July 5th, 2015

Good Omens


There's a video I watched this morning that shows, silliness aside, what works about the 1996 blockbuster Independence Day -- that it was likely broad for a purpose, and that it gets to be a little subversive in how it plays with the tropes of action blockbusters. If you have a half-hour, you might find it rewarding to watch. And it got me thinking again about the film, which I honestly like; in fact I think I like it more now than I did in 1996.

(Though I've always felt a little silly referring to it as "ID4" -- that was, I think, the marketing department trying too hard to get a Jurassic Park-type logo, and it makes less sense than having a logo for a film which was for, after all, ABOUT A PARK. The marketing for Independence Day was indeed clever, though, to the point I still remember a bunch of the ads nearly 20 years later.)

A few more Independence Day thoughts by me, since it's my blog:

- People forget that the film was, pre-release, considered to be the potential star-making role for (drumroll, please) Bill Pullman. He'd been doing solid film work for a decade by then -- starting with Ruthless People (1986), Spaceballs (1987) and the clever Wes Craven horror film The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) -- and had already graduated to romantic-lead status with 1995's decent-sized hit While You Were Sleeping; people thought he was on the cusp of stardom. Pullman never really got there, though his work remains solid. There are actors who will never be stars, stars who will never be particularly great actors (e.g. Arnold Schwarzenegger), and others who are both great actors and stars*. Jeff Goldblum was already a star, so that wasn't an issue.

Will Smith, on the other hand, made such a huge impression so quickly thanks to Independence Day that people forgot he wasn't meant to be its star. He certainly was a rap and TV star by then, but his filmography was low-key and, already, eclectic: the 1991 teen drama Where the Day Takes You, the Whoopi Goldberg/Ted Danson comedy Made In America, and the 1993 film version of the play Six Degrees of Separation, where Smith played a hustler pretending to be Sidney Poitier's son. His first action film was 1995's Bad Boys, where he showed his acting and action chops, but Smith was already doing a good job of not letting action films define him. He's kept that up. Even at the height of his popularity, someone like, say, Steven Seagal would've been both unwilling and unable to do a film like The Pursuit of Happyness. (Seagal: he was ALMOST a star, and is NOT an actor.) Independence Day let Smith do his thing without needing to carry the film, and his ability and charisma announced themselves; audiences responded.

- I like that President Whitmore's speech had the line "Today we celebrate our Independence Day" specifically as an end-run around Twentieth Century-Fox's plan to change the title to Doomsday, which the filmmakers hated and thought was completely wrong for the film. (Learned via this oral history of the speech, which includes comments from a former President Bill Clinton speech writer.)

- That speech inspired a long-running joke on Portland radio's The Rick Emerson Show: Emerson would play the audio by itself, with Howard Dean's "YEEEAAAUUGH!" added to the end of it, in dubbed versions, and -- my personal favorite -- as a flat computer voice, but with David Arnold's score still behind it. Rick called Independence Day "a great, terrible movie"; his cohorts Sarah X. Dylan and Tim Riley, like me, liked the film more than he did.

By now, the speech plays a little oddly to my ear, partly because of those joke versions, but also because the version Emerson most often played was unadulterated except for the music. It's a version where the music starts earlier and ends when the people start cheering, which in the film is when the music crescendos into its big "Humanity is awesome!" theme. The score in that audio clip still works, though, just hitting and emphasizing different parts of the speech. I once spoke over the phone to composer Michael Kamen, who brought up how Terry Gilliam would take a piece of his music for Brazil or The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and move it back or forward from its original starting point by a few frames, to see how the music played differently. Sometimes it made a small difference; sometimes it made a huge difference; sometimes it was more correct for the scene. "He's very sensitive to that," Kamen said.

- Yay! Margaret Colin still gets work. (She was the White House press secretary and David's ex-wife. Later she starred on a clever science fiction show that I liked, Now and Again.)

- I'll certainly have more thoughts a year from now when the 20-years-later sequel, Independence Day: Resurgence, comes out. Same filmmakers as before, who've had a lot of time to figure out how they wanted to follow up this film, which is good because I'm not completely sure where to go from where the original ended. I'll just hope they've come up with something worth telling, as I hope with every film.

* I do feel Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson has the potential to be both a star and a genuinely great actor. I can't be the only one who sees him getting Oscar-nominated one of these days.