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'Independence Day':
Fireworks but No Sparklers

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 02, 1996

"Independence Day," the eagerly anticipated alien juggernaut, is fueled not by cosmic imagination, but by plain, old-fashioned ballyhoo. An overgrown hybrid of disaster epic, can-do combat adventure and '50s sci-fi movie, this craft has visited our world many times before. And while she's a beaut, the sticker on her titanium bumper reads: "Been There, Done That, Beam Me Up, Scotty."

While there's been much hoopla over the movie's stupefying effects, "Independence Day" makes no perceptible leap forward in computer-generated bedazzlements. Nothing here outshines "Star Wars," another obvious influence on this cautionary tale from director Roland Emmerich and producer-writer Dean Devlin that explores the cataclysmic consequences of putting out the cosmic welcome mat when we don't know who might be calling.

Though interwoven with government conspiracy theories and UFO abduction fantasies, the plot principally dates back to the 1953 film adaptation of H.G. Wells's "The War of the Worlds." In this humorous variation, the planet is beset by 36 saucers the size of Cleveland. The dish du jour contains millions and millions of extraterrestrial crustaceans in no mood for a close encounter. Their mission: Fry earthlings, grab the planet, snork up the resources, move on to the next juicy orb.

Launched from the mother ship in lunar orbit, the saucers are well on their way to Earth by the time SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) picks up their signal. Glee turns to alarm when scientists realize the aliens are not communicating with us, but using Earth's technology to coordinate an assault on major metropolitan areas around the globe.

As the saucers oh-sooo-slowly move into position over Washington, New York and Los Angeles, frightened earthlings run about like extras in a Godzilla movie while President Thomas J. Whitmore (can-do Bill Pullman), a former combat pilot, and his staff attempt to come up with a plan. Meanwhile in Manhattan, computer whiz David Levinson (affably geeky Jeff Goldblum) discovers the aliens are going to attack in about seven hours. So he talks his kvetching father (onerous Judd Hirsch) into driving him to D.C. to warn the White House, where his estranged wife (Margaret Colin) is a top presidential spin doctor. Despite doomsday traffic jams up and down the Jersey Turnpike, he arrives in, oh, about an hour and a half.

"Independence Day" is not for skeptics.

Unfortunately, there is a vast expanse of dead time in which to ponder this sieve of a plot. Fully 45 minutes elapse while the vast cast is introduced, which makes for a long wait between the mother ship's arrival and the unsheathing of its mighty death ray. The White House, which goes kaboom along with the Empire State Building, is tinder for a firestorm grander than many of Washington's crater-size potholes.

And while the devastation is nearly universal, the president escapes to a top-secret base in Nevada, where he and his military advisers launch a counterattack. Protected by invisible shields, the enemy's vessels sustain no losses, but the U.S. casualties are enormous. Ace Steve Hiller (cocky Will Smith in a starmaking turn) is among the few combat pilots who return to join a desperate last attempt to stave off Armageddon.

"Independence Day" is primarily a $70 million kid's toy, a star-spangled excess of Roman candles and commando games designed to draw repeat business from 9- to 12-year-old boys. Little girls won't find any role models among the barnstormers, though a plucky exotic dancer is featured among the heroines. Even with the end of the world in sight, she shakes her booty. It's for her kid. No, really.

Maybe the moviemakers' mission was to boldly go where everyone in Hollywood has gone before: the bank.

Independence Day is rated PG-13 for violence.

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