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.
I know it sounds absurd to draw too many conclusions from these movies, but they were wildly successful and remarkably influential in the way that pop culture works its sinewy influence; they were both an expression of and an advancement of a certain chi-chi doctrine. For if we could learn to love even a creature from outer space, surely we could all learn to love each other here on earth -- black and white, gay and straight, Americans and Russians, Israelis and Arabs, Hutus and Tutsis, all united in our common humanity. The only thing standing in the way of universal harmony was our fear of the " other" and our love of doing injury to strangers. Independence Day also gives us a picture of a planet whose residents rally together, but at least they do so in common defense of a common earth, against an outside invader. They are not banding together to host an interplanetary version of Interlochen Camp.
Next to westerns, war movies are the most durable genre in film history. They extend from 1915's The Birth of a Nation to 1926's What Price Glory? to 1939's Only Angels Have Wings to 1940's The Fighting 69th to 1945's They Were Expendable to 1949's The Sands of Iwo Jima to 1959's Pork Chop Hill to 1968's The Green Berets, just to pick out a few interesting American pictures. They are about killing the enemy, and how that is difficult, dangerous, tragic, and ennobling. They are full of high good humor, often, and sprightly male camaraderie. But ultimately, they are celebrations of killing in the name of a higher purpose, and that is something it is no longer respectable to believe in -- unless, that is, it involves killing an evil South African diplomat who believes in apartheid, as Mel Gibson does in Lethal Weapon 2.
Still, we turn out to be hungry for the moral certainty of old-fashioned war movies; that is why Gibson's own Braveheart made such a sensation last year and ended up winning the Oscar. But Gibson's fight had to take place in the 13th century, because today we would be required to feel sorry for the people Gibson and his fellow Scottish freedom fighters were killing. Similarly, Independence Day does not represent a rebirth of the war movie. Indeed, it may be the last war movie. If we are only allowed to summon up enthusiasm for a war against a fantasy army -- like the one in Star Wars twenty years ago, which concludes with an aerial battle against the evil Darth Vader and his death star -- there's little chance Hollywood could imagine any circumstance in which a present-day American military force might be worthy of celebration for going into battle against a real army. Indeed, right now at the multiplex, Meg Ryan and Denzel Washington are turning the triumphant Gulf War into a full-blown tragedy in the much-praised Courage Under Fire. Independence Day may rain gold on Hollywood, but Courage Under Fire shows what Hollywood still really believes.
By John Podhoretz