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Thursday, July 11, 2019

July 11, 2019: Alien America: ID4

[On July 8th, 1947, something happened in Roswell, New Mexico. It was probably just a weather balloon (or like a really big condor), but ever since a not-insignificant community of Americans have believed that an alien landed there and was covered up by the US government. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Roswell and other cultural representations of aliens in America, leading up to a special weekend post on one of the most famous and influential such representations ever, The X-Files!]
On the blockbuster that’s American in the worst, but perhaps also the best, senses.
The weekend of July 4th, 1996, saw the release of a summer blockbuster that in its own ways changed the game just as fully as did Jaws. Independence Day (otherwise known as ID4) might not have been the first summer movie to emphasize over-the-top spectacle and special effects and catastrophic destruction and a barely-used ginormous cast and Will Smith makin’ jokes at inappropriate moments and etc., but maybe it was, and it certainly was one of the first to recoup its bloated budget thanks to all those elements (I assume; it sure wasn’t thanks to subtle, character-driven filmmaking). Although it did feature the always wonderful and criminally underused Judd Hirsch, so I suppose I can’t be too angry with Roland Emmerich’s behemoth of a blockbuster.
On the other hand, the problems with ID4 go deeper than just special effects or budget, and connect very fully to some of the most frustrating and limiting American narratives. There would be plenty of thematic nits to pick, but I’m thinking specifically about the striking thread of American Exceptionalism that runs throughout the film. Ostensibly the alien invasion affects the whole world, and the film includes various establishing shots of worldwide destruction and subsequent communities of survivors in various national settings and garb. But the story is an American one, and not just in terms of the characters whom we follow—it’s the American scientist and American soldier who come up with the plan to save the day, the American pilots who take down the alien mothership, and, most crucially, the very American president who gives the speech to rally those troops and the whole world to the cause. When that president proclaims that “Today [the Fourth of July] we celebrate our independence day,” I suppose it could feel like he’s uniting the whole world—but it feels more like he’s just Americanizing the world, much like Hollywood itself has so often done.
So on the whole, ID4 embodies some of the worst features of both the big-budget blockbuster and American excess. But there’s one particular thread that links a few characters and connects to a very different kind of national narrative. In their own ways, Jeff Goldblum’s scientist, Randy Quaid’s cropduster pilot, and Bill Pullman’s president are all, at the film’s opening, failures, men who have let down those for whom they are responsible (wife, children, and citizens, respectively). Since this is a crowd-pleasing action film, of course by the end all three have redeemed themselves—but the way they do it is still worth noting: not by heroic acts of rugged individualism (that’s left to the Fresh Prince and his alien-punches) but by collective effort, working with each other to become something better than what any of them had been and perhaps could have been on their own. That’s a blockbuster lesson well worth the price of admission.
Last AlienStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other representations of aliens (in America or otherwise) you’d highlight?

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