12:00 AM, Jul 29, 1996 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Independence Day, this year's box-office blockbuster, is not a science- fiction movie, even though aliens figure in the plot. It's not a special- effects extravaganza, even though the startling image of the White House blowing up made Independence Day a cultural phenomenon six months before its opening; actually, the movie's special effects are remarkably (and charmingly) cheesy. Nor is it a disaster film, even though we get to see various cities reduced to rubble as thousands of extras scream and flee. No, Independence Day is overwhelming present-day audiences because it is, first and last, a war movie -- a classic Hollywood genre almost completely unknown to moviegoers who came of age in the last 30 years.
In an age of Hollywood pacifism -- a psychotic kind of pacficism, to be sure, according to whose dictates an ultra-violent movie like Terminator 2 features characters who deliver long speeches condemning the military before pumping rounds of bullets into the exploding stomachs of hapless police officers -- Independence Day seems like something new, and fresh, and vivid. Once you peel away the various plot devices and effects borrowed from science-fiction and disaster movies, what you have is a pretty standard war picture about flyboys of different races, creeds, and social status banding together in a heroic and touching effort to save America from the bad guys. And they save America from the bad guys by killing them with great exuberance.
After alien invaders have killed tens of millions of Americans, the president of the United States (Bill Pullman) comes face to face with a single alien in an airtight glass cell and offers to live in peace; the alien starts to injure him telepathically. The head of the joint chiefs of staff (Robert Loggia) turns to a soldier beside him and says, "Is that glass bulletproof?."
"No, sir," the soldier says, and proceeds to fire through the glass and kill the alien, to the roar of the crowd. Later, the president himself -- who looks like Bill Clinton but came to prominence due to his heroics as a pilot during the Gulf War -- leads a scruffy battalion into combat after delivering a moderndress version of Henry V's speech at Agincourt. "Today we fight for our freedom, not from tyranny or fear, but annihilation," he says. "Today we celebrate our independence!"
The wonderfully energetic young actor Will Smith plays an Air Force pilot who brings down an alien plane in a dogfight. The adrenalized Smith ejects from his own plane, lands in the Nevada desert, and proceeds to taunt and dance around the alien craft -- "Who's the man!" he demands; and when an alien emerges from the craft, Smith is so hyped-up by his victory that he beats it into unconciousness: "Now that's what I call a close encounter."
That line is one of two Smith delivers that refer to a Steven Spielberg alien movie; earlier, he says he wants to "whip E.T's a -- ." In Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., Spielberg created the modern image of the visitor from outer space -- the friendly, lovable, superior being with a big head and big eyes, looking like a newborn baby fully grown. Before this, of course, outer-space creatures were objects of horror and loathing in movies, with rare exceptions (like The Day the Earth Stood Still, in which the aliens are anti-nuclear activists who speak softly but carry a big robot). And why not? In a world in which technologically advanced countries like Germany and Japan could launch destructive wars that led to the deaths of millions and forced Americans into battle to save the world from their depredations, there was reason to fear strangers, to keep your distance, not to extend a friendly handshake to anybody who came along.
Spielberg changed all that. In the cosmology according to Spielberg, it was infamy not to assume that strange creatures from elsewhere were nice and friendly and meant no harm. Spielberg and his ilk in Hollywood ignorantly considered America an aggressor nation, invading small Southeast Asian countries and using multinational corporations to dominate parts of the world where we did not use troops to quash the poor and defenseless.
And what were aliens like E.T. but poor and defenseless, alone and frightened on a hostile planet, having to beg for Reese's Pieces to survive? And who were the bad guys in these movies? American soldiers -- men in uniforms who either wanted to vivisect E.T., or wanted to keep nice human beings away from nice aliens.