, but also smell really, really bad.

Independence Day is not food for thought; it's a catalyst for digesting popcorn. The special effects are convincing, the buildings blow up real good and there are enough jokes so that even if half of them fizzle, the rest will keep you in stitches. What more could you ask for?

Oh, yes. The good guys win. After all, it is Independence Day.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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