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A Sci-Fi Flash in the Pan

By Kevin McManus
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 05, 1996

Well, the first hour is huge. That's when the makers of "Independence Day" (a k a "ID4") give us the gonzo alien spaceships, the cataclysmic explosions and one of the best punches in cinema history.

As a whole, though, this is not the historic film that Twentieth Century Fox's hypesters say it is. The problem is the second hour, which features aerial combat that'll remind you of "Star Wars" and alien beings that'll remind you of umpteen other sci-fi movie creatures. As for the human characters, they give merely adequate back-seat support to the special effects that drive this big-budget thriller.

Thankfully, director/co-writer Roland Emmerich ("Stargate") doesn't prolong our wait for those titanic saucers. Within minutes of the opening -- it's "July 2nd" in the near future -- the spaceships sweep ominously into the atmosphere, mostly obscured by clouds of smoke and flame. Then the clouds dissipate and . . . uh-oh:

There's a ship the size of Manhattan hovering over Manhattan, where David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) toils as a TV station techie.

There's an identical ship looking down on Washington, where the President (Bill Pullman) strives to convince alarmed White House staffers that the aliens may in fact be friendly.

A third ship casts its shadow over greater L.A., where dauntless fighter pilot Capt. Steven Hiller (Will Smith) kisses his wife goodbye and hurries to his air base. More ships hang over Moscow, Tokyo and a dozen other cities. And somewhere in outer space, an unfathomably huge mother ship looms, waiting to send out the signal to kill, kill, kill.

The explosions are cool. The ships' bottoms slide open, and then, as stupefied earthlings stare skyward, white-hot death beams shoot straight down. BOOM. Whole structures disintegrate -- the White House, the Capitol, skyscrapers, department stores, assorted other buildings. Trucks and buses fly through the air (hey, didn't we just see that in "Twister"?).

By July 3rd, America's urban centers have been turned black and crispy. Out in the boonies, though, the President (who fled in Air Force One) has ordered retaliatory air strikes. Up go the fighters, one of them piloted by Capt. Hiller.

Then it's a battle for the future of the human race, visibly similar to the battles fought by Han Solo and Luke Skywalker so many years ago.

"Independence Day" cruises to an upbeat ending but furnishes no more of the wicked thrills of the initial hour. Particularly disappointing is the human contrivance employed in the defeat of the vastly superior enemy.

This blockbuster is worth seeing, just as Fourth of July fireworks are worth seeing. But unlike the fireworks, it gives you all the boom-boom and razzle-dazzle up front.

INDEPENDENCE DAY (PG-13) -- Contains scenes of epic destruction but depicts very little damage to human bodies.

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