[box cover]

Independence Day: Five Star Collection

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Starring Bill Pullman, Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum
and Vivica Fox

Directed by Roland Emmerich

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As usual, the eggheads got it right first.

In an old essay about science fiction films, Susan Sontag laid out both the repetitious narrative devices and the deeper psychological meaning of the genre. Sci-fi movies, according to Sontag, have five phases. First there is the arrival of the thing (space being, ship, monster). This is followed by the thing confirming its presence with a great act of destruction ("If the invaders are beings from another planet, [there is] a fruitless attempt to parley with them and get them to leave peacefully"). Conferences between scientists and the military follow. In the penultimate stage, there are further atrocities, with the hero's girlfriend falling into danger. Finally, there is the repulse of the invaders, celebrated by mutual congratulations all around.

And the deeper meaning that Sontag attributes to sci-fi movies is summarized by the title of her essay, "The Imagination of Disaster." Science fiction films, she says, are not about science; they are about destruction. Sci-fi is "concerned with the aesthetics of destruction, with the peculiar beauties to be found in wreaking havoc, making a mess. And it is in the imagery of destruction that the core of a good science fiction film lies." She notes that the "lure of such generalized disaster as a fantasy is that it releases one from normal obligations" as shown, for example, in various post-apocalypse Robinson Crusoe tales set in an underpopulated world. And the imagination of disaster makes for a "morally acceptable fantasy where one can give outlet to cruel or at least amoral feelings...Again and again, one detects the hunger for a 'good war,' which poses no moral problems, admits of no moral qualifications." This was all in an essay first published in 1965, concerned mostly with movies of the '50s. Yet her analysis fits Independence Day almost to a T.

Though made 30 years later, ID4 follows the formula Sontag elucidates in her essay. The film is basically a remake of George Pal's adaptation of The War of the Worlds, with a computer virus replacing the lowly organic virus that does in the aliens in the '50s film.

Like the huge, 15-mile long spaceships that hover over key cities of the world in the film's all-too-rarely startling imagery, the movie looms in the consciousness of the nation, leading to the release of this mammoth DVD set. Much hyped at the time of its release in July of 1996, with a trailer that riveted the attention of viewers and created the biggest advance buzz for a film since Batman, ID4 went on to make $306 million in the United States alone. It is also a politically confused and confusing film whose undercurrents rhyme perfectly with the multi-faced, one-size-fits-all accommodations of our political age.

Since every other reviewer of ID4 has retold the complete history of alien invasion movies, I won't, at this late date, recount the plot of the film, which everyone has seen, or summarize sci-fi film's history, which everyone knows. Besides, the plot of ID4, derivative and unsurprising, is the least interesting thing about the movie. First of all, ID4, (as it likes to be called) is about its special effects, and the DVD celebrates this aspect of the movie and its sometimes clever solving of logistical problems (Emmerich was able to come up with a way to do the firewall through the streets of a city that was both cheap and in-camera). The destruction-of-cities visuals are good, and the imagination of unexpected mass death in this vale of tears is created with a relish to which, as Samuel Johnson would say, "every bosom returns an echo." But then, we saw all those shots in the trailer when it made its debut in the December before the movie came out, and which now sits in the menus. The rest of the special effects — the interior of the Mother Ship, the aliens themselves — are all sub-Star Wars, or ripoff Alien effects, often unclear, overly busy, and flicking by too fast to absorb, either a sign of uncertainty on the part of the filmmakers or their masking of cheapskate effects.

No, the most interesting thing about ID is its politics — or should I say "politics," because the attitudes and ideas in it are more important for their implications than for their clarity.

As Sontag reminds us, it's in the mass media that the subterranean antagonisms of the culture are played out. "Ours is indeed an age of extremity. For we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror. It is fantasy, served out in large rations by the popular arts, which allows most people to cope with these twin specters."

The first thing to notice about ID4 is that while the film embraces a cozy liberal globalism (Arab and Israeli pilots uniting in the desert to face a greater foe), in the end the film celebrates a New World Order with the U.S. president in charge. Though President Whitman (Bill Pullman) is considered by reviewers a quasi-Clinton, even laden with a Hillaryesque activist wife (Mary McDonnell), in fact he is more like George Bush, who was also a pilot, and who "distinguished" himself in the Gulf War. Another clue is that the black unwed mother and stripper (the breathtaking Vivica Fox) who finds this Ur-Hillary in the rubble tells the First Lady that she voted for "the other guy," who, given the demographics, must have been a Democrat. Not that this matters. The Prez is a blend of Bush and Bill: call him George Clinton, merging New World hegemony with pain-feeling outreach, dynamic derring-do preceded by political equivocation. It's interesting to note that the President Whitmore contacts no other foreign leaders, nor calls upon the UN, all irrelevant in world that, even on the eve of destruction, bows like supplicants to the greatest nation on earth.

And it is also curious that while all the citizens of the world are asked to put aside their differences for the greater good, the major characters have "differences" that make them not much more than vulgar stereotypes of Jews, gays, blacks, and Native Americans. Take Judd Hirsch, (over)playing the father of the scientist played by Jeff Goldblum, who seems to exist in the film solely to complete the panoply of stereotypes.

That Independence Day contains confusions is understandable if one follows the principles enunciated by Sontag, who tells us that "the imagery of disaster in science fiction is above all the emblem of an inadequate response. [Sci-fi films] are only a sampling, stripped of sophistication, of the inadequacy of most people's response to the unassimilable terrors that infect their consciousness. The interest of the films, aside from their considerable amount of cinematic charm, consists in this intersection between a naive and largely debased commercial art product and the most profound dilemmas of the contemporary situation."

*     *     *

If you have lasted this long into the review, you must really want to know about the extras. If the film itself merits only two and a half stars, the supplements deserve four. Fox went all-out on this one, and if after viewing and listening to it all there is a feeling of letdown, that is based solely on the reaction to that which inspired all this attention.

Take the two audio commentaries, for example. On the one hand, they tell you almost everything you might want to know about how the film was put together. On the other hand, they are in the end unmemorable, not worth listening to again, unlike the best commentaries. Meanwhile, the English subtitles are surprisingly accurate, the product of a great deal of attention to detail. Thanks to the subtitles, I learned finally that Harry Connick Jr. is imitating Jesse Jackson as they fly to face the aliens for the first time. Even the documentaries on the second disc have subtitles, which comes in handy for the foreign interviewees. These documentaries, however, though having the virtue of helping to visualize how the tricks were accomplished, and sometimes striving for clever humor (Goldblum creeping around the set for the HBO doc), are repetitious, recycling the same material. Truly educational is the "Sonic Separation," the split audio tracks in the Easter Eggs. By clicking the audio button on the remote, you can hear the different streams of sound — dialogue, sound effects, music — that courses behind a selection of visual disaster and combat sequences. One thing that this pleasing bit of supplementation on the second disc reminds us of is that the set is lacking a isolated isolated music track highlighting David Arnold's varied and stirring score.

Speaking of those Easter Eggs, DVD Review provides the guidelines for finding them on the ID4 supplements disc. The site also points out that there is another Easter Egg within the first one (which this reporter failed to crack). The route is as follows:

If you do this successfully — and it is tricky — you enter the space ship and see a new menu with new items. According to DVDreview.com, "Some players don't even require you to hit the 'Enter' key and will immediately take you inside the ship, once you enter the numbers." In any case, now you have access to "Sonic Separator," which shows the sound layering of some scenes, some random newscasts, "Combat Review," which comprises disaster high points, and finally credit documentation for this DVD, a nice touch. Now, supposedly, if you type "7-2-Enter" or "7-3-Enter" you gain access, according to DVDReview.com, "to menus from which you can select and watch all of the 12 'Combat Review' segments directly, while the other gives you direct access to the 22 newscasts from the 'Monitor Earth Broadcasts' feature. This way you avoid the randomness of the feature and select exactly which one you want to view." I have been unable to do this yet, but that should come as no surprise.

The anamorphic widescreen transfer is mostly very good, with some very occasional rough edges in some SFX shots, and the English 5.1 Digital Surround is great, with lots of good, logical separation, and maybe only an occasional weakness in the volume of the dialogue. Dual-compartment keep case.

— D. K. Holm

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